To Richard Ford: I Named a Campsite ‘Montana’

I’ve known about Richard Ford’s soft spot for Canada for a long time. Years ago, when I heard him read at the International Festival of Authors, he followed two Canadian writers (Joseph Boyden and another whose name I can’t remember). As the only non-Canuck in the bunch, Ford had the host mention in the introduction that the Mississippi-born author wasn’t Canadian…yet.

And then there are the mostly flattering words by Frank Bascombe, the main character of Ford’s 1995 novel Independence Day:

The Canadians are now bustling into the lobby, elbowing each other and yucking it up like hockey fans—men and women alike. They are big, healthy, happy, well-adjusted white people who aren’t about to miss any meals or get dressed up for no good reason. They break off into pairs and threes, guys and gals, and go yodeling off through the metal double doors to the rest rooms. (The best all-around Americans, in my view, are Canadians. I, in fact, should think of moving there, since it has all the good qualities of the states and almost none of the bad, plus cradle-to-grave health care and a faction of the murders we generate. An attractive retirement waits just beyond the forty-ninth parallel.)

So, even before I read Ford’s explanation for naming his most recent novel Canada, I wasn’t surprised by the title. But I was keen on another bit of silly geographical serendipity involving me and the novel. Before the main character, Dell Parsons, is taken to Saskatchewan, he calls Great Falls, Montana his home. On a canoe trip in 2009, I named a campsite Montana.

My reasons for naming a plot you can only get to by canoe after a northern U.S. state are similar, but slightly less high-minded, than Ford’s use of our country’s name. Like Ford, the sound of the word resonates with me. (“‘Canada’ was such an attractive word to me,” Ford writes. “It had always possessed its own pleasing sonority.”) “Montana’s” sonority came to me via Frank Zappa. His eponymous song is a freaky idyll of dental hygiene and agriculture. Within the Zappa zaniness is a chorus with a languid “Movin’ to Montana soon.” “Montana” is a word you can draw out to evoke wide vistas and total chill. No big-city franticness in Montana. No sir.

The Montana campsite is on a point on Archer Bay, in Ragged Lake, Algonquin Park. Martha and I stayed there on the last night of our canoe trip at the end of that June. It was a trip with nice weather, no mishaps, but serious bugs. We didn’t linger on any of the portages and, once the sun went down in the evenings, we found respite in our tent from mosquitoes, which seemed particularly bad that year. The Ragged Lake site was high on that point of land, so it was breezy and the spaced-out pines didn’t offer the bugs any shelter from the wind. Martha put up her hammock. The site was just so chill and it reminded me of the only other connection I have with Montana: a picture I saw in some outdoor magazine, something such as explore or Outside.

The photo showed a state or national park. There were mountains in the background, which, yes, Ontario doesn’t have. But the forest was made up of evergreens that weren’t too dense. The forest looked easy to walk around in. Now, don’t get me wrong: Algonquin Park’s forests, Canadian Shield forests, are my forests. They are the ones I’d pick first out of nostalgia and loyalty. But Canadian Shield forests are hard to move around in. They are thick and dense and tend to scratch you. You can only move easily within them in winter on a pair of skis or snowshoes. But those Montana forests look easy: just the right amount of vegetation on the forest floor; trees never too close to one another. And while insects, like bad breath, tend not so show up very well in panoramic shots, you could just tell from that picture that there were no mosquitoes in Montana.

As I mentioned, my campsite christening isn’t as lofty as Ford’s novel naming. “Canada” is a point for the novelist from which he hoped to “find apt language for those complex, important feelings for which I otherwise didn’t have more than a conventional, simplistic, largely inherited vocabulary.” For me, “Montana” is a quirky way to buzz around my inherited vocabulary. Nothing I can hang a novel on, just a blog post.

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