Walking Somehow from the Sun

March 10, 2009 § 10 Comments




a requiem

If I had awakened in Montana last Thursday, as I have for most Thursdays for the last two decades I know the feeling that would have washed over me as soon as my eyes fluttered open: disgust. More snow, in March, for God’s sake. Would the winter ever end? It wasn’t just a dusting, but a significant snowfall. The kind that makes people linger in bed, or if they brave the weather, they stamp their boots going into coffee shops, the windows wet with condensation, shaking the snow from their hair.

The news reached me within an hour of its occurrence. There had been an explosion on Bozeman’s historic Main Street. My husband, at our home in Ohio, called me at my mother’s to tell me. It was enough of an explosion to catch the attention of CNN. We didn’t live in Bozeman, but it had been the closest large town, and it was the place we went for shopping, special dinners, baby gifts, art galleries, ballet lessons.  We’d walked Main Street for the Christmas stroll, the Sweet Pea Festival, Crazy Days.

Elmer called me back when he found out where the explosion actually was. We knew the block well. It was thought that the explosion was centered around Boodles, an upscale restaurant. We’d eaten there a few times. The food had failed to live up to the hype or the price tag, but still the restaurant’s sudden and complete disappearance into a pile of broken debris saddened me. Some people must have enjoyed the restaurant, they’d been in business for at least a decade. The front of Boodles was painted a glorious green, somewhere between sea glass and geranium leaves. 

The color was shared by the bar next door; the Rocking R. It was enough of a cowboy bar to be packed during Rodeo week, but mostly the clientele ran to MSU students. When I first moved to Montana, a hundred years ago, I went there with my old friend Sheryl Dahl. Since then, I think we’d been in once or twice to get a sandwich, a Bobcat or a Ken’s Special at the Pickel Barrel counter inside.

There was a gallery of Western Art next door, and next to that, a charming and luxurious children’s shop, Lilly Lu’s, a place that would have fit in as well in SoHo as it did in this Rocky Mountain town. Maybe better in SoHo, actually. Upstairs from that, was a place where we’d spent a lot of time: the studios of Montana Ballet, where all three of our kids had taken lessons. Julian had stuck with it the longest, thumping out the rhythm of plies and grand jetes in both Ballet and Jazz classes. A little wave of nausea rippled over me as I thought of those polished floors and high windows, all those kids in their leotards and soft leather slippers. 

I learned later that the Ballet had moved, that the space I remembered was now an architect’s office. It had been early in Bozeman when the second block of East Main blew up. Just after 8 a.m. and officials thought the early hour and the new snowfall had kept injuries to a minimum.  Initially eleven were feared missing. One by one their whereabouts were identified until only a solitary soul remain unaccounted for and officials were tight-lipped with details.

The story trailed after me, like the scent of smoke in my clothes. I thought perhaps I’d write about it, how we felt connected to some of those places. I made a few notes, penciled the word “Ka-boom” in the margin.

In the comment sections of online newspaper editions, people – some long gone from the Montana scene- wrote of their sorrow. Others made snarky remarks about cowtowns and militia, revealing the ignorance of those who penned them.  There are other towns in America like Bozeman. Asheville, North Carolina. Boulder. Madison. It is a deep blue pocket in a mostly red state, a town full of young mothers with jogging strollers, bookstores, coffee houses, oriental rug galleries, wine bars. The women in Bozeman choose Dansko clogs over Manolo Blahniks. And so do the men. 

The Rocking R stirs memories for many. One writer hopes the bar’s sign, an iconic red enameled holdover from the “R’s” good old days (that is, before the remodel) can be saved. Someone else says no, it’s lying crumpled in the street. It isn’t though. Photographs of the scene show it hanging on the fragile façade that still stands. The Bozeman daily features the scene in their online photo section, Montana 360, [ http://bozemandailychronicle.com/montana360 ]providing a navigable view up and down the street. Windows are said to be boarded up as distant as city hall, four blocks away.

They say that the American Legion is badly damaged by fire. Next door, Artcraft Printers, where they printed Julian’s baby announcements; they are closed indefinitely. Starky’s, a deli where we used to stop in for Reubens and chicken soup has sustained heavy damage.  Then there’s the Great Rocky Mountain Toy Store on the other side of them. When you live somewhere that long, some things become as familiar as the back of your hand. The Governor, Brian Schweitzer, arrives in the snow. The owner of the rug gallery on the corner is inconsolable. He had just stepped out for coffee when the explosion occurred. The next day volunteers will help him carry out scores of wet and sooty carpets, most weighing more than a hundred pounds each.

Days go by. I check the news online. CNN has long since dropped the story, moving on to other catastrophes in other places. I am nagged by the mystery of the missing person. Officials are not forthcoming about anything in that regard. When I read that the missing person is a woman, I wonder who let that slip to the media and if they thought “Oh shit” when they realized what they did. 

The general consensus is that the explosion was caused by a leak in a 12 inch natural gas pipe. Northwestern Energy has been on the scene, shutting down gas lines. Owners of the businesses on that block are allowed to visit, escorted in silence. The woman from Lilly Lu’s reports that she stood sobbing, looking at where her shop, where the last ten years of her life, used to be. They allow her to carry away a brick of the historic storefront. It’s all that’s left.

It is a Riverdale, Utah paper that spells out what everyone fears. The Boodles chef, Scottie Burton is a Riverdale native. His girlfriend, Kate Ludwig works next door at the Montana Trails Gallery.  They are usually at work by eight o’clock in the morning, but with the snow, they’ve overslept.  Burton says they are quite certain that the Gallery manager was there, though. He wonders if perhaps she triggered the explosion by turning on the lights. Montana Trails. I’d been to a couple of receptions there, I’d admired pieces in the gallery window as I’d passed by on the sidewalk. Bears, horses, calves, bison, trout rendered with skill and sensitivity, not couch art. A collection of beautiful knives handmade by the charming son of a famous writer.  Bronzes, fluid with motion. No Conestoga wagon scenes.

The Dickinson, North Dakota newspaper is initially alone in reporting that “Search Turns Up No Victims”  in the Bozeman explosion, as if therefore, there are not any. A handful of other papers searching for news will also miss the unspoken, unwritten “yet.” No victims found yet. Seeing the strangely upbeat tilt of the story makes me impatient and agitated. Are they stupid? Well, maybe. Maybe they’re just hopeful. Maybe you have to be that way to stand  living in Dickinson, North Dakota. Maybe you have to hope against hope.

This morning, the news: a body has been found. Searchers found that one last person shortly after noon on Sunday. One of the British poet laureates, Philip Larkin, wrote a poem in 1969 after an explosion in a mine. He describes the miners walking to work, “Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke/ 
Shouldering off the freshened silence.”

He describes them with a certain tenderness, playfully chasing a rabbit, returning with a nest of lark’s eggs, which they admire and leave undisturbed in the grass, before they passed “ Fathers brothers nicknames laughter/ Through the tall gates standing open.” 

This afternoon, there is identification by dental records. It is an unnecessary and cruel detail, but every news story carries it, and I am guilty of it as well. The woman is Tara Reistad Bowman, the manager of the gallery. She was the wife of Chris Bowman, whose family owns Owenhouse Ace Hardware up the street– where we’ve bought string and canvas, horse buckets and Christmas lights, French rolling pins and cans of paint, extension cords and shop vacs, ice cream sandwiches. I don’t know Tara, but my heart breaks for the people who loved her. 

The photograph accompanying the news story shows a young woman with long pale hair, a face that is all angles and planes, strikingly beautiful, but not conventionally pretty. A family friend describes her as “the most genuine, positive person, the nucleus of her family.”  A couple of artists’ blogs note her death, heavy with sadness. Many photograph of the scene has shown  her vehicle parked behind the gallery. 

She is the youngest of four children, the only daughter. One of her brothers describes her as “gentle, but tough.”  In February 2004, Tara’s father was murdered by a disturbed man, the paranoid-schizophrenic son of his lady friend. The man had forced his mother to write him a $10,000 check before killing first her and then Chester Reistad. It was a brutal crime, and one that captured the attention of the Bozeman community.  It was Tara’s strength, her brothers say, that supported the family during that terrible time. Tara is quoted in a newspaper story as saying that the defendant “killed the only two people who would have been willing to go to bat for him.” 

I am reminded of a comment written before her body was discovered. Someone who knew her wrote that the only comfort to be found was in “knowing that she is safe in the arms of both her fathers.”

“The dead go on before us,” wrote Philip Larkin “they/ 
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort 
/ We shall see them face to face– 

/plain as lettering in the chapels. 

The morning of the explosion Tara Bowman had been exchanging emails with her mother, Skip, planning together an upcoming party. Her mother said to a local television station that her “daughter’s beauty was just a mirror of what was inside.”  It is exactly what a bereaved mother might say upon losing a beloved child, which makes it no less true. Still, she gives us perhaps a more telling glimpse of Tara when she describes her as a “prankster who liked to laugh.”

It was said and for a second

Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed–

Gold as on a coin, or walking

Somehow from the sun towards them.

That morning, Tara was on the telephone with one of her best friends. The friend recounted to a local television station that they were talking about an upcoming trip to Hawaii, Tara was laughing. At 8:14 the line went dead.  Ash and snow falling from the sky.

Today,  Monday, the day after they pulled her from the bricks and rubble, she would have been 37 years old. It was her birthday.








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§ 10 Responses to Walking Somehow from the Sun

  • Erin says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’m a native Montanan who lived in Bozeman for 6 years. I worked at Caravan and Habitat which were located on that block, but somehow spared from the blast. The first apartment my husband and I shared was a funky little studio tucked behind Country Bookshelf. Something like this simply doesn’t get closer to home. I’ve been searching for news about the missing person and couldn’t have found a more fitting and appreciative telling of the final tragic details.

  • Margaret Land Smith says:

    Larkin, thanks for your essay. I really enjoyed reading it and hope you will keep sending me “One Thousand Days”. By the way, did your mom name you after Phillip Larkin? Take care. Margaret Land

    • larkinvonalt says:

      Margaret Land,
      Many thanks. Yes, I think Philip Larkin (misanthrope that he was) did play at least a minor part in how I got my name. I do hope we get to meet sometime soon!

  • char says:

    Thank you for writing this piece. It was phenomenological and detailed. The red car parked on the street was not Tara Bowman’s, the gray 4-runner parked out back and shown in many photos with the white sedan was her vehicle. The bank security camera across the street shows the lights come on in the gallery and then ethe xplosion happening concurretly/immediately so it will be interesting to see what the authorities reveal as to the cause of the blast. We are all very sad at the loss of Tara Bowman…blessings to her family…

    • larkinvonalt says:

      Char, Just a note to let you know that I have deleted the inaccurate comment about her car, and removed the suppositions about Tara being in the gallery. I didn’t get into the bank camera stuff (used to have an account there . . . ) but what a heartbreaking image that must have been on the security tape. Thank you again.

  • Dorrie says:

    Tara’s father, Chester Reistad, was murdered in February, 2004…not 2003. I found this out by checking the archives of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

  • heidi says:

    i have photos of myself and friends standing in front of those buildings. chris bowman was my dear friend in college. my heart breaks for him and his family.

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