Monday, September 21, 2009

The Guy in the Road - East Glacier, Montana

As we hugged the hairpin curves of the road from St. Mary’s to East Glacier Park, we couldn’t get over how beautiful the scenery was, and how terrifying some of the turns were. I mean, how can they expect cars to actually navigate along this road when the 4 inches of white line does nothing but delineate the area where your right tires should be, and steep precipice of which there is no survival if there is just the slightest misstep? Anyway, we were experiencing a sort of elated nausea of having battled the white line and won. As we turned another corner, we quickly sobered up. There, in the middle of the road, was a young man, wearing only a pair of jeans and cowboy boots. His entire body was covered in a film of dust. I could see deep scratches in his back and shoulder. He was staggering across the width of the road, stumbling as he went along, knees barely able to hold him up, tentatively holding out his right thumb to hitch a ride. He couldn’t walk a straight line, would inevitably fall down, and then, with great effort, would pull himself from the magnetic gravity of the earth to resume his swaying. Cars in front of me swerved around him and went about their merry way. I was shocked, scared, in disbelief. As I drove slowly by him to better assess the situation, he looked at me. He was Native American with a wild and crazy look in his eyes. As he staggered toward the car as it passed him, I could hear an indecipherable yelling that effectively conveyed his agony. I drove another hundred yards to the next available shoulder, and Eric got out of the car.

Another car with California license plates pulled up next to us, and we rolled down the windows. “What is going on?” the male driver asked. “I have no idea, we just stopped, too,” I answered. Good people that they are, they pulled over into the shoulder ahead of us, and he got out of his car.

“What happened, my man?” Eric loudly asked the injured soul as he stumbled toward us. I was scared for Eric. I was scared for both of them. I ran through scenarios in order to better prepare for a response. Damn AT&T, I didn’t have coverage here. It seemed only Verizon worked in the remotest part of Montana. So then should we lay him down into the back seat and drive him to a hospital that we didn’t know how to get to? What if they guy was crazy? What if he attacked us while we were driving? What would I do if he attacked Eric right now? I’d heard stories of individuals on drugs having superhuman strength. I was sweating.

Eric and the other driver were trying to get the guy to calm down and sit down for a moment. “We’re going to get you some help. You need to just sit down, man. Just sit for a moment, right here, okay?”

Instead, he kept walking in between the cars, cursorily looking for a way to get in and yelling, “It f---ing hurts! It f---ing hurts!” That’s when I saw that the left elbow he had been favoring was severely disjointed and he was bleeding from a number of superficial scratches. He finally fell to the ground, right onto the sharp stone gravel, and rolled about, yelling and cursing.

Meanwhile, the female passenger of the other car had called 911 and they were dispatching someone. When the Sheriff showed up, he had a look as if he had seen this before. Story goes that the guy was severely inebriated, and had gotten thrown from a horse. Hmm. I guess that can happen out here in Montana. As the Native American continued to roll around in agony, the Sheriff called for an ambulance and waved us off. Eric got back in the car and said, “For a guy to be that drunk, and still be in such pain, that arm has GOT to be messed up.” True that.

The incident bothered me greatly that evening, so much so, that I couldn’t sleep. First, I was bothered that someone could get so wasted as to not only harm himself, but to put himself in such great danger. Walking along a highway of high speeds could have ended up in a tragedy far greater than a broken arm. Second, I couldn’t believe how many people were so calloused that they just passed right on by. There had to have been at least a dozen cars that passed by that man, and only two cars stopped. How can that be? Third, I was ashamed of myself. I was so scared of the situation that I didn’t even get out of the car. The compassion I thought I would have for another hurting human being is far less than I would have thought, and I found it inexcusable. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be stupid about it all, and if I were alone, as a single female, unsure of the situation, I believe it would have been warranted to keep driving and finding help at the next possible juncture. But when there are four of us around, cowardly acts are not acceptable. Truth be told, I wasn’t scared about my physical being. I knew my husband wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Instead, I was scared about what I was going to witness. I didn’t want to have the image of another human being in that kind of severely distressed state burned into my mind.

I thought about the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible. As a child, I always questioned and judged the ones who passed the injured man. I thought they were shameful and vowed that I would be the Good Samaritan. Turns out that I’m more like the others than I thought, and it made me search deeply into my heart. Turns out that I learned a very important lesson not only about compassion, but about judgment as well. In the next few days, I would have another wake-up call about this very issue.

On a long hike up to Cobalt Lake in the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park, we found a fresh pile of huckleberry-filled bear scat, which instilled in us an abrupt desire to sing and dance. The irony of all of this is that when you’re on the trail, you anxiously want to see a bear. Black or Grizzly, who cares, it doesn’t matter. “I want to see a bear! I want to see a bear!” you chant, delirious in your desire. Then you see signs of recent bear activity, and suddenly, it’s the LAST thing you want to see. “Bear, Bear, go away! Come again some other day!” What a difference a pile of poop makes. In any case, another hiker, Karen, ahead of us had seen the same thing. She was alone and feeling quite skittish about continuing on to the top of Two Medicine Pass, so she turned back, and just as she did, she ran into us. After which, of course, we said, “What the heck! Let’s continue on for 6 more strenuous miles, how hard can that be? (It’s hard.) Come along with us! It’ll be fun! (It IS fun.)”

The wonderful thing about meeting interesting people on the trail, is that if you want to, you can continue hiking with them for hours, and learn all sorts of things about their lives; things that they may not have exposed to another, say, mall shopper. But the trail encourages you to bare your soul, and allows for others to take it in in such a way that it’s almost transcendental.

We ended up mentioning to Karen that we wanted to learn more about the Native American people, but not in a touristy way. We didn’t want to load ourselves up into a van and get a tour of “sites.” We wanted to get more integrated. We wanted to really get to meet the people. She mentioned that her son-in-law, Brian, taught on the reservation and hey, she was meeting him and her daughter for dinner that night, and would we want to join them? For sure!

That night, Eric and Brian, as two educators, had a meeting of the hearts and minds. Brian was working with kids who were about to graduate from an alternative ed high school program, and was desperately trying to get them to understand that college is a great next step. Eric’s passion is working with first-generation college students to make the transition to college so successful, they are of the 50% of Freshman who graduate within 5 years, nationwide. Brian invited Eric to speak to his class the next day, and I saw in Eric’s eyes the excitement of a child waking up on Christmas morning.

The next morning, we drove up to Browning, Montana. The kids sat in a rough circle around Eric, who started talking about himself and his fascinating, but difficult life story, and about different things they could expect when going to college, trying to engage them in dialogue. Boy, was it a tough crowd. Teenagers are an interesting bunch of people. They don’t want to care, so they act as if they don’t, but then you can tell that they do and that they’re listening. I hope I remember that if we ever have kids.

Eric talked about the Native American in the road, and how they needed to respect themselves enough to not let that happen to themselves, and also that they need to stop and help people who are in need, that it’s not okay to disrespect another human being. Of the few things they said that day, one of the kids raised his hand and said, “Well, here, that kind of thing is totally normal. We see it all the time.”

It took me a moment to register that. This kind of thing is normal to them. They see this kind of thing all of the time. I thought about how I might just drive by a drunken and injured Native American on the road if it were a regular occurrence. At what point would I stop caring? Eric responded by saying, “Guys, you need to know that in a lot of other parts of this country, that is NOT normal.”

I left the room so I could gather my thoughts. I ran into the drug and alcohol counselor and the school counselor, a Native American herself, who had not only finished college, but went on to grad school at Harvard, and was now coming back to her community to make it a better place. She said, “It’s so important that they are hearing an outsider’s point of view. It’s one thing for me to say that what they see here is not normal, but to hear a person from the outside say it’s not normal is another.”

The other counselor asked, “Hey, was the guy a really young guy? Because I had a high school student taken to the hospital drunk, hurt, just like how he was saying.” “No,” I answered, “this guy was probably in his mid to late 20s, and his left arm was pretty busted at the elbow.” “Oh,” she said, “a different one, then.” She continued, “You know, it’s always the tourists who stop. They’re the ones who can’t believe it’s happening.”

So it did happen often, and I felt a pang of sadness, not only for those who were injuring themselves, but for the students who had been exposed to too much at a young age and were trying to figure out what was next for them, and for those of them who might be the next injured person stumbling along the road.

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