Big Sky … Thick Jungle … Zero Tolerance (and Diane Saves The Day)
The camera people are walking on cocaine. Six tons of it. Thousands of kilos of un-cut pure rock. The air is thick with clouds of the stuff as men with machetes are hacking the kilo packages open, scattering it, spraying and spilling the stuff everywhere in white clouds. It looks like Tony Montana's desktop, multiplied by many thousands. My shoes alone are caked with enough to keep an aging supermodel happy for weeks and the Director General of Panamanian security forces advises me to wash them carefully before flying home as the sniffer doggies at the airport are going to find me intriguing to say the least. I would also roundly fail a urine test he says. Just by standing here. In a few moments I will set all of it on fire. About this, I have mixed emotions, as an earlier version of myself would have found this …painful to watch.
A few days earlier, after four hours of hacking our way through jungle in the Darien Gap, two out of three cameras went down and out for the duration—victims of the unbelievable heat and humidity. Our small crew found ourselves standing there, stained blue with tribal markings, in a village without electricity, no means of communication, the only way of getting to anything resembling a town, a ride in a hollowed out piragua down a shallow, fast-moving river. It had taken us four hours to get up river from Sambu. And there'd been no cell signal their either. Problem.
Enter heroic segment producer Diane Schutz, who volunteered to float an hour down river to an even tinier and more remote village, machete her way an hour and a half uphill through some of the most impenetrable jungle in the world, to what was fabled to be a hilltop "hot spot." How this three bar situation in the middle of dense jungle was discovered, we had no idea—or even whether it actually existed. What was known for sure was that the jungle teemed with deadly fer-de-lance snakes, the dreaded "bushmaster," vampire bats, bugs carrying dengue fever, malaria and other things you definitely don't want to catch—and the occasional happy, heavily armed band of FARC guerillas, resting up in the Darien in between kidnappings and general banditry across the border in Colombia.
The Lonely Planet Guide, discussing what happens if you are lost on a trail in the Darien bluntly describes you as "a goner." But on a wing and a prayer, brave Diane ventured out into the wild, hoping to find the spot and call New York so that at least by the time we got back to Panama City, somebody would be on the way with replacement cameras. The outcome of this foolhardy mission was uncertain at best. The return, against the current, difficult. This after having just returned from humping a pack up and down mountains and across slimy log bridges for four hours. But off she went.
When I look back on my life and career from some sputum stained hospital bed or while waiting for them to pry me from the wreckage of a car …or in the final seconds of consciousness after I slump to the ground while waiting on line for my fruit cup at Century Village, I'll look back on the Montana show with no small amount of pride. I will smile and be proud that I had the honor, the privilege, the sheer joy of having Jim Harrison on NO RESERVATIONS. Jim is one of America's greatest authors, poets, screenwriters—a gourmand of legendary reputation and a personality so big it's barely contained by the landscape. I'll be grateful that a painting by the awesome Russell Chatham now hangs on my wall. That fishing guide, wilderness cook, jack-of-all trades Dan Lahren showed me around. And that I got to spend many happy hours drinking at one of the world's finest saloons, The Murray Bar.
Turns out they eat real well in Livingston, Montana, one of the world's truly great towns in one of its most beautiful places. Seems like everybody's got a freezer full of antelope liver. Livingston's 2nd Street Bistro serves a meal on a par with any great city—often with better ingredients—and you're just as likely to see a cowboy foraging for fresh morels as an ex-hippie in a pick-up with a gun rack.
When you see idiots on TV talking about the "real America," they're both talking about the Paradise Valley—and not understanding it at all. Livingston confounds any attempt to stereotype the West.