I go to Pray, Montana with my friend P. It’s a writing trip—that’s what we’re calling it—though P and I don’t exactly have a legacy of productivity together. The writing part is ostensible. Pray is for relaxing. Pray is for drinking.
New York gave us plenty of reasons to leave: humidity, the constant scroll of social media, laundry and deadlines, memes and trolls, jobs we hate, bridges between where we are and where we need to be, those flowering city trees that smell like cum.
Pray is a chance for me to get away from my adorable, needy family. The brushing of tiny teeth, the disobedient pigtails. The frustrations that come from loving the same partner for so long. The feeling that you have to give yourself away to properly run a household, keep everybody alive and dressed and fed.
For P, this trip is relief from crushing loneliness, hours spent circling Bushwick in his turquoise truck, looking for parking. Or it’s a break from the wrong kind of togetherness—weekends spent helping friends move and haul shit, those seething, hateful runs to Costco and Ikea.
P’s the one who suggested Pray. He’s from the West Coast, grew up in a house in the mountains where he could see water from every window. He knows the good snakes from the bad and which berries will make you die. He says time in the wild can refresh and revitalize, that what we need is a Meaningful Nature Experience.
“We need woods and a cabin and deep quiet,” P says. “We need to be replenished.”
Near Pray is the Boiling River, which is pretty much what it sounds like. P says that for hundreds of years people like us—the bewildered and unbalanced, the wounded and the fed-up—have traveled there to soak in the purifying waters, to get outside of themselves.
I tell P that at this point I’d settle for a Jacuzzi tub in a Jersey Econo Lodge, so long as my kids aren’t invited.
Pray is in the Paradise Valley, on the northern border of Yellowstone. The city limits hold a post office, a barbeque place called Follow Yer Nose, and not much else. The mayor of Pray jokes that running the town is easy: just collect the rent once a month and water the lawn.
P and I take a long hike into the hills. It’s September and the trees are already enflamed—bright reds and golds, violet sparks. P points out the snowcapped peaks of the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges, though I can’t tell which is which. I’m overwhelmed by sprawling wildflowers. They are tiny and yellow and everywhere. I’m so used to manicured parks, I keep thinking all of this is the work of some wacky landscape architect.
Montana looks how I expected. Big sky, like they say, warm light falling all over. When I packed for Pray, I brought a straw cowboy hat with me, something sun-colored I saw on a girl in a catalogue. On her it seemed glamorous, the epitome of Western escape, but here, in actual nature, I feel stupid even holding it in my hand.
Heartbreak is P’s other reason for Pray. His boyfriend ended their relationship brutally, without explanation. All of Brooklyn has been tarnished now—draped in what P calls the Shroud of Brian. He’s confronted by grief at every bodega, every bar.
P’s grown out his beard. He says it’s a record of his pain, but it suits him. His hair is shaggy too, but it’s nice, more casual and relaxed than usual. He looks great, actually, on this hillside in hiking boots and a flannel shirt, though he moves like someone pulled from wreckage, like it hurts him to turn his head. Why do we so often look our best when we feel our worst? In graduate school, my sister died the same semester I discovered cocaine. I was miserable, moving between buzzy numbness and impossible pain. I wasn’t eating and sometimes went a week without a shower.
“You’re glowing,” one of my professors said to me. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up!’
P and I sit on a flat rock and guzzle water. He winces when I say, “How’s the novel coming?”
“Ask the bitch,” he says.
He and Brian are still deep in the Who-Gets-What. A relationship’s worth of refurbished antiques, their books and clothes and records all hopelessly enmeshed.
“The only writing I’m doing is, like, origin stories to Brian over email,” P says. “Proof of ownership. Sure, maybe he paid for the lamp, but who carried the lamp home? Who had the idea for the lamp?”
A Meaningful Nature Experience (or MNE) is a real thing you can read about on the Internet. People point to the dolphin pod that saved their marriage, the tree that helped them process some great loss. There is clarity, often a feeling of ascension or of leaving the body. MNEs can be triggered by wildlife sightings or other organic phenomena like patterns, swirling colors, or strange textures. Sunsets. Waterfalls. Creeping vines.
I’ve never had a Meaningful Nature Experience. I was born in Texas, in a dusty panhandle town. I don’t know what to call that vast, flat nothing, but nature seems wrong. We did have horny toads—these dry, snubbed-nose lizards—but there was nothing majestic about them. They were slow and stupid and my sister and I tossed clumps of them into big buckets. We had no real plans for them. They’d piss and piss until they were floating—eventually we’d tip them over so they wouldn’t drown.
When I try to imagine what an MNE is like, I think of psychedelics. Seeing visuals in wood grain—swirling faces, constellations drifting across a dining table. Or when you realize that every seed on a strawberry is a different rainbow color, that the seeds are expanding and contracting, that the thing is actually kind of breathing.
The MNE people describe how birdsong changed their life, how the smell of a certain flower made them switch careers, how the Northern Lights helped them forgive their dickhead father.
P sees trail maps in his mind. They are three dimensional and brightly colored and he can spin them around, go behind mountains and up over the treeline. He’s got alternate routes for his alternate routes. He anticipates streams and vistas, tells me what I should be appreciating at any given moment.
Even when I walk in the gridded parts of Manhattan, I’m always second-guessing myself, squinting to see if the streets are really ascending or descending as I’ve hoped. I have to recalibrate at long traffic lights—Was I going this way or that way? I often feel as though I’ve been placed on a random corner by some giant, unseen claw.
I seek out leaders, people like my husband and P. People who will choose the restaurant, the movie, people who will be my tour guide. I let myself be pulled—it makes things so much easier. “It’s a form of control,” my husband says, and he’s not wrong.
I take my breast pump kit out of my backpack—the nozzles and flanges, the tubes and the reservoir, the special brush I use to clean the parts. I can put this thing together in the dark. I’ve never owned a gun, but I get it: the feeling of pieces fitting precisely, a series of successful clicks and turns. Holding a well-crafted thing in one hand.
“I’m sorry I have to do this out here,” I say to P. “I’m totally engorged. Is this gross for you?”
The fact that I’m still breastfeeding my three-year old is either my greatest accomplishment or my secret shame, depending on the company. She’s the baby, our final child, and I’m trying not to rush her. She calls breast milk good-good, says, “I need good-good because my heart gets thirsty.”
P says, “Of course I don’t mind.”
He turns to the sun to give me a little privacy.
“I love the word ‘engorged,’” he says.
For a long time, the relationship I held as my gold standard was one I had with a woman. This woman and I were girls together. We were in love but eventually, we both agreed, we wanted to be with boys. We wanted families and because we were young and in flat, nowhere Texas, we had limited ideas of what a family could be. This woman and I called what we were doing to each other “preparing.” We prepared for years. We were very, very prepared.
P used to date women, too. Girls with thick, horsey ponytails and loud laughs. Now that he’s out and proud, our mutual friends sometimes ask me: Did you always know he was gay? How did P “read” to you?
What I say to them is this: Who we were fucking was beside the point. It never came up, not even once. I recognized in P the things I see in myself—somebody with a mighty death drive. Somebody bighearted who is also kind of a fuckup. Somebody who is not exactly overflowing with impulse control. From the beginning, P read to me as “friend.” And that is no small thing.
There’s a parking lot by the trail that leads to the Boiling River, which is weird to me. The idea of driving up next to nature, I guess. In this parking lot there are teenagers: girls in sweatpants with words written on the butts, shirtless boys.
I can tell I’m getting older because my response to these young, well-rested people is something like rage. A girl in a hot pink bikini guzzles Fireball in a truck bed. She can’t be more than 13. I want to slap someone. I want to call her mother.
“Keep it classy, Montana,” P says, but they’re so enthralled with each other, they barely notice us.
We leave the teens to their liquor and head down the trail. P points out oak or maybe ivy, something poisonous I’m not supposed to tromp through. The landscape looks lunar in places: craters and steaming cracks, deep pools of orange and blue. A sign warns us of dangerous ground. It’s a drawing of a kid being consumed by fire while some other kid—a smarter kid, one who stayed on the trail—points and stares.
We see the rising steam long before we see the water, before we see the people down there, lounging on the rocks. P explains the river to me, how there’s an underground discharge that flows from a hydrothermal vent. What gushes out is more than a hundred degrees, but where it blends with the cold Gardner River, it’s like a very hot bath.
We put down our packs and P strips off his clothes. He’s got swim trunks on under his pants.
“Are you wearing a bathing suit?” he asks me.
“Fuck no,” I say. “Never again.”
I wade into the water in my running pants. There’s a sports bra under my t-shirt, over my still-engorged, ridiculous tits. My teats.
The current is fast and the rocks we’re wading over are sharp and slippery, bright green with moss. The confluence is bizarre. Half of me is freezing while the other half simmers.
People in the Boiling River don’t talk to each other. They sit in groups of two or three, in little pools where they can soak up to their necks. There’s a nice grotto P and I try to ease into, but there’s already an older couple inside. They politely yet firmly tell us the water is better downriver.
“Go at least 70 feet that way,” the male half of the couple says, stern.
We finally find a place where we can stay, sink into what P calls a nice, light scald. Occasionally the water gets too hot or cold, like someone is messing with the tap, but mainly it’s bliss. It’s rolling pleasure, waves so intense we have to stop speaking to appreciate them. To moan.
“Remember this feeling?” I say to P in between rushes and he says, “Mmmmhhhh.”
We are quiet while we go to similar druggy places in our pasts. I notice that P’s eyes are brimming, and for a second I think he might cry. Then he sneezes, loud and terrifying. He splashes his face with water, slicks back his hair.
“Fucking Brian,” he says. “That’s all I’m going to say.” He relaxes his shoulders, tilts his head from side to side to pop his neck.
I have a writing teacher who brings everything back to the body. “When you try to tell that story,” she’ll say, “When you talk about a person or a place, where do you feel it inside? Where is it trapped?” She says the way the body remembers something is indelible.
I want to make sense of things as much as the next person, but I don’t think my body remembers much. Mostly, I’m a brain in a jar. I imagined getting pregnant might bring me to the corporeal, but no. Instead, I felt the bodies within my body—each of my daughters swimming in turn. Even now, in all my mammalian, milk-spewing glory, it’s pretty easy to ignore everything that isn’t my tits. This is probably why I was once so enamored of LSD—the total obliteration of the body, the safety of becoming only my thoughts.
In the Boiling River I decide that my teacher’s approach—which is ultimately the same as P’s MNE approach—might not work for people like me. But that’s okay. The water still feels nice.
Time falls away. An hour. Two. P and I close our eyes. We float on our backs, hook toes to keep from drifting apart.
Then there’s splashing. Phones blasting dumb music. I see neon swimsuits and bleached hair, shades of toned, tanned flesh: teenagers. Some of them are blowing whistles, some are wearing day glow plastic jewelry. “Woo!” one girl keeps shrieking. They’re shoving and tugging at each other, taking selfies, swigging from their bottles.
“What do we do?” I say to P.
We’re outnumbered. We are so old.
Behind the Chico Saloon is a pool of natural water, piped in from the hot springs. It looks like any other swimming pool, but the bartender sets us straight. The water is 86 degrees and rich with minerals. It’s dark outside now, and there are spotlights shining for the night swimmers. Huge mountain moths gang up and flap around in the beams. One wall of the bar is all windows, and from where P and I are sitting with our whiskeys, we can see every kind of body bobbing around out there.
Drinking—it’s my last vice, one I can only exercise in very specific, kid-free circumstances. So I’m getting drunk. There are slot machines blinking and flashing next to me. One is called The Cherry Master and one is The Creator. I say these names over and over in different voices. “They’re like jewels in my mouth,” I tell P.
The bartender is maybe starting to regret being too nice to us, too loose with his pours, but then a guy comes in who is much worse off than we are. He can barely stand, won’t let go of one tall table until he’s touching the next. We watch him monkeybar across the room like that, staggering along until he’s right beside me. P gives me a look like, Do not engage.
The drunk asks for a shot of menthol, which of course isn’t a thing, and the sweet, patient bartender tries to sort it out. “Do you mean Crème de menthe? Or maybe peppermint schnapps?” he asks.
“Yes, for christsakes,” the drunk says. “Peppermint schnapps. Two shots. A double. Two doubles. Dos.”
P says the river worked. “Don’t you feel energized?” he asks me. “Revitalized?”
I don’t want to be a downer.
“Totally,” I say and slurp my drink.
When it’s time to close the natural pool at Chico, somebody opens a valve somewhere to let the water seep back into the ground, like draining a giant bathtub. P and I watch the level get lower and lower until the swimmers are standing half out of the water, arms crossed and shivering.
The drunk is still close to us. Now he’s telling the bartender a story about the night he drove his convertible from here to Reno, how he throttled a deer out in the desert. “It just burst,” the drunk says. One of his eyes keeps closing. “It detonated-ed.” The drunk says he had to check into his fancy Reno hotel with blood and fur all over his suit.
“Tomorrow, we write,” P says. He is refreshed, renewed. Positive about the future, finally, about the rest of our week.
I’m trying to split apart so I can listen to P but still hear the drunk, too.
P says that in the Boiling River he came out of his body, ascended a little. “I was above,” he says, “looking down.”
“Blood and fur!” the drunk is saying to the bartender. “Fur and blood!”
One of these plots is more meaningful to me. I can’t help it.
I turn to the drunk. “Where do you feel this story you’re telling,” I ask him. I’m having trouble staying steady on my barstool. “About the deer. Where on your body?”
The drunk gives me a dark look. I’ve interrupted him.
“On my suit,” he says, annoyed. “All over it.”
P puts a hand on my forearm. Do not engage.
The drunk glares at me and wipes spit from his chin. I’ve crossed some line. He looks down at his rumpled shirtfront like I’ve doused him with something. He’s incensed. He stands up, tips back his head. He opens his arms wide to show me what I’ve done.