By Rob Brunet
Each summer, more people visit Glacier National Park in northwest Montana than live in the entire state. They come for the wild, and if Christine Carbo’s debut THE WILD INSIDE is any indication, they get what they came for. Rugged mountains, pristine lakes, adventure tourism, and wildlife. Lots of wildlife.
Not every visitor is looking for a grizzly to photo bomb their mountain shot, but nature in the raw is what it’s about. And keeping nature wild while packaging it for the tourism industry is a tricky business. There’s winners and losers and people who fall between the cracks, like anywhere else.
Carbo moved to Montana from Florida as she became a teenager. She traveled away from the state for school and work before being drawn back to its rural beauty. Life’s rhythms are different with constant access to nature and it shows in both her writing and how she describes life there.
She took the time to give The Big Thrill in depth answers about her love for what her part of the world has to offer, the challenges that exist there, and some of the inspiration for THE WILD INSIDE.
For city dwellers, a peek inside a national park can seem idyllic. Carbo looks behind postcard perfection to where human stories are told. Sure, there’s wildlife in the woods. But sometimes, it’s hard to figure out who the real animals are.
You spend a lot of time in nature and your novel takes a look at its dark side. When you’re out in the wild, how often do you feel the threat behind the trees?
Northwest Montana’s nature can be quite imposing—not so much because it feels like a daily threat, but because its presence has a strong pull. Depending on which city or town you live in, it is not uncommon to see elk, moose, coyote, bear, fox, and other wildlife just two minutes from town. Or, you can be running an errand, your mind on all the things you need to get done and skip a breath because the evening light hitting the fields and surrounding mountains is so stunning. It tugs at us. And it’s nice to be consistently reminded of it—to be yanked away from the daily routine of work and errands to stop short because the scenery competes for our attention or because a herd of elk passes through the back yard. But we get used to it, so it doesn’t feel like a threat, yet there is a respect we have for the wild. Most of us consider risk-management in some way, not unlike those who live and play near the ocean and are careful about the tides and certain marine life. I carry capsaicin bear spray often, depending on where I choose to walk the dog or to go hiking, and sometimes just taking the trash out in the early morning before it gets light makes you wonder what lurks in the trees beside the house. Neighbors frequently lose their cats to anything from owls, eagles, or mountain lions; and pet dogs are sometimes taken by lions and even wolves every so often. A friend of mine ended up with a bear on her deck not too long ago. When I walk the dog and see mountain lion or bear tracks on the trail or a pile of bear scat, it definitely carries some weight, some wonder. It reminds me of our mortality and that the untamed parts of our world do present a certain system that many of us—safe in our cities, homes and cars—have been able to disconnect from to a degree. This wonder helps fuel my writing, and I wanted the main character in THE WILD INSIDE (given the history of losing his father to a grizzly attack while camping there when he was young), to see Glacier and its arresting nature as an antagonist to a degree and to struggle with the more savage parts of it.
Montana evokes a feeling of remoteness. How well does that persist into the 21st century and how do you reveal that to your readers?
It’s a mixed bag where I live. I don’t live far from town—maybe a four-minute drive—and I can easily walk the dog right from my house onto paths where I will rarely see another person and will definitely encounter signs of wildlife, come across gorgeous streams, and view age-old cedars and pines that smell like paradise. I can also see the less attractive side not very far from home—great swaths of forest clear-cut for timber or destroyed by drought and beetle bug; construction going on—so many new houses going up around Whitefish Lake that it’s beginning to look like a lake in a populated area in California rather than in Montana. But even with all the development in my hometown, the state is still near or a little over a population of one million and is the fourth largest state in terms of land mass. As for revealing the remoteness to readers, I often write what I’ve seen, felt, and observed to complete a scene. I hope it comes across to the reader in a way that makes them feel they are in it, whether it’s remote wilderness, a trendy mountain town or a trailer park.
How easy is it for an “outsider” to access the real Montana, apart from the National Park version?
As soon as you get off the plane, you can sense a wildness and a ruggedness. Many cars on the road tend to be SUVs and trucks rather than economy vehicles; towns are not adjacent to each other and are separated by farmland, fields, and ranches. Tourists don’t necessarily have to go to state or national parks like Glacier or Yellowstone to access the wild. There are endless opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, climbing, fishing, skiing… all not far from most Montana towns or cities. Visitors may have to ask around a bit, but Montanans are generally very friendly and helpful. Not to sound like a chamber ad, but Montana has a way of getting to people. As Steinbeck, an “outsider,” wrote in Travels with Charley, “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
It’s easy for city people to look at pictures of a beautiful environment and assume the people who get to live there full time are all tree-hugging tea drinkers. You’ve written a book that exposes a dark side. Is there a bubble to burst?
If that’s the public’s perception, then yes, there is a bit of a bubble to burst. Montanans are a hardy group of people who have many conflicting interests about mining, drilling for gas and oil, trapping, hunting…. the list goes on. Many outdoor enthusiasts are interested in conservation, not so much to preserve wildlife in its purist state, but to preserve hunting, fishing and the natural beauty of the area so that tourists continue to visit and fuel an often struggling economy. I recently read that Montana ranked 49th in the U.S.—just above Mississippi—for wages. We have striking contrasts, with 10,000 square-foot vacation homes being built on hillsides near trendy mountain towns, while just down the road trailer parks and small communities face economic failure and are sometimes plagued by drugs. These conflicts also fuel interesting stories.
How do those conflicts show up in THE WILD INSIDE?
In THE WILD INSIDE, some of the conflicts revolve around characters in communities that lie just outside Glacier National Park. Glacier draws over a million people (more than Montana’s population) each summer and most of these visitors drive through a canyon where the Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River cut through. The towns in this canyon rely on these tourists for a short-lived season, but they are also poverty stricken places with few job opportunities. Heavy drinking and drug use, especially meth, are problems. In my main character’s investigation, he faces the life-styles the locals face as well as the kinds of conflicts that arise in Glacier Park, both intra-agency issues as well as ones that arise from trying to manage nature in order to keep it wild, yet accessible to millions of tourists.
For your characters, how do the tensions in the wild stack up against the human ones?
For Ted Systead, an investigator from the Department of the Interior, who gets called to Glacier to investigate a crime where a man is found dead and bound to a tree, the tensions presented by the wild stack up in his mind much more intensely and ominously. Glacier is the last place Ted wants to work because when he was fourteen, he witnessed his father get mauled and killed by a grizzly while camping there one night. In many ways, the dynamics of being in Glacier, among its wild elements, proves to be much more haunting than some of the disturbing, ruthless, but common human crimes in the local towns outside the park.
In the middle of the bush, would you rather have a run-in with a bear or a human who’s wild inside?
Although it’s the wild that haunts Ted, an investigator already used to human crime, for me, it would be a tough call, but I believe I’d rather run into a bear than a crazy, unstable and ill-intentioned human while alone in the woods. Although there are incidents gone awry with grizzlies because you surprise them and they need to protect their cubs or themselves, for the most part, they are predictable. Bears want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them, and if they catch your scent, they will run the other way almost always. But humans don’t always run the other way, and humans in Montana, in the woods, often carry guns. And of course, most of the time, these humans are normal, stable people who smile and say hi as they pass. But, if that human truly has “the wild inside,” or other ill intentions, then that can be very frightening. I have been actually shot at in the woods while walking with a friend one time. We came across a man who looked to be crazed and probably on drugs. He was carrying a gun and about twenty minutes later, the barking of my friend’s dog ticked him off and bullets came flying our way, zinging past us. Now, don’t’ get me wrong: this is NOT likely to happen to people while walking in the woods in Montana. But, if you’re asking about the actual looney person versus a normal bear, yeah, I’d rather take my chances with a canister of bear spray and a bear than with an ill-intentioned or crazed person. And don’t get me started on the number of serial killers in the Northwest!
I just completed the second book, also featuring Glacier National Park. However, Ted Systead from the Department of the Interior is no longer the protagonist because I felt the arc of his story was complete, at least for the time being. Instead, calm and methodical Monty, Ted’s assisting Park Police Officer in THE WILD INSIDE, will lead an investigation in the stunning Glacier Park during the summer months when it is in full swing. In some ways, readers will feel like it is a series, since Glacier—practically its own character—continues on, even though both novels can stand alone.
Thank you for interviewing me, Rob. Your questions were great! In fact, I’ll ask you back: would you rather have a run-in with a bear or someone “who’s wild inside?”
I’ll take your advice and opt for the bear—provided, of course, I have a capsaicin-toting resident Montanan riding shotgun.
Christine Carbo grew up in Gainesville, Florida, until she moved to Kalispell, Montana, when she was twelve. After earning a pilot’s license, pursuing various adventures in Norway, and a brief stint as a flight attendant, she got an MA in English and Linguistics and taught writing, linguistics, and literature courses at a community college. She still teaches, in a vastly different realm, as the owner of a Pilates studio. She and her husband live in Whitefish, Montana, with their three kids, one incredibly silly dog, and one very self-possessed cat.
To learn more about Christine, please visit her website.