I have a theory that the state of Montana is enormous for a reason. That its vastness is a test, each highway a reticulated part of a puzzle. You have to work hard to get there. Whether it’s 15 North, winding from the lunar hills of Monida Pass across to wind-scraped Great Falls, Interstate 90 from hip Bozeman to rimrocked Billings, or the hi-line from Cut Bank to Wolf Point, where blizzards seem to blow up out of the road itself, travelling through Montana is a test of your patience and of your character. After all, what else can you expect from a place famous for the size of its sky?
It is easy to be swallowed up in all that space. Easier still to pretend that you’ve tamed it by driving Going-to-the-Sun road or having your picture taken next to the Missoula airport’s stuffed grizzly. In order to really understand Montana, you’ve got to adjust yourself to the rhythms of the rivers, the snow. The golden flicker of aspen leaves. If you let it, Montana can shape you. As Annick Smith, smitten with the Bear Creek Valley near the Big Blackfoot River, once wrote: “If I lived here, who would I be?” It can make you – better yet, show you how to make yourself – carving the promise of you out of millennial rock, like the pipe organ formations that hang over the highway south of Dillon, the whole land worthy of worship. You can’t rush through Montana, however much you might want to – though, truthfully, I’ve never wanted to – and if you’re not open to it, you won’t be affected by it. It’ll be just a blur outside your cold glass window.
Recently I overheard two friends talking about how bored they were driving through Montana. Their conversation was peppered with Unabomber jokes, and they insisted on calling the gritty city of Butte – a place where the hills were leached for copper, a place with its own pit, for chrissakes – “Butt.” Ha, ha. I refrained from telling them the whole of Butte, with its jagged edges of ice in winter, everything metal cracking at -20 degrees, could probably kick their collective asses. They didn’t mean anything by it, of course. Montana wasn’t their place. Maybe their place was Texas or Florida, or even Hawaii, which has always seemed to me like a land of perishables – fragile flowers, endangered cultures, and a bunch of slovenly tourists who sprawl on the beaches, their hearts and minds elsewhere.
Do people still have places anymore? That’s what worries me. Does anyone consider it worthwhile to relocate because they love a place? Nowadays, people move for jobs, for houses, for the low price of gas. Tell someone you’re moving to a place you love just for its placeness, and they look at you like you’re nuts. (Much less a place like Montana, plagued by meth, a scarcity of jobs, and unremitting low incomes.) Tell someone that and they think you’re a fool, a romantic. And maybe it’s true; it’s just a silly romance. No maybe about it. I’m in the midst of a love affair with the state of Montana.
I blame Rick Bass. My evidence for indictment is Winter: Notes from Montana, his glorious account of a frozen winter in the Yaak valley. I read it when I was 22, about to start grad school, and then I convinced my mother to accompany me to Missoula. We rented a car and drove through western Montana, from the Bison Range in Moiese up into Glacier, stayed in little hotels shaped like teepees with photographs of grizzlies on the wall, and when we weren’t seeing our first bighorn sheep or navigating the snow-packed, cliffside dirt roads around Lolo and Libby, I was reading about Rick and the Yaak, reading enough to know that two weeks in hotels, however quaint, wasn’t going to cut it. I had to live in Montana. I wanted to be, again quoting Annick Smith, “that woman chopping her wood.”
Two years later, MFA in hand, my boyfriend and I packed an aging Ford Taurus before sunrise, loaded up our year old lab mix, mosquitoes taking shots at all of us, and drove from South Carolina across the country to Dillon, Montana. Our foolishness astounds me now; we had no jobs, knew no one. We’d only ever driven through Dillon once, for about fifteen minutes – that’s about all the time it takes to drive through Dillon – on the way back from Yellowstone. From Butte, we came down 41, from Twin Bridges, called “Twin” by everyone as we’d later learn, through pastures with distant mountains jutting up in the background, their peaks dusted ominously with snow. It was August. The drive was blazing hot at first, and we let our dog splash around in the Beaverhead River to cool herself off. She had never been in a river before that day, but since then, she has been in almost all the major rivers in the country. That’s another thing about Montana – it shapes dogs too.
We lived in a half-brick duplex on a dead-end street, with the Blacktail Creek flowing nearby, a rickety foot bridge leading into town. In the spring, we’d stand on the bridge and wait for the season’s first ducklings to float under, gently swept along by the Blacktail. Sometimes in summer, walking our dog, I’d spook a Great Blue Heron, either walking the handrail of the bridge, lifting its feet like a can-can dancer, or standing on pencil thin legs in the creek below. Flapping tremendous blue wings, it seemed like something between a dinosaur and an angel. In the winter, we walked down to the bridge at night, when the snow muted everything, our footsteps, our breathing, and we’d stand on the old nails and joints and eat snow off the rail, chomping our frozen lips into four inches of fluffy snow limning each plank of wood.
For four years, we lived in Montana, and it lived in us. If I’m being romantic describing it that way, I apologize, but only in the way that two lovers apologize for getting caught kissing in a grocery store aisle, by which I mean to say, I’m not really sorry at all. We grew up there, grew into each other, married each other and then married the land. There are parts of us there even now, long after we moved away. Once upon a time, we climbed mountains and wrote love letters and set them free in the frozen wind; the scraps of paper got caught in cattle fences where, I believe, they will stay forever. Our dog chased rabbits for four years, carving tracks into the Beaverhead Mountains, the Pioneers, kicking up wild iris at Lemhi Pass, and she came to know who she was, even if she never caught a single rabbit. We watched a porcupine by moonlight on an ice covered mountain, turning over and over a piece of bark in his claws. We were, as I said, in this world, and it in us.
We no longer live in Montana. That is an illness that plagues us. Norman Maclean wrote about being haunted by Montana’s waters, and I don’t think he was being romantic in the slightest. I understand how he felt. That yearning for a place that becomes a part of you. Of course Montanans, native ones anyway, would probably laugh at such thoughts. One thing we learned was, no matter how long one lives in Montana – four years or forty – if you weren’t born there, you’ll never be considered a Montanan. You can’t fake it. You were born of the long, bitter winters and short, blazing summers, or you weren’t. It’s pretty simple that way. They’ll be nice to transplants – indeed, some of the kindest people we’ve ever known are native Montanans – but you’ll never really be one of them.
True Montanans are practical people. They build their pipes so that they don’t burst in -40 degree weather, and they shoot gophers to keep their horses from falling into their holes and breaking their legs. Real Montanans work two and three jobs, are good at everything, and still roll under barbwire fences when they are 80. They have no patience for movie stars who spend easy summers on their land, nor do they suffer poets, unless you are a poet who also knows your way around a fly rod. In the four years we lived in Montana, someone must have squinted at us half a dozen times and asked “Why the hell would you want to move here?” Sometimes it seemed like no one wanted to be in Montana at all; other times it seemed like the whole state consisted of a private club of ranchers, a league of men who knew a secret they could not or would not share with you. Somewhere in all those acres of pastureland was a password passed down from grandfather to grandson, some word we’d never know. That’s okay, I always thought. If I lived here, I’d be proprietary about it too.
In the years since we’ve been gone, I have always tried to say that one place is as good as any. I do believe that, in some sense. I’ve always found beauty in the places we’ve lived. But then, if I’m honest, really truly honest, I have to admit that, for me, there is no better place than Montana. It’s okay if you don’t see it that way, if you like Michigan or Vermont or Iowa. Those are all nice places too.
I know that Montana is not finished with me, nor I with it. It’s a long, slow process, the carving, the creating. Perhaps it won’t be over until I’m an old, white-haired lady with a stooped, white-haired husband, surrounded by dogs, making our way along the Big Hole River, finding all the familiar trails and re-learning them, committing them to muscle memory.
We go back sometimes and walk into the woods, and it all feels fresh again. The song of the black capped chickadee, the magpie, the summer grasshoppers on the dry, yellow grass. We drive into the smell of sagebrush, and our dog becomes alert again, even though her muzzle is not the muzzle of the Montana puppy she once was, but is now speckled with white fur. Her legs tense, as if she is remembering it all, the four years, the mountains, the sky, all at once. And when we start walking, the sage rubs against our legs, marking us, claiming us, and it seems if we listen hard enough, we might, at long last, hear the word.