I think you tried, dad. I really do.

In the dark I can move through the old farmhouse. Easy. Quiet. My muscle memory knows every corner, every light switch location, the subtle slope of the living room where the foundation is sinking into the earth, and where the trim has been worn down from three generations of our family’s hands lightly touching the edge of doorways.

I wonder what it was like for you when you brought my sister into this house, old even then, for the first time, new parents. Mom told me you almost passed out when she told you she was pregnant.

The sleigh bells on a leather strap that hang on the front door are still there. The old refrigerator finally gave out. I’m having a hard time getting rid of it. It’s still sitting on the porch, probably irritating mom. It's real classy.

When I walk around this house I can’t help but run into you. You are always here. I just have to hit play in my head and can watch you struggle to put on your work boots with five hunting dogs vying for your attention or watch you stand over the stove frying up some sausage you just made in the butcher shop, me coming in from behind snatching pieces.

When you died, I worried I’d forget you. And now, three and a half years later, I’m starting to lose some of the exactness of my memories; grief sharpened them, time is now softening them. But the house holds them for me.

***

Do you remember that time we both fell asleep on the couch listening to Kris Kristofferson on vinyl when I was around eight? When you were eight your dad was making you fight bigger neighborhood boys. You got beat up until one day you were stronger than everyone else.

A friend of ours who met you once, in a pleasant encounter, told us later, "strikes me as a dangerous man."

He saw something in your eyes.

***

In this house, I can watch you stack wood, a proper stack, all the way up to the ceiling. I see you walk behind me while I’m eating breakfast at the counter and poke me in the sides to make me jump. I see you walking in the door exhausted from a day of busting tires at the store, or plowing snow, or cutting wood. I hear the phone ring in the middle of the night and see you walking down the stairs, knowing it’s a service call and you have to drive somewhere and change a tire.

In this house that we both know so well, in late fall, I hung up the phone and walked into the living room, the one that is sinking slowly into the earth, and Mike put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted so badly to keep walking. I heard mom in the kitchen. I didn’t want him to open his mouth but he did. "Don’t," I thought. But he had to. You would be happy he was there for me, dad, he’s a good man, but you knew that.

“Your dad shot himself.” Mike said. He was strong for me.

Do you remember the first time you met him? You shook his hand and said, “if you make her happy, I’m happy.” Thank you for that.

The mind works so quickly. In a split second I thought, “why would you say something like that to me?” and then “but he’s not dead right?” and then I collapsed on the wood floor.

***

I want to ask you about the day you told your mom that your little sister took too many pills and drank too much vodka. I remember it so clearly. When you found out, you and I got in the truck and drove to grandma’s. We took the elevator up four floors. We didn’t talk. I was scared of you sometimes. My grandmother opened the door and saw your face. I saw her buckle and sway. That is what I must have looked like to Mike.

You said, “She’s dead Ma.” You always called her Ma. And then you grabbed her for a hug. It was a tight, big hug that felt like you were being swallowed.

After you let her go, she composed herself. She wasn’t crying but you were. She asked you how. You told her. She said, “Well, I guess that was a waste of money on rehab.”

I can feel the stillness in the room.

Now this memory is only mine.

***

When is it appropriate to tell these things about a family? I don’t think you’d mind. In fact, I know you wouldn’t. There’s a lot more to tell.

***

I am glad now that it was this house that held me up when I fell, that I was in the house you loved. We sat in the kitchen all day. I don’t remember what we talked about but it seemed right that we were all sitting around the old kitchen table that hasn't moved in decades. I know now that a place can make pain and grief easier to bear. Every time I consider tearing it down and building something new, I am stopped because of what it holds for me.

When I fall asleep in the bedroom that I’ve always known, I dream that you are not dead. In these dreams we are talking and I am flooded with relief. You dying, I think, that was just a big mistake. Thank god.

When will those stop, do you think?

***

Do you remember when you were in rehab in Colorado and I came to visit? We broke the rules and you came out to my car to see Lena. You weren't supposed to leave the campus. I was nervous we would get caught. You were always breaking rules. She whined she was so happy to see you.

I was having a hard time, the hardest time I could remember, and for a moment you weren't thinking about your own pain.

You held on to my hand while I talked. You gave me a huge hug, my ribs hurt, and you didn’t let go.

I don’t want to write about human shit. I really don’t. There are hundreds of other things I’d rather write about and should be writing about. But I feel compelled because the last couple of years, while hunting, I came across five piles of human shit right next to or directly on public land parking areas. Huge piles of people shit. Sometimes there were unnecessarily large wads of toilet paper on top of the piles. Sometimes I’d see long strands of toilet paper with brown streaks flying off over the prairie grass, getting hung up on sage brush. When I first considered writing about this topic I thought I might go in to detail about my shitty experiences, but I think you can probably imagine what it is like. If you’ve spent any time in the woods, you’ve most likely had similar ones. Be thankful I didn't include photos of these finds. Although, to the people whose shit I found, I might offer a piece of unsolicited advice: eat better food. These piles of shit, although the most disgusting and most memorable, are not the only things I’ve found scattered about our public lands when I’m hunting. There is a type of public land user who seems to think our shared landscapes - places that were set aside for wildlife, recreation and the nourishment of our soul - are a dump. People who think these places exist only to be used how they see fit and treated carelessly. I find empty beer cans lying in my path. I find old bike helmets, used condoms, candy bar wrappers, energy drink cans, empty shotgun shells, used hand warmer packets, toilet paper and, of course, human shit. Sometimes I find animals that someone has killed and left lying - proving to his buddies what a man he is. I find ruts and tracks where people drove in places they shouldn’t have. In my walks through the prairies and the woods I never fail to find the evidence that this type of public land user has preceded me. I doubt anyone who treats our public lands like this can be reached through an ethical appeal. Although, I do point to these experiences when hunters complain about some private landowners not allowing public hunting. The stories I’ve heard from ranchers would make any ethical hunter cringe in embarrassment. This may seem like a small problem to some readers compared to the current threats to our public lands; selling them off, shrinking the boundaries of protected areas, impacts from climate change, and our current Interior Secretary’s fetish with energy dominance. The list goes on and on. To me though, all the threats, including trash on our public lands, come from the same mentality. They come from the person who thinks public lands are only places to be used, places to extract from, places for more and more consumption, whether the prize be game, oil, coal, gas or timber. I was struck by a passage out of Wendell Berry’s essay A Native Hill. And it made me think some of what our public lands need is not more owners, but more friends.
“The false and truly belittling transcendence is ownership. The hill has had many owners, but it has had few friends. But I wish to be its friend, for I think it serves its friends well. It tells them they are fragments of its life. In its life, they transcend their years.”
**Photos of trash provided by a friend to our public lands, Nancy Anderson Porter.

The 2018 east of Billings calendar is ready to order. The calendar is 8.5 x 11 in full-color with some of my favorite photographs I've taken this year in eastern Montana. You'll see big landscapes, big skies, big sandstone rocks, and some iconic eastern Montana wildlife. This year the calendar is designed by a talented graphic designer out of Helena, Luke Duran, who also is the photo editor for Montana Outdoors magazine.

Important note: I won't start shipping the calendars until December 1st. If you need them shipped faster than 2-3 day priority shipping, please send me a direct message.

The cost this year is $15.00 per calendar + $6.65 USPS priority flat rate shipping.

Here are the ways to get your calendar: 

1. Paypal:

If you would like to pay by credit card online please click on the Buy Now button and follow the instructions provided by PayPal.


2. Check

If you would like to pay by check, you can send a check made out to me, Alexis Bonogofsky, 2020 Tired Man Road, Billings, MT 59101. $15/calendar plus a flat $6.65 shipping rate. Once I receive the check, I will put the calendar/s in the mail.


3. East of Billings ArtWalk Show on December 1, 2017

I have a show at ArtWalk Billings on December 1 at the Downtown Billings Alliance at 2815 2nd Ave N, Billings, MT 59101 from 5 - 9 p.m. You can come by there to pick up the calendars and see the rest of the show. We'll have beer and wine and music by Ed and John Kemmick!

As always, I appreciate your support!

Alexis