A Piece of Long-form Investigative Journalism
February 11, 2018
As Ethel pours me another beer from behind the bar, I can’t help but marvel at the atmosphere in here. Although indoor smoking became illegal in Montana back in 2005, the air in here has managed to maintain a nicotine haze that isn’t physical, so much as spiritual. I’m sitting on a stool at the Wilderness Bar in Lincoln, MT. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because back in 1996, a swarm of FBI agents descended on the town, and came back out dragging the Unabomber.
As Ethel finishes pouring me a beer, I ask her a question: “Have you ever heard of a band called ‘Backwoods Dreamers?’” From the look she gives me, it’s a stupid question, but she’s willing to oblige me.
“‘Course I’ve heard of them. They used to play here. Pretty sure they were called the ‘Backwards Dreamers’ though. Least that’s what we put on the sign.”
I pause. This is a bit of information that could crack this case wide open. “Were they any good?”
Ethel pauses too, an exasperated look on her face.
I’m in Lincoln, talking to Ethel, because I’m trying to work out what happened on a cold November night back in 2013. On that night, a series of events transpired that would result in two people, who were just casual aquaintences at the time, standing in the shadow of the Elkhorn Mountains, 5 years later, committing to spend the rest of their lives together. These two people are, of course, Kluane Weibel and Paul Gorsuch.
Although these future lovers (as in, two people who will one day become lovers, not two people who really like the future) had been running in the same circles throughout college, sources say the first time Paul really noticed was Kluane was in May, 2013 at a bluegrass concert at the Filling Station (as with any love story, dive bars feature prominently in this one) in Bozeman, Montana. The same sources speculate he said something to himself, along the lines of “Wow! That girl is both cute, and really likes bluegrass music! I should go talk to her!”
After my enlightening conversation with Ethel, I canvas Lincoln trying to dig more information out of mum, back-woods people about the obscure Backwoods Dreamers. Ultimately, I piece together the following story: The Backwoods Dreamers were a Bozeman-based bluegrass-ish band that played in Lincoln five times, including their last-ever farewell show in June 2015. (Subsequent reports confirm they have played at least six shows since then).
On the November night in question they were indeed playing a gig at the Wilderness Bar. The gig went progressed according to the time-tested Backwoods Dreamers formula: with a promising a first set, a second set characterized by malfunctioning sound equipment and a sort of droning screech, and a third set played to a suddenly empty bar, filled only with long-suffering friends they had imported from Bozeman. The finished the first portion of the night as may Lincoln locals do: at the bar, taking shots with Ethel.
Back in Bozeman, five months earlier, Kluane had also noticed Paul. No one is quite sure how his mixture of bad jokes, q-tip-like physique, and ever-changing facial hair captured her eye, but they all agree it did. After an open-mic night at the Haufbrau (yes, another dive bar), she attempted to begin a conversation with him by broaching the topic of a study-abroad program in Morocco, which he had just completed, and she was about to embark upon.
Friends say she was impressed by the enthusiasm in his answer (“Oh my gosh, you’re going to love it so much!”), but less-so by his prompt exit immediately after answering her question.
As I sift through the detritus on the forest floor, a bright pop of color catches my eye. Upon further investigation, it reveals itself to be a frisbee golf disc, one of many that I’ve discovered in this patch of forest. This patch of forest, as it turns out, is where the Bozeman gang after leaving the Wilderness Bar. In addition to the tall pines, lost discs, and burbling brook, the property also contains a small cabin and a large double-wide trailer.
If it hasn’t become clear at this point in the story, Paul was indeed a member of the band (the banjo player, to be precise), and Kluane was a ray of sunshine, who chose to spend the small amount of time not devoted to studying architecture dancing with her friends. Upon arrival at the property, the friends ran around in the woods, dared each other to jump in the creek (everyone did, eventually), and finally, warmed up with music and bad dance moves in the trailer’s living room.
Come morning, the friends awoke, rubbed the sleep from their eyes, and piled into cars to drive back to Bozeman. Upon returning, friends say Paul was surprised to find he had received a text. This was unexpected not only because Paul had only begun texting a few months ago (yes, this story does take place in 2013), and not only because the text was from the pretty girl named Kluane that Paul had a crush on, but because the text appeared to refer to an event which Paul had no memory of.
Although the slider phone which contained the text has long since been relegated to the garbage pile of history, intrepid investigation on the part of this fictional investigative journalist reveals the text to have said something along the lines of “Hi Paul. I hope I didn’t make you feel awkward last night, but I really didn’t know what to say. Maybe we should get together and talk about it.”
After returning from her time abroad in Morocco, Kluane dropped numerous hints of they type often employed by women, to let Paul know that she was interested in him, and would accept an invitation to dinner, or drinks, or a movie, or anything, really. Paul, in a truly astounding display of neural fortitude, appears to have missed all of them. Kluane’s efforts to engage Paul in even rudimentary conversation, appear to have culminated in October, on the dance floor of a swing-dance bar called Mixer’s. After asking Paul to join her for a dance, and trying several traditional conversation starters, and growing increasingly exasperated, she asked the final question she hadn’t yet: “So… you sew backpacks? How’s that?”
Bystanders on that night can’t agree on exactly what was going through Paul’s head. Perhaps, like a feral cat suddenly and unexpectedly presented with a bowl of warm milk, he felt he was living in a dream land where everything was too good to be true. Perhaps he was painfully conscious of a fresh set of stitches in his palm, procured during a recent bike-crash, and he was worried they would suddenly pop open and ooze pus onto the pretty girl dancing with him. Or maybe, still being a newcomer to the sport of dancing, his internal monologue had been reduced to a simple counting of steps to the beat (“1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2….”). Whatever the case, he ignored the obvious conclusion that Kluane had not asked him to dance because of her deep and abiding interest in backpacks, and simply responded with “Pretty good, I guess.”
Had Kluane’s hand not been intertwined with Paul’s freshly stitched one, we can safely assume that she would have used it to perform the time-honored and universal gesture for exasperation, the face-palm.
Sources close to Paul inform me that he was completely baffled by the unexpected text message, and spent Sunday asking fellow cabin-goers what exactly he had said to Kluane the previous night. No answers were forthcoming, and his career sewing backpacks almost certainly gave him plenty of time to ruminate on all the possible ways in which he had torpedoed his friendship, and, potentially, relationship, with Kluane.
Finally, at the end of the week, the pair managed to line up a gap in their schedules to go for a walk and a chat. After half a mile or so of small talk (incidentally, Kluane’s most successful small talk yet) both parties stopped, looked at each other and began.
In this instant, which records confirm was, indeed, an instant, and not the two hours perceived by Paul, he mentally rehearsed two-hundred and fifty-three scenarios, most of which ended with him dropping to his knees and begging for forgiveness. Fortunately, before he could enact any of them, or finish his sentence, Kluane finished hers.
“Sooooo…. I think you’re a pretty cool guy, and we should try to hang out sometime.” Paul, experiencing astonishment, elation, and confusion simultaneously, uttered four words split across two sentences, which historians tend to agree was very first instance in which his verbal brevity actually served him well.
“Yes! I’d like that.”
Editor’s Note: Readers may feel cheated to have not learned what, exactly, Paul said to Kluane on that fateful night in Lincoln. In the interest of the couple’s privacy we will not report it here, but we will inform you that subsequent reportage has discovered it to be adorable, innocent, and unquestionably the worst and most awkward thing to say to an acquaintance you are trying to woo.