Writing here now feels impolite, like interrupting someone else’s story.
When I left Montana in November of 2013, I had ambitions to write some grand and saccharine soliloquy to my time there. The metaphor would be as heavy as the weight I put upon the meaning of the time. I would further romance the mystique of living off-the-grid in the forests of the Northern Rockies and cement into my own life’s narrative the importance of the experience.
But the words never came.
Surely I was somehow still processing the magnitude of the experience, and that in a moment of clarity the meaning of it all would coalesce into an inspiring tale of a self found.
But the last entry in this already too-sweet blog was written on the edge of a proverbial cliff over two years ago. While it would be fashionable to wax poetic about my fading recognition of the man dangling his feet over that edge, the truth is that even at 31, he was no different than the same 14 year old boy that occupies this 33 year old body now. And he has no more, or less clarity about meaning than I possess today.
I have so many other things I want to write about than this, but Montana is in the way. I talk about it a lot, and think about it more. But I’ve no conclusions to share, or neat sentiment to tie a bow around.
All I have are memories, and photos. Clues.
I lived at the confluence of Big Creek and the North Fork river on the west side of Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana from May 27th, 2013 to November 3rd of that year. I kept journal entries when I felt like it. Sometimes I wrote daily, sometimes weekly, sometimes in the form of thematic essays shared with my Big Creek family on The Porch. But I made only one entry for the month of October. It’s embarrassing, vulnerable, honest (maybe), and also not very well written. But its a clue to an answer, the question to which I probably need to stop asking:
“I crack the lid on a flask of whiskey as soon as my tires leave pavement and send plumes of North Fork dust streaming behind me. Holding the flask between thumb and forefinger, I use the meat of my palm to up-shift and accelerate past 50 toward smoother washboards. With my head cocked to the side to keep an eye on the road, I take a nip then turn the radio up with the pinky on my flask-hand. I’ve fallen in love with radio-country music; it’s both my guilty pleasure and my license to spend more time thinking about words spoken to women I ought to have kissed, and words I ought to have spoken to women I’ll never kiss again. I raise my flask to the driver of a 1960’s grain truck with a bed full of logs as we pass each other in a chalky cloud. Shift. I’ve fallen in love with whiskey too.
The North Fork, a region named for the eponymous river that flows through the valley it creates, is a vestige of the Montana stereotype, and it is my home.
Over thirty years before the Yellowstone reintroduction in 1996, wolves were discovered in the North Fork valley by researchers; some biologists doubt they ever left. Called “The Magic Pack”, these ghost-wolves managed to escape direct observation by highly trained biologists for over 10 years and local ranchers for nearly 100 until they were confirmed visually in 1983. Paddling two miles up stream of my house will put you in the Camas Creek drainage of the valley, which lends its name to the descendants of that ethereal pack and marks the territorial boundary between what are now called the North and South Camas Packs. The drainage also boasts the highest concentration of grizzlies in the North Fork, which as a whole boasts the highest concentration of grizzlies anywhere in the lower 48 states. I’ve spent the last six months scanning every open meadow and bruin shaped stump on fire scarred hillsides in every direction for 20 miles, I’ve walked into a grizzly bed, followed ancient grizzly footsteps to their generations-old rub trees and stepped in piles of shit so fresh it stained my boots green. I’ve seen mule deer, elk, moose, pine marten, wolf and even black bear on these hunts, but no grizzlies.
Put simply, if you don’t want to be found, the North Fork will hide you. I have hidden here too.
I read a quote this spring that I’ve been digesting ever since: “May your real life one day be as awesome as it appears on Facebook.”
A clear jab at those who use the medium for image shaping. The phrase struck me as clever but cynical. We all project aspirations.
Over the last two years I’ve received many words of thanks for my photos and narratives that, to some, have offered an enjoyable window into what is possible if one takes the right risks. Or in my case, follows their compulsions. I can only assume there are as many words un-shared about my apparent self absorption. Both characterizations are probably correct.
But, I’ve spent almost as much time second guessing my decisions as I have spent sharing their outcomes. And, I’ve stayed home to watch a movie on my laptop, charged by the sun, as often as I’ve hopped in the back of a dusty pickup bound for the Northern Lights Saloon. I’ve spent a lot of time sharing once-in-a lifetime experiences with truly inspirational people that I’ve had the privilege of working with; but I’ve also spent a lot of time hiding.
I have hidden behind the swing of a maul and the stacks of split fir, or larch, that follow. I have hidden behind the thick insulated-walls of my home in the 1920’s era Meat House. The original function of which is poetic when contemplating the meaning of one’s own humanity.
I have hidden alone in canyons, wading and swimming up-stream to nearly inaccessible rapids. I have hidden beneath the dry-deck of my kayak as I slip silently and alone into swift waters, with only the voices of snow melt calling my name. I have hidden in the duff beneath cedars older than everything but the rocks they grow from. And I have hidden behind pretty pictures on the internet; with positivity and an aspirational smile, just like everyone else.
I’ve written a little about sacrifice since I began this journey in 2011. I’ve written about sacrificing time with those close to me in order to achieve my goals, and I’ve written, perhaps subtly, about the duty that I’ve felt to achieve, and achieve, and achieve, so as to honor best the sacrifices that others have made for my benefit. I’ve also shared so much of my appreciation and gratitude for the things I’ve been able to experience, and the people I’ve been able to meet throughout my adventures and my work.
But my prose have failed to mention how I made it as far as Marblehead, IL before breaking down into tears on the side of the road the day I left Quincy. Or how Food Stamps and the Missoula Food Bank saved me from calling home for money during my two years living there. I’ve been silent about the crater left in my chest from the impact of too many tearful goodbyes shared with someone I grew to love more through our attempts to bridge the distance. Or how I struggled with the ambiguity of our distance, understanding, and new attractions in a mountain town. Particularly absent from the public record is a single line about her last goodbye.
When it was over, she shared the following entry in her journal with me: “I just want him to screw up; he’s so perfect, I just want him to be human.” Words that have since proved resilient to every swing of the maul; they refuse to splinter.
Consider this entry a glimpse of fragility a satisfaction of that request.
Because for every river run, mountain climbed, photo captured, or career goal achieved, there were just as many affections withheld, words left unspoken and flirtations offered indiscreetly.
So she was wrong of course. No one is perfect; I’ve screwed up plenty. And in the story I tell myself, I’ve let those failures and frailties define me more than they should. But it is a story that I do not often tell others. I should.
Though I aspire to not let those frailties be the only things that define me. Gratitude also defines me. Love defines me. Sharing defines me. Laughter defines me. And how I choose to cope, deflect, ignore, wallow, sublimate or overcome defines me.
So I’ll keep sharing photos I like of places that inspire me and leave me in awe; I’ll keep trying, and failing, to be the best me I can be for those I love; and I’ll keep my words positive more often than not. Not because unbridled positivity alone defines me, but because some days I want it to, and other days I know it never can. Success lies in trying.
My life is already as awesome as it appears on Facebook. But it’s also just as complex offline as everyone else’s. A life is no less captions beneath photos than it is whispers beneath kissses, but the latter is much more interesting. And vulnerability begets them both.”
– Written October 2013 in a Small Cabin in the Mountains of Montana, where cold and colder waters meet.