Until It’s Too Dark to Read

A transient life in Missoula

Story by Neil LaRubbio

Ray Brummel, a migratory resident of Missoula’s Hellgate Canyon, has biked all over the United States, working seasonal jobs and living, often, in the lowliest of places. (Photo by Neil LaRubbio)

Breakfast starts with cowboy coffee outside Ray Brummel’s tent when the black sky sheds its first shade of blue. Atop his single-burner stove, coffee grounds churn through a tide of brown water. Just as the brackish foam on top starts to dissipate, Brummel pulls the pot from the burner, hits the surface with a drop of cold water and covers it with a lid.

Within moments, the grounds settle to the bottom, and Brummel serves himself another mug of steaming coffee in the dark woods of Missoula’s Hellgate Canyon.

“Lately, I get up with the sun and go to bed with the sun,” he said. “I’ve gotten in the habit of frying bacon and making a cheese omelet.”

At 57, Brummel lives in a diverse community of homeless people scattered in the cliffs of Hellgate Canyon. Kim Williams Trail cuts a gravelly walkway between the canyon walls and the Clark Fork River where joggers and cyclists exercise and pedestrians walk their dogs. A couple of sagging tents dot the trail like wet trash bags of lawn clippings. An ordinance outlaws camping within the city limits, but most officials hold the transient residents of Hellgate no grudge.

“It’s a delicate balance,” said Donna Gaukler, director of the department of Parks and Recreation for the City of Missoula with jurisdiction over the canyon trail. Unless a camp’s conditions turn dangerous, unsafe or show obvious entrenchment, the city simply monitors the situation, she said.

“Everybody has rights whether they’re homeless or well-off.”

Missoula is like a mini-Mecca on the wanderer’s beat. Lenient cops and generous social programs provide an amicable street life. A 2008 “Point In Time Homeless Survey” showed that 1089 “literal homeless” lived in Missoula over the course of a year, the largest homeless population in Montana. Mel Mason of the Western Montana Mental Health Clinic said that 25 percent of homeless were mentally ill or abusing substances. But although insanity commonly stereotypes the homeless, most arrive on the streets due to deep loss, divorce or severe financial changes.

“I think sometimes people think that living homeless is so foreign that they have to be mentally ill to live like that, and that’s not necessarily true,” Mason said.

The prejudice doesn’t apply to Ray Brummel. He does not classify himself as “homeless.”

“What do you want to call it, then?” I asked him.

“Free! Free of any kind of responsibility because I don’t have to be responsible but to me. I’ve just been really footloose my whole life,” he said.

In 1966, at the age of 13, Brummel ran away from home with an 11-year-old friend. They rode trains and hitchhiked until cops caught up with them in a small town a thousand miles away from their San Fernando Valley neighborhood.

“Ever since, I think I’ve had that wanderlust. I still do. It’s not as fun as it used to be, but it’s still pretty fun,” he said.

Brummel has worked an eclectic list of jobs, towing his belongings on a BOB trailer attached to his father’s old bicycle and camping wherever he can hide for the night.

“I’ve picked fruit. I’ve cut shake bolts. I fought fires. I butchered salmon. I’ve been on processing boats. I worked in canneries in Alaska. I have a degree in refrigeration technology. Been a welder in the shipyards. Used to build boxcars and flatcars for trains.”

Then, things changed. America changed. Brummel remembers a new paranoia crept in. Heavily armed security forces started surveying the trains with heat sensory equipment after 9/11, and a new scourge of gang violence endangered the vagabonds’ pacifist life. But Brummel says the most drastic change has come from the recent economic collapse and what he sees as America’s drying wells of labor.

“I’ve never had any trouble at all finding seasonal farm work or anything,” he said. “There’s been a lot of changes in my life, but being idle and being broke is the worse one. It’s not a change for the good.”

The National Coalition for the Homeless identified two common themes of homelessness. Its 2009 fact sheet states that a lack of affordable rentals and an increase in poverty is responsible for the rise in numbers over the past 20 to 25 years.

Living without stable shelter carries weight. Hellgate Canyon’s environment stiffens with cold nights. Roaring winds bombard the cliffs from the east and west. Wild animals seldom are a threat to humans, but their presence makes some people uneasy. Brummel told a story of how he acquired his tent one morning in Hellgate:

“I was walking along the Kim Williams trail and this guy was up on the trail in the morning just shivering,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Hey what’s wrong?’”

“You know, I’m from Orange County, California,” the frightened man said. “I’m not used to camping out. You want a tent?”

“I know why you’re afraid,” Brummel said. “That was only a fox, man, it won’t hurt you.”

The frightened man was not convinced and Brummel now sleeps in his tent.

Night falls, and with his stomach full from a one-pot meal, Brummel slides into his sleeping bag. A thin camping mattress beneath him blocks the ground air from chilling his core. Until it’s too dark, he reads and watches from his tent for the more dangerous drunks and druggies should they stammer up the trail. The past few mornings, someone has strewn cans of beer along the trail like a drunken Johnny Appleseed.

“Missoula in particular used to have the hobo-type come here. They were workers,” Brummel said. “Now, some of these guys are dangerous. I wouldn’t want to be in a dark alley with them. They’re getting drunk. It’s just a different breed. I feel like I’ve gone through the golden age of America. I’m just glad I lived when I lived in this country.”

Lying on his back, Brummel listens to a small transistor radio. The trees of the canyon roar with a menacing eastern wind in their boughs. Some nights Brummel listens to NPR, but tonight, he is up late listening to “Savage Nation.”

“I like to get a wide range of people’s opinions because that’s, I think, important for a healthy mind. I try to glean the truth out of whatever I can,” said Brummel.

There he rests in the delicate balance of Hellgate Canyon. A sane man in a not-so-sane world.

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