In the 1970s you didn’t use to see many new pickups in Trout Creek, and when you did you knew who it belonged to. Now you don’t see many old pickups and when you do you also know whose they are. So, times have changed, the parking lots in front of two of the bars and all of the stores are paved, and the single telephone booth that sat in the middle of a puddle in the middle of the mud parking area in front of the café is long gone and so is the café, as well as the puddle. You can’t stop change, and all those good people who moved to Trout Creek and wanted to make it attractive for tourists to visit have succeeded in “improving” Trout Creek except for one place which is where I go when I want to go back in time, a place I call “Mel’s Piles of Tires.”
Mel Nelson’s “office” was built when dirt was a lot younger and it was painted then, too. But not since. The plastic orange chair that Mel sat in wearing a greasy orange shirt that almost matched his uncombed reddish hair is still there. But now other family members sit there, heirs to the wit and general cantankerousness that was Mel. A Quonset hut was built behind the office when dirt had got a little more age on it and houses an impressive inventory of new tires. The hut is flanked with old tires, some reusable, most not, and there are tires behind the hut down to the river, but nothing like it used to be. In the 1980s I picked up a 1941 Dodge sedan that need wheels. The logical thing was to see if Mel had some. I asked, and there was a long pause before he said, “Yeah, I think I got four of them, but it’ll take me a week to find ‘em.” Which it did.
A trucker once pulled up with a flat tire and came into the office to announce he wanted it changed. “Can you fix it?” “Yeah, we can fix It,” says Mel who had put the Missoulian down to answer the question and then re-commenced his reading. “When?” asked the trucker.
“Tomorrow. Maybe day after.” “Why not now?” “Because I am busy.” “You ain’t doing nothing but reading a paper,” says the now very frustrated trucker, and at this point Mel loses what little patience he has left, lowers the paper and tells the guy, “What may appear to be not busy to some may be busy to others!” The trucker tells this story at Mel’s funeral.
For me it is a place of refuge. In the summer it is soothing to sit on broken chairs in the cool shade of the Quonset hut surrounded by tires and the smell of rubber. Sometimes I will bring a beer and drink it while I listen to (and yes, participate in) the rude and raunchy banter of whoever’s there.
And the Nelsons know how to get things done. One spring breakup which was particularly hard on the roads there were potholes in the paved streets a foot deep, and they just got deeper because they were never repaired by the County. Early one morning as I drove into town I found that it was necessary to weave around a new forest of evergreen trees that had sprung up overnight in the potholes. That evening, on my way back to the ranch the forest had been harvested and the potholes patched. It was a miracle, I thought, and I knew who had caused it even if all I got out of the Nelson boys was knowing smiles.
Mel is gone but his spirit is not, and often, late of a warm weekday afternoon I may put a cold beer or two in my battered 1977 F-250 which I drive because I don’t want people to think I’m a newcomer and go down to sit in the coolness of the Quonset hut with its smell of tires to relax and swap lies and reminisce. It gives me solace in a world of change.
Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.
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