Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Spoon Carvers - East Glacier, Montana

Another short essay from my People of Montana series.

I’m more convinced than ever that a visit to a location, no matter how perceivably small or desolate, must be allocated 3 days, 2 nights minimum. East Glacier is one of those towns where if you blink, you will have passed by some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met.

There’s a store in East Glacier called “The Spiral Spoon.” It’s got a huge purple spoon, perhaps 20 feet high, and in proportion, that sits outside a small, cluttered storefront. It’s hard to miss this store, but easy to pass right by it. Of the several people whom I’ve spoken to who have told me they passed through East Glacier, all have said they saw the spoon, but no one said they walked into it. Shame, because the store is one of the quirkiest, laid-backest, funnest stores I’ve been to in a long time, and the owner Jo, and her band of carvers the most jovial, do-I-look-like-I-give-a-f***, lived-a-hard-life-and-now-I’m-going-to-do-what-I-want-to-do folks I’ve ever met.

Jo, in particular, is brash, unapologetic, and has a very effective dry sense of humor. For example, the sign in front of her store says, “World’s Largest Wooden Spoon Store…[then in small letters] (if you don’t get out much.” She hails from Georgia, and still has the accent to prove it. She started carving “stuff” when she was 9 years old, and she says, “Thank goodness I didn’t know failure was bad, otherwise, I would have stopped carving. My first carvings were horrible.” Or something to that effect. In any case, she kept right on going. Soon, her husband got into the action, and her cousin, Carlton, moved out from Georgia, too. The three of them carve spoons now, and every year, they’ve made more and have sold out. Then, because of the craziness of Harry Potter, they started carving wands. Every wand has a number and a story behind it, and when one gets sold, the buyer gets a long dissertation on how the wand was made, during what time of the day, and has to ceremonially sign their name and where the wand is going into the Wand Log. It’s really fascinating. On the day I was watching a ceremony, a couple had just bought a wand for a friend. The wife was totally into all of the explanation and what-nots. The husband? He couldn’t wait to get out of there.

So what’s up with the Spiral Spoon? Well, the spoons are durable and meant to be used as demandingly as you would a regular wooden spoon in the kitchen. But these are beautifully carved, which would be enough, in and of itself, but then you hold them, and you realize they’ve been carved to correspond with your fingers, your hand, and there’s such a natural fit that you can’t believe that this extraordinary form and function could exist.

We had some hours to hang out, so I asked if she had any spoons she would carve that day. “You bet! Come on back!” She gave me a dust mask. “Make sure this is a tight fit. No gaps.” Easy for her to say. She doesn’t have a tiny Asian nose with no bridge, which is not how these dust masks are developed.

She started with a rough shape of a spoon that her husband had rough-shod for her with a table saw. It was white and pale. “We won’t know what kind of color this wood has until we dip into the water for the first time.” So she started with a half-ball wood shaver. She roughly carved into the wood, flattening out here, shaving off there. She handled the spoon a few times as if she were stir frying a dish on the stove. “See? Not flat enough here at the bottom.” All the meanwhile, she muttered and talked to the spoon. “Now hold on there, you’ll be done soon enough.” The spoons are her babies.

Then she said, “Here, hold this. Just like how you would hold it at home.” I took it into my hands, and was suddenly thinking, wait. Really, how would I hold this? Like this? Like that? You never really think about it too much until someone is making a spoon that’s ergonomically correct, and then you just have no idea how to hold a spoon. I finally settled on a position just as Jo started to look at me over her glasses, her youthfully wrinkled brow indicating she was at the brink of saying something like, “Come on, now, for Pete’s sake, it’s just a spoon. Don’tcha know how to hold a spoon? You’ve cooked before, haven’t ya?” She marked the spoon between my fingers with a pencil, and started shaving away with a cylindrical sand papering tool.

Finally, when she had gotten it to the shape she would ultimately want, she said, “Okay, it’s time to see what color this baby is going to be.” She dunked the spoon into painting bucket filled with water, browned from the week’s sawdust dancing and floating their way into it. It was a beautiful transformation from a pale, dusty block of wood, into a gorgeous, warm color that exposed the natural grains of the wood. “Look at that. A honey-gold. Oh! See how the grain is coming through here? What a shame, had I known that, I would have made the spoon the other way. But you just don’t know until you get to this point.” It’s a like a surprise every time, I said. She responded, “Yeah, I never get tired of it.”

From that point on, the spoon is continually refined, with finer and finer sand paper being used to finish and polish it off. Three water dunkings, enough to ensure even smoothness, and then she soaks the spoons in her Snake Oil. It’s actually a concoction of mineral oil and wax, but Jo says she always wanted to sell Snake Oil…

I came back the day after to see the finished product. It was beautiful. I had to buy it. After all, I had a history with this spoon. It was fitted to my hand. It was my baby.

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