Breaking clean is never easy. Memoirist and poet Judy Blunt described it this way:
I left Phillips County with a new divorce and an old car, with three scared kids and some clothes piled in back. We followed the sun west for hours. Climbing mountain passes, crossing river after river, until we spanned the final bridge into Missoula. —Breaking Clean, P. 295.
It was hard for her to leave; she grew up on a homestead settled by her grandparents at the turn of the century. She’d lived within 15 miles of the homestead all her life; ranch life was all she knew:
Ours was one of twenty-some families scattered like islands on a hundred square miles of prairie, farm and ranch folks loosely connected by crank telephones and narrow ribbons of gumbo road. Most of the neighbors I knew were the sons and daughters of farmers, a second generation distilled from turn-of-the-century homesteaders who stuck it out. (P. 134)
And she tells about life on the ranch:
Where I grew up, no daily papers shifted our view of the world and television didn’t intrude until the mid-sixties. Radio broadcasts from Havre, Montana, bounced off the Little Rockies and gave all we desired of the outside—market reports, weather forecasts and a little Patsy Cline. When the roads were decent, come Saturday we had mail. (P. 133)
She rode a horse back and forth to a one-room school a few miles from her ranch, and then moved to town while she went to high school. On graduation, she scraped together some money (by selling her mother’s horse) to enroll at Northern Montana College, but the money ran out after the first quarter. Then, at 18, her father introduced her to John, a Vietnam veteran 12 years her senior, who worked on his family’s grain and cattle ranch 15 miles from her home:
Grown beyond my child’s role in the community, I did not yet fit in the adult world. I held no place of value on my family’s ranch and was not yet a part of John’s. My options were as frightening as they were simple. I could marry, or I could leave. (P. 204)
She chose to marry, and the newly-weds moved to John’s ranch where she became a ranch wife with her mother-in-law looking on. She naïvely thought that she could have a life of her own and still be a good wife to John, but her in-laws made that difficult. She tried her hand at writing stories on an old typewriter she had brought from home, but that frivolous waste of time so angered her father-in-law that he took a sledge-hammer to her typewriter. After 12 years of this, it became clear to her that she had a choice to make: get used to taking care of the men and her babies or leave the ranch and start over. She summed it up this way:
I was the daughter of a good rancher, wife of another, daughter-in-law on a corporate ranch. I could do it all—I could play their game until I dropped—but I would never own a square foot of land, a bushel of oats or a bum calf in my own name. (P. 291)
Blunt left eastern Montana in August of 1986, she was 30 years old, a single parent mom, and she was headed to Missoula, MT. She found work there as an apprentice carpenter sanding floors, she enrolled her kids in grammar school and then she enrolled herself in the University. She applied herself to work, care for her children, and she excelled in her studies— in 1992 she published her first book of poems, Not Quite Stone, (University of Montana Press, 1992).
This time of year the leaves are
squash and cranberry colors that run
together no matter how you pile
them. Tantalizing fogs roll down the
sides of Sloway and Sentinel, snow
whipped mounds I study like I study
the mail on my doorstep. each line
pulling me back to an earth and
spice warm place where smooth
whiskey and honey voices pool
around the kitchen table and no one
begs your pardon when elbows
touch. This time of year this far
away the air bites deep and my
courage rattles brittle as hollow
bones, scared of any place too safe
too easy to stay when my belly’s full.
It’s time, I think for a new custom
Time to roast a small pullet and lie in
this bed like a mountain stream
Gone past the fork, casting free over
rocks, me and Quartz Creek, this fall
are running strong and clear.
—Judy Blunt, 1992
In 2012, twenty-six years after she left Phillips County, she is an associate professor at the University of Montana and director of the Creative Writing Program; she has also restored some, but not all of her links to Eastern Montana.
Breaking Clean is a the story of a girl growing up in the cattle country of Eastern Montana. She loved animals and the ranch life, but the life is difficult: challenged by hardships and disasters; lives are in the balance as ranchers and their families battle the elements and sometimes each other. Ranchers are a stubborn lot and very conservative; slow to change, resigned to their fate but hopeful and optimistic, too. We can all learn from these stories. Well done, Judy Blunt. Thanks for sharing.