By Debbie Burke
In September, my friend Cathy Raven was a featured speaker at the four-day Montana Book Festival in Missoula. Her first book is a nature memoir entitled Fox and I, about her friendship with a wild fox. It won the PEN award, among other honors.
Cathy and I met more than 20 years ago when we took a workshop from Tim Cahill, travel writer and founder of Outside Magazine.
After Cathy moved across the state, we lost touch but recently reconnected via Twitter. On Sunday morning, I drove 120 miles to Missoula for her festival talks and to congratulate her in person.
I’m somewhat acquainted with Missoula so I had an inkling about what was in store.
The streets of Missoula were originally laid out in the 1880s by feuding landowners who each wanted their own hunk of real estate to dominate. Diagonal “Slant Streets” were created for a proposed new town called South Missoula. But political maneuvering stymied the new town and slant streets were surrounded by parallel and perpendicular byways, as shown in this photo.
When drivers try to navigate the off-kilter convergence of Brooks Street, Russell Street, and South Avenue, they can thank (or curse) the early citizens who created the notorious Malfunction Junction.
As if diagonal streets and triangle-shaped blocks weren’t confusing enough, routes in Missoula are required to have more than one name—preferably three or four. Brooks Street is also Highway 93 and Highway 12, at least part of the time…until it changes.
Then there’s East and West Broadway. East Alder Street merges with East Spruce Street, which crosses North Second Street East, then eventually runs into West Greenough Drive. Throw in boulevards that are one-way part of the time and two-way other times. Add thoroughfares that dead-end in the Clark Fork River, or at the railroad tracks.
And there you have the mishmash of Missoula.
If Siri had accompanied me, I suspect she would have jumped off the Higgins Street Bridge and drowned herself in the river.
I had printed out several pages of Google maps and have a reasonably good sense of direction. Plus my rearview mirror has a nifty little built-in compass.
I rolled into town about 1 p.m. and missed the motel on Brooks Street because I stayed on 93 which is supposed to be the same as Brooks Street…except when it isn’t.
The Book Festival was at the four-story Missoula Public Library—a skyscraper by Montana standards. While cruising blindly along East Broadway, I happened to spot the towering glass library on the next street over. East Main is a one-way street that amazingly was going the right way.
Cathy’s phone went to voicemail so I had time to poke around. After the two-plus hour drive, I was glad to climb four flights of stairs to stretch out a bit.
On the top floor, an outside deck around the building featured 360-degree views of the city, rolling hills, and mountains. A volunteer at the book sales table gave me the schedule and, surprisingly, didn’t charge an admission fee, perhaps because it was the afternoon of the festival’s last day.
I peeked into several rooms where presentations were going on but didn’t see Cathy. Back down at street level, I happened to glance over at several people reading at a table.
There was Cathy, deep in her book and writing on a notepad, preparing for her talk.
We hugged like long-lost sisters and visited until she needed to get back to work on her talk.
Her panel was more than an hour later so I figured I’d try again to find my motel.
Missoula is home of the University of Montana. It has winding river walks, bike trails, beautiful historic buildings, and lovely old homes. I know because I saw all of those as I spent the next half-hour totally lost.
The motel was to the south west but, Missoula streets being the way they are, you can’t get there from here.
My mirror compass said I was going the right direction but the street names (aliases, actually) didn’t jibe with Google maps. At last, I found the motel, hiding on a slant street not far from Malfunction Junction.
As I pulled into the parking lot, a woman was getting out of her car, putting a hardback book in her bag.
Turned out she was “Parker,” the evening desk clerk at the motel. We had talked the day before when she made my reservation over the phone.
She said she was an avid reader who spent lots of time at Barnes & Noble.
I told her I was a writer.
That admission is always a bit embarrassing because people’s eyes widen, they smile broadly, and shake your hand as if they’re in the presence of someone important.
We writers know better—the unglamorous reality is we wear sweat pants, sit hunched over computers all day long, play with imaginary friends, and make up stuff. Sane, normal people don’t do that.
Parker took my card, said she loved thrillers, and would look up my books. Cool!
After I checked in, she gave me clear, easy-to-follow directions how to get back to the library. Thanks to Parker, I arrived there in under 10 minutes.
Cathy was on the so-called critter panel—authors who’d written books about wildlife including kingfishers, grizzlies, golden eagles, and Cathy’s Fox and I.
Despite many awards, stellar reviews, and glowing mentions in Time and People magazines, she’s suffering first-book jitters.
Cathy is Mensa-brilliant with a PhD in biology but also shy. She’s much more at home in nature than around people, even though she’s a professor who’s taught hundreds of students over many years.
Her wry, quirky humor quickly won over the audience. Without trying to be funny, she’s very funny.
After the panel, a lot of books by other authors remained on the table but Cathy’s sold out. She fretted about that until I reminded her that selling books was the whole point. Running out meant success.
People mentioned they had ordered multiple copies of her book as gifts.
Her solo talk was an even bigger hit, especially considering it was Sunday evening at 6 p.m. when most festival attendees had already left.
She described her solitary life in the Yellowstone Valley where she’d hand-built her home. As she did research on the area’s botany, weather patterns, and animal behavior, weeks would pass without speaking to another person.
However, a sociable red fox started showing up every day to visit the introverted, reclusive human. They forged an unconventional but close friendship. Trust developed to the point where Fox brought his four kits for Cathy to babysit while he went a distance away to take a nap.
At the end of Cathy’s talk, a woman in the audience presented her with a dazzling sunflower that looked too perfect to be real. But it was.
We headed out for dinner, assured by locals that Missoula has many great restaurants.
Few, however, are open on Sunday night.
For a college town, they roll the streets up early. After a half-hour quest, we found a place, enjoyed a good meal, and had a great catch-up visit.
But, following dinner, we lost our bearings roaming through the dark, deserted downtown and didn’t know how to get back to Cathy’s motel. We drove around looking for a familiar landmark or street name but found none.
Then we spotted a Missoula police cruiser parked alone on a street. I pulled to the curb in front of him and Cathy and I jumped out of the car to ask him directions.
In hindsight, that wasn’t a smart move. But, as a child, I’d always been told if you get lost, ask a policeman.
A young cop jumped out of his rig, talking rapidly into his lapel mic, wearing a wide-eyed deer-in-the-headlights expression. I’m not sure if he had his hand on his weapon because he was standing behind his open car door for cover.
Two women—old enough to be dangerous, from out of town, lost in Missoula, asking directions to a motel whose name we couldn’t remember but was near a McDonald’s—utterly befuddled this poor young cop. I’m sure he thought we were impaired even though we hadn’t had a drop or a toke.
He finally collected his wits (and probably heard back from the dispatcher that there was NOT an APB out on an old white Toyota Highlander with two female occupants). Still looking flummoxed, he managed to direct us to Broadway where we found Mickey D’s and the motel.
Cathy and I said goodbye, resolving not to let another 20 years go by without seeing each other. I headed for my motel on the other side of town.
By this time, I’d driven enough of the mysterious streets of Missoula to be fairly confident of finding my way back until…the southwest section of town went black.
A power outage shut down street lights, buildings, traffic signals, and the sign for the motel. For several blocks, I drove in total darkness except for my headlights. By luck, I spotted the motel just in time to turn into the shadowy parking lot.
In the office, two lanterns glowed. I had a flashlight but, rather than enter a completely black, unfamiliar room, I opted to hang out in the dim lobby with my new friend Parker. A couple of motel workers wearing headlamps checked the property and muttered about buying a generator.
The electric company’s text updates estimated the power would be restored by 9:30 p.m. It was now 9:45. The power had been off long enough that the computer battery backups in the office had run out of juice.
Parker said, before the power went off, she’d looked up my books. She wanted to read them but didn’t have cash with her and I can’t take credit cards.
We spent the next hour, shooting the breeze and solving the world’s problems. She gave me directions to Barnes & Noble, where I planned to go the next morning before heading home.
Finally the lights popped back on.
The motel is independently owned, not a chain. Its tagline is “Nice rooms for nice people.”
I went to my room and thought about how nice Parker had been, giving me directions that carried me safely through Malfunction Junction. She’d kept me company during what could have been a nervous hour in an unfamiliar dark place.
I grabbed a copy of Instrument of the Devil (which, fittingly, is about a terrorist targeting the power grid), signed it, and gave it to her.
The next morning, I visited Barnes & Noble. The manager is very supportive of Montana authors, even independently published ones. She ordered a few copies and we talked about my doing a signing there next spring (they’re scheduled months ahead with author appearances).
Despite getting lost repeatedly, inadvertently scaring a cop, and surviving a power outage, the trip to Missoula was a success.
I reconnected with an old friend and watched her bloom as she talked to audiences about her book. I met a lady who gives better directions than Siri and Google Maps combined, whom I hope will become a fan. And I have a future book event to look forward to.
Not a bad day’s work for a writer.
TKZers: Have you ever gotten hopelessly lost but found a better reward than what you were originally looking for? Please share your wanderings in the comments.
Debbie, my (Mis)adventures getting lost are legendary. My business partner and I created an abstinence program and were supposed to present it to bigwigs at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, MS. Like the smart women we were, we drove over halfway there the day before, spent a pleasant evening with my daughter and son-in-law (who made us the best PoBoys I’ve ever eaten), got up early the next morning for the two-hour drive to the coast.
My partner is driving and I’m still working on the presentation she will give so I wasn’t paying attention to where we were. Four hours later, she asked, “Didn’t we go through some towns the other time we drove to Biloxi? And what’s with all these Louisiana tags?”
I looked up from my computer and see trees loaded with Spanish Moss…and a sign that read “New Orleans–50 miles.”
We had missed getting on Highway 49 in Jackson and were soon coming up on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, a 23.875-mile bridge. That was when she moved a radar detector that was blocking view of the gas gauge.
We were way on the wrong side of empty. On a 23.875-mile bridge.
With a lot of prayer, we made it across the bridge, coasted into a gas station, and filled up, then promptly went the wrong way to get back on the Interstate.
Two hours later we roll into the Beau Rivage with ten minutes to set up for the presentation. But that’s a whole other story…
Wow, Patricia, you really took the “scenic route”!
The one mishap we didn’t have was running out of gas (24 mpg thank goodness).
I love this. It also reminded me that getting la little lost isn’t always the worst thing.
Thanks, Olivia. Ya never know what’s around the next corner.
Missoula’s street grid and naming “conventions” sound so much like Atlanta’s it’s… scary? Streets here, besides too many having some version of Peachtree in ’em, run perpendicular to the 1850’s rail line – that curves to the northwest after running in from the east – so triangle lots and wonky intersections abound downtown…
And here in the SE, roads/highways are named after where they’re headed – so Roswell Road becomes Atlanta Highway somewhere near mid-distance between the two.
We also have the east/west tags – though they’re typically NE or SW – which isn’t always true to the compass given the aforementioned street “grid…”
Add in nearly every city, town, or cluster of houses has a “Broad Street,” plus the highway numbers (county, state, US – even the Interstates – I-75 & I-85 come under I-285 (“the Perimeter”), to share the same roadbed through downtown, intersecting with I-20, then splitting to I-185 or I-985 and I-575 or I-675 on either side of town), it’s no small wonder Atlanta traffic is as snarled most of the time as it is…
Like my dad, I have what we refer to as “homing pigeon instinct” – seemingly (usually), knowing where I’m headed by dead reckoning – much to the chagrin of my bride – or her “satisfaction/frustration” when I admit I’m a bit turned around and have to turn-back-around and retrace to something that looks familiar.
However, the serendipitous discoveries of “AHA! THAT’S where this is…” or “Wow, what a view” usually make up for the lost time (and patience…).
My closet visit to Missoula was a summer week in north Idaho/Yellowstone… Loved every bit of it – and it sounds like I might be right at home there – navigation-wise, anyway…
George, you’re always welcome in Montana. Just as confusing but fewer cars.
I was with the Hubster in Missoula when he was there for a conference. I don’t remember getting lost, but that’s because he does the driving. I get lost in elevators. When I have to go anywhere unfamiliar, I have my car’s GPS, my phone’s map and a hard copy I print from the computer. They never agree.
“Men don’t get lost. They just find another way of getting there.”
My worst experience was visiting a cousin in Maine while we were in New Hampshire. I got there just fine, but there was a detour for road work on the way back, and I had no idea where I was when I finally reached the highway. I flipped a mental coin and turned left. Lucky for me, there was a cop in a median and I told him where I needed to be. He must have known how women navigate, because he told me to turn right at the gas station, and all ended well.
“Men don’t get lost. They just find another way of getting there.”
Hahaha, Terry! Love it.
Detours throw a whole ‘nother monkey wrench into travel. In Montana, we have two seasons: winter and road construction.
Terry, I swore to using both the map and GPS until one time when I was trying to find a library. My GPS took me to a mental institution. My map took me to the middle of a soybean field. The cop took me to the library. 🙂
Every time we moved to a new area (which was a lot due to my father’s job) Mom and I would go exploring. When we moved to Maine we instantly got lost in a very rural area and were due back to pick up Daddy.
There was a little old man walking down the highway and Mom stopped to ask him how to get back to our town.
“You can’t get there from here,” he said and kept walking.
“But we got here from there,” she said.
He stopped. “You ain’t from around here, is ya?”
Mom said no.
He sighed, then went on to lengthily explain how to get back to a place that we really could get back home from – just in time to pick up Daddy.
Cynthia, your little old man in Maine has a twin brother in Montana.
Wow! That explains a lot about Missoula. I live in Butte, and the few times I’ve been there, I’ve been utterly confused. Nice to “meet” a fellow writer in Montana. 🙂
Hey Michelle, nice to meet you, too. Hope our paths cross sometime. MT is a big state that’s actually a small town.
Whew, Debbie, that was quite a trip, and quite a story. You had me turning pages of a book to see what was going to happen next. There’s material there to work into the plot of a book. Or, you could write a visitors guide to Missoula, the City That Won’t Let You Go.
I had to think for awhile to answer your question. I always carry a printed map and set my internal compass when I’m in a new place. But my wife and I took a trip to Myrtle Beach that turned into a disaster. We were held up on the interstate for hours by a truck load of plywood that had spilled on the highway and had to be reloaded by hand. We got into Myrtle Beach after dark, and I promptly got turned around. We stopped at a convenience store to ask directions to the hotel, and the young lady didn’t know north from south and had me further confused. We drove around in the dark for almost an hour and almost a divorce, before finding the hotel.
The discovery was after the conference, driving south along the S. Carolina coast. We explored Pawleys Island and discovered The Pelican Inn – a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. We didn’t have reservations, but were able to get a room. Turns out the breakfasts were so good that people made reservations just to eat there. And the elderly lady who lived on site and owned the Inn invited us to spend an evening with her, playing games and hearing her story. That was one of the most enjoyable places we ever visited, and there was no divorce.
Great post, Debbie!
Thanks, Steve. Glad you found the end of the rainbow in your wanderings and are still married!
A heck of a (mis)adventure, Debbie, and one heck of a read this morning. You set the scene brilliantly, and then pulled me in with a great story about reuniting with a dear friend and the following adventure(s). I’m so glad you got to go. Despite getting lost and dealing with a power outage, it sounds like a wonderful time.
I know I’ve gotten thoroughly lost before, more than once but it’s been quite a while, and I can’t recall any details. Well, there was that one time in D.C. in a rental car with my wife, 2002, where I couldn’t seem to get myself oriented. But, a good map saved me, along with returning to the start and beginning over.
“Malfunction Junction” reminded me of our own “Kamikaze Corner” here in southwest Portland, where two different roads meet at a highway, leading to basically a six way intersection. The highway was my travel route to one of my libraries for many years, and a source congestion, confusion, and more than a few accidents. (The nickname was well-earned).
Thanks again for an engaging post this morning! Happy writing!
Kamikaze Corner sounds like Malfunction Junction, all right, accidents waiting to happen. Do the road engineers who plan these routes ever actually drive on them?
Downtown Denver is also laid out slanchwise. (I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because streets that avoid a N-S, E-W grid never have you driving directly into the rising/setting sun.) Where the slanted grid meets the regular grid, some names change, of course, but some don’t. The best strategy for navigating downtown Denver: Don’t go there.
J, sound advice. The only times I’ve been in Denver, thankfully local friends drove.
What an adventure, Debbie! Like Steve said, you can use this in one of your books.
Frank and I drove to the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference last year. We had figured the route would get us there several hours before dark, but road construction slowed us down so much that it was pitch black when we arrived at the exit off the highway.
We had two iPhones with GPS. Frank had entered “Black Mountain NC” in his, but I had entered the Conference Center in mine. I was driving and Frank hit the “Start Route” button on my iPhone. At least he thought it was my iPhone. Since the phones look alike, he had actually started our route to Black Mountain without realizing it.
We followed the directions down a few roads in the pitch black. When the phone announced “You have arrived at your destination,” we were on a little street in front of a little house that had a sign “Black Mountain Town Hall.” We were supposed to be at a large conference center. I brilliantly observed, “I don’t think this is it.” It took us a few minutes to figure out what the problem was.
When we finally got to the conference center, it was so large that we had trouble finding the building we were supposed to stay in. But that’s another story.
Your friend sounds fascinating. So glad the two of you were able to meet up.
Wow, Kay, getting lost in pitch darkness is unnerving. Lucky you made it to the conf.
Loved reading about your adventures, Debbie. I’ve been hopelessly lost in Fort Lauderdale, where I used to live. People have told me it’s a numbered grid system, but it makes no sense to me when Third Street crosses Third Avenue.
Elaine, there are numbered grids in our town offering choices like:
Third Avenue East North, Third Avenue West North, Third Street East, Third Street West, etc. Never have figured out why it’s “east north” instead of “north east.” I don’t envy pizza delivery drivers and mail carriers.