Combing through the three draft posts that have accumulated in my WordPress dashboard over the last year is a lot like viewing the stomach contents of a trout. Dulled is the fly fisherman’s coveted iridescence on gossamer wings. Nothing real looks good half digested.
I can still decipher the essence of my intent, but the metaphors seem tenuous at best. I really should start including tasting notes with my blogs: best consumed with a scotch ale and a sleep deficit.
In my last annual report a year ago I made some predictions about the year to come. Whether you call them tongue -in-cheek or lip-and-chop depends upon how much emphasis you thought I put on the emergence of facial hair trends.
Regardless of how clever I thought I was, there were a lot of things that one-year-ago me didn’t anticipate. That guy certainly didn’t predict a year-long drought in putting digital ink to virtual paper. And I’ll be damned if he had even a splinter in the brain to the notion that his next year in Montana would be his last…and end just as this love affair started, on a river in country that is less a place than an archetype of the indefinable.
John Steinbeck once wrote, “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 …”
Reticence to trample the words of Steinbeck provides a credible excuse for me to abbreviate my own rumination on the relationship I’ve cultivated with this landscape. I possess not the literary acumen to avoid the awkwardness of the trite prose I’m compelled to pen; lest they dwell on tears descending to the pacific as their Atlantic bound source sojourns on.
On a side note, I’m probably going to punch myself squarely in the pretentiousness when I re-read this in the morning.
The point is, my connection to this place extends far beyond an alignment of my aesthetics with the landscape. The eponymous mountains of this state aren’t the only snow-capped beauties I’ve seen in my life. Yet none of the other thirteen ranges I’ve explored in half-again as many states offer the sense of place I’ve experienced little further than my front door in Missoula. A short walk through my neighborhood affords me a view from the top of Mount Jumbo onto a city that is as comfortable with its quirky, independent and inclusive identity as I am.
To venture into Montana’s backcountry only serves to solidify that which I feel on the streets in Missoula. I’ve explored 7 or 8 of the ranges here, but there are over 100 big enough to carry names…all of them are big enough to kick my ass. That is an indelible part of the ethos here; it takes work. Sometimes it even takes work coming down.
“Earning it” isn’t unique to Montana however; I’ve written about it before. Yet in most places I’ve lived, the line of authenticity separating daily life from a crafted adventure is an obvious one. Here, perhaps only woven into the context of my expectations, is a sense that the quiver of skills one carries is necessary to navigating this landscape; not a luxury. This isn’t strictly fact of course, Missoula is a city after all. But perceptions are important, and the fact that skiing to work or towing a baby stroller behind your bicycle during hunting season isn’t considered by most to be odd demonstrates a sense of place that embraces “adventure” as a part of life.
As Thomas McGuane put it, “Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.”
I’ll miss that.
Graduation is scheduled for May 18th and is just as much the marker of a task completed as it is a starter’s pistol. My days in Montana are numbered, approximately 235 in fact. In December, I’ll be driving back to the Midwest for Christmas before moving to Durham, New Hampshire a month later. I’ll shed my Grizzly skin and enroll as a Wildcat for a masters program at the university there. From Missoula, traveling four hours in any direction will get me to at least any given three of one-hundred named mountain ranges and probably at least one national park. From Durham, the same spin of the needle could put me in the White Mountains, New York City, or in the open ocean of the Atlantic. A different kind of adventure awaits me, to be sure.
But the landscape that captured my imagination in 2009 during my first night spent camping in Montana will be my home until then. It was along the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River, just outside of the electricity-free outpost of Polebridge, Montana that I heard a lone wolf howl for the first time, and where I first fell in love with this state.
Beginning in the week following graduation, I will have a Polebridge address. My mail will be delivered by a woman who owns a wolf she raised from an abandoned pup. I will not have electricity, nor cell service, nor internet. The five months I’ll spend there may be my last in Montana as I cannot say what adventures may be ahead of me. But I am confident that after a summer spent in its heart, the romance I already hold for this state will only be magnified by time and distance from it.
My good buddy Matt likes to measure the long uphill sections of especially rough, unkempt, talus strewn and log hampered trails here in “Montana miles,” a term of endearment to be certain. Because although the trails are tough, they are also ruggedly beautiful and the view from the top is always worth it.
I’m a full eight months from my date of departure and already I am measuring the long stretches of I-90 east in Montana Miles. Not because they are physically demanding, but because it will take some serious work on another level to convince myself that the view in end, another step on the career path near the Atlantic, will be worth it too.