A few years ago, there was a major threat to the open space around our town. It inspired me to get involved in a way I hadn’t before. People realized that the wandering rights we’d all enjoyed for so long– a vital part of why we live where we live, were not to be taken lightly. We had to get creative and we had to do it fast. I learned about a group which had a crazy little idea to build a forty mile trail connecting private and public land in our valley. They needed people to apply for positions on a steering committee and I decided to give it a whirl. I wrote the below piece as part of my application and was honored to serve on that board in the project’s genesis. People said it would never happen. Well it has. I am proud of all the people who have come together to be stewards of our wandering rights. Introducing The Whitefish Trail. May you dream big wherever you live.
Wandering Rights. October, 2005
I rode my horse along the highway the other day to see what it might be like if the 13,000 acres of State Land gets sold off to developers and our open lands become gated communities. I have lived in Whitefish, Montana for twelve years and I finally know my State Lands—where I ride my horse, my mountain bike, take walks, introduce the difference between pine trees and fir trees to my children. It’s in the State Lands that I run into friends walking their dogs and stop for a chat under the fall dapple of aspen shadows on the forest floor. This is our green belt. Our link to who has come before us and considered it sacred. This is where we wander. Get lost. Let a trail lead us to an unexpected way home.
I rode my horse on the side of the highway for six miles just to see what it would be like to let the cement and flung beer bottles, road kill and hidden culverts be my guides. Our valley is wide. The shoulder was small. Logging trucks careened down on us and sent frayed pieces of bark in our faces. My horse was brave; I only felt him shudder. But that’s because I have been training him for this, setting down crushed Coke cans and plastic bags in his paddock and leading him over them for months now, to get him ready, just in case.
My father used to come to Whitefish in the 40’s before it was a ski town. He was in the railroad business and he’d come to sell bolsters and brake beams to the then Great Northern. He’d take customers out for a beer at the Hanging Tree Saloon and listen to locals complain about the threat of a ski resort. Scarring the mountain with ski runs, building chair lifts and attracting “city folk.” He was city folk, but he recognized the love of place. When I moved to Whitefish he said, “Be careful. That town doesn’t know what it wants to be.” It sounded good to me since I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to be either.
The rural West has been kind to its denizens. Whitefish, specifically, has had some years to figure out the answer to that question. And I think I know what it is: It wants to be home for wanderers of all sorts. It wants to be the sort of place where people run into each other on a trail, or at a bar or at a school parking lot and look around and say, “God, it’s beautiful today.”
So when I was at the local farmer’s market and my friend, a State representative, told me that there is a plan in place to link forty-miles of State Land to private land—mostly in conservation easements—a trail system to last forever—for multi-non-motorized use—I took pause. “What can I do to help? Sign me up.”
A stakeholders group is being formed and I have submitted my application. We need a place to wander—all of us—even the people in the inevitable gated communities. We need links, not gates. And there are people brave enough to understand that it has to be us/us if we are to ever know what it is to be a co-denizen of the rural West.
Still, I walked the highway, just to see. I tried to keep my horse focused on the tall grass straight ahead. We must have crushed fifteen beer bottles, got tangled up in wire twice, tripped over two culverts, and at one point where the barrel ended, I had to get off and lead him down fifty yards of highway up against the guard rail, a three foot margin for error. We just missed a head-on between a Hummer and a fawn. The fawn lost.
People say we’ll be riding on the highway soon if the State Lands sell out. They say we have a twenty-four month window of opportunity to work with the State and private sectors before that happens to secure this forty-mile long trail. I hope Whitefish knows at least this much about what it is. A place for wanderers. If not, I won’t be riding on the road again. I’ll be the one trespassing in the night. Like the deer. And if I am jailed or shot at, I’ll say: I just wanted to wander in the woods. Don’t you?