I lost a friend in April, though it felt like two. And these two, dang it. In my early days in Montana, they personified everything beautiful and sometimes tragic about this place.
I met Mike La Salle in 1992, my first summer in Montana. I’d moved to Hamilton to cover sports at the local daily. Hamilton’s not a big place, so getting to know anyone isn’t so unusual, but Mike lived in Brussels, Belgium, at the time.
This meeting was more than chance. A month before, on my second night in Montana, I met Mike’s daughter, Jael, also a Brussels resident. Jael was in Hamilton for vacation. We met at a bar and I suppose we got to talking.
I spent my first week in Montana with Jael. I was young and fell hard for my beautiful Belgian beauty.
Then, by the end of the week, she was gone.
There was a lot of build-up in the month before Jael’s dad arrived in Hamilton for his own vacation. Jael and I had caused something of a stir for the La Salle clan. There was an expectation I’d meet her father, and that he wasn’t someone to be trifled with.
The Mike La Salle I was preparing to meet was intimidating. He was a Hamilton native, a Broncs football star and a town legend. His father, Connie, built the home grandstands at the old football field along the Bitterroot River.
After college in Missoula, Mike moved to Europe. He owned a couple of bars in Brussels, including Montana Mike’s Feed and Fuel.
Of course, he played and coached American football in the capital of Europe. There’s a YouTube video of Mike delivering a victory speech to his team, the Brussels Raiders, after a big win. His Knute Rockne moment is delivered in French, of course. That’s the kind of cred you need to name your Brussels bar “Montana Mike’s.”
I met Mike at the family cabin on Painted Rocks Reservoir. He was a bear of a man, solid as you’d expect from an old linebacker who grew up in the shadow of the Bitterroot Mountains. But he was also an astute, curious intellectual. And I envied the way he seized life, corralling its ephemeral nature into a sturdy, everyday spontaneity.
That night we talked for hours. Much of the conversation was about Jael, but more so it was just the two of us sussing one another out. Later, as we stood outside and I readied for the drive back to Hamilton, a pair of mule deer stotted across the road and up the steep hillside above the cabin.
“Look at that,” he said, with a lilt in his voice that made it seem he was seeing a deer for the first time.
As the deer bounded away I told Mike I’d fallen in love with his daughter. Though I’ve been in love a few times, he’s the only father I’ve told this to. I knew by his reaction, his acceptance, an appreciation of my frankness I think, that I’d settled anything lingering between us.
We remained friends long after and we had a few interesting adventures up at the Painted Rocks cabin in the following years. I’ll leave unwritten for now the details of the time I nearly perished on one of Mike’s ill-conceived adventures on the lake, one involving his ski boat and a canoe.
Just those words feel dangerous.
Jael and I never settled the ambiguity between us, however. We wrote letters for a time, which sounds almost Victorian now. But she wasn’t coming back to Montana and I wasn’t moving to Brussels. We eventually lost track.
Mike, however, returned to Hamilton, permanently. By then I’d started a family and moved away. Still, we’d run into one another, usually at the brew pub, when I was in town. Later Jael also returned to the U.S., though not Montana.
I learned on Facebook that Mike had died, and of course I was sad, but it’s the nature of things that people live and die. I knew Mike had done all the stuff in between with passion.
What shook me was learning in that same post that Jael had died a few years earlier.
She and I, we’d eventually tracked one another down on social media and were in contact, albeit infrequently. Not enough I now realized.
Still reeling from the news, I told my daughter, Zoe, about fate’s latest twist.
She asked if I’d allowed myself, in the moment, to consider the road not taken.
“Of course,” I told her. “But I’ve no regrets. She was the last before I met your mother.”
“On that road, there is no you.”
Which is the fate all parents face. There is no returning to the diversion and choosing a different path. Or maybe it’s just that the price of doing so is too high.
There’s another way, however, another path I should have taken. I never saw Jael again after my first week in Montana. In our occasional correspondence we considered it, but the complications of life and family made it seem impossible.
I’m not talking about rekindling an old flame. We were forever inconveniently married for that. But a visit, a cup of coffee maybe, or even lunch. A chance to remind ourselves we were in love once, if only for a week.
It was a week in Montana after all. There’s no better place to be in love.
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