Tag Archives: west

Long Ago: Community Entry #19

 

Purple mountain majesty. Night walks. Many pages now.

 

As you may know, I am spending a few months in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…

Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.  Email me for more info:  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

Loving the mountains as I do, and being a transplant as well, this piece spoke majesty to me.  Thank you, Elsbeth Chambers and fellow Montanan!  yrs. Laura

The Mountains, by Elspeth Chambers

“The mountains! The mountains! We greet them with a song!” So goes an old college song, the college that my husband attended in fact. But it wasn’t until I wrote my first attempt at this essay that I came to realize how mountains run through my life like the proverbial silken thread.

In the summer of 1930, shortly before his 17th birthday, my father arrived in Alberta and began a love affair with the Rocky Mountains. He had been born in a country vicarage in England, the fifth of six children, and arrived in Canada with a group of boys all eager to experience the openness and opportunity of life on the Canadian prairie. Maybe an older brother’s departure less than a year earlier to work on a rubber plantation in Malaya had inspired him to travel west, I do not know. My father wanted to farm – in one of his early diaries he had written “I think I shall be a farmer when I grow up” – and went to work for a farmer in southern Alberta. But life took one of those unexpected turns, and after realizing that the life of a farmer was, after all, not for him, he crossed the Rockies to attend university in Vancouver, and later became ordained, like his father, grandfather, and many great grandfathers before him. For the next decade he crisscrossed the Rockies as he ministered to parishioners in Alberta and British Columbia during the difficult times of the Depression and World War II.

After the War my father traveled back to England to visit his family, who had miraculously all survived, including the brother in Malaya who had spent the war incarcerated by the Japanese. In those post-war days of shortages and rationing my father had to wait several months for a passage back to Canada, and took the offer of temporary assistant to a clergyman friend in southwest London. On one of his first Sundays there a beautiful young woman caught his eye, and once again life took one of those unexpected turns. Within a year they were married, and my grandparents begged them to stay in England a while longer. This was before the days of mass air travel, when crossing the Atlantic was done by sea, and the thought of their daughter living and raising their grandchildren half way round the world was more than they could bear.

So my father took a parish in England, and I too was born in a country vicarage. A quarter of a century would elapse before my father took my mother to see his beloved Rocky Mountains, but he returned to them often in his dreams, and my brother and I were raised on romantic stories of his life there. His stories, visits from my uncle, now coffee farming in Kenya, and pen-pal correspondence with a cousin whose mother had followed my father to Canada, inspired in me a wanderlust, and I knew that when I grew up I wanted to travel and see the world. I found a career that would take me to far-away places, and I can still remember, as I traveled to my first post, flying by the Himalayas at dawn, and looking carefully at all the rosy peaks so I knew I would have seen Mt Everest, even if I wasn’t sure which peak it was! A year or two later I found myself based in the foothills of the Himalayas. Each summer groups of climbers would appear and set off to conquer some of the world’s tallest mountains. I met and got to know men who had climbed Mt. Everest, and listened to their tales.

Eventually my career brought me to the United States, and here life began to repeat itself, for a few months after I started attending a church in Washington, D.C., a good-looking man caught my eye. A few months later he took me to his college town, and, standing on a New England mountaintop, asked me to marry him. (My brother also proposed to his wife on top of a mountain, though that was in Switzerland.) Unlike my grandparents so many years before, my parents were accustomed to transatlantic air travel and were more than happy to take advantage of having a reason to fly across the “pond”. Visits to Washington D.C. were invariably combined with tours of the western United States and, of course, the Canadian Rockies.

With the new millennium came our family’s decision to leave Washington D.C. We considered several places in different parts of the country, but Montana tugged at us. My husband had spent summers at a summer camp in the Bitterroots, a Rocky Mountain range in southwest Montana. Like so many before us, we liked the idea of the openness and opportunity provided by Big Sky country; we sold our house, bundled the children into that modern day version of the covered wagon, the minivan, and headed west. We made a ceremonial visit to the Gateway Arch in St Louis, and followed routes taken by the early pioneers. We built a house in a valley in northwestern Montana, 300 feet above the valley floor. From our deck, on a clear day, we can see mountains for a hundred miles.

Sadly, by the time we moved here, my father was too frail to travel to visit us (my mother had died a few years earlier) although he still returned to the Rockies in his dreams. But he was happy to know that his daughter was living and raising his grandchildren in his beloved Rocky Mountains, and he loved to see my photographs and hear me describe the mountains to him in our Sunday telephone conversations. I think we both felt that in some way I had completed the circle and, half a century after he left Canada, I had come home for him.

“The mountains! The mountains! We greet them with a song”

 

 

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Empty Boat

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Empty Boat by Laura A. Munson

I live for passion. But I oppose fanaticism, fanatically speaking. My mouth lashes against it with venom. Hot tears come catapult. My head swirls, tempestuous. It’s fight or flight. I usually flee, hot and wet, knowing that I have given yet another zealot power they don’t deserve, but require. From fools like me.
I live for passion, because without it, we denounce the gift of life. Some call it the gift from God. And bash you bloody with the singularity of their Almighty. When I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I don’t see all their no’s for all his yeses.
Those who call their god, The Universe, seem to have a broader way, but usually not one I can peg down too well. I get lost in their crystals and moons and stars having some hold over the was’s and will be’s of my life. Truly, what is there to say to someone who believes there is only one way, and they are there to prove it to you?
The Chinese poet and sage Chuang-tzu speaks of a man crossing a river on a boat. As he navigates the waters, he sees another boat coming toward him. “Steer aside!” he yells to the person he thinks he sees, swearing and gesticulating. But Chuang-tzu suggests that that same fellow could relate differently with his world. That rather than raging and fighting against the oncoming boat, he might consider imagining the boat empty.
“Even though he be a bad-tempered man, he will not become angry.”
If it is an empty boat, there is no one to fight. He is not threatened, nor is he angry. It’s merely an empty boat. As the boat approaches, he skillfully puts out his oar to steer the other boat aside without collision or damage to either vessel.
Chuang-tzu suggests that we relate to the world from that openhearted emptiness that allows us to let control of the world go by not opposing the flow of what is. Through this sort of surrender, he suggests that we will come fully into being.
There have been two times I have truly emptied my boat. When my first child was born and when I watched my father die.
There, the option of opposition seemed impossible. My daughter was being pushed through the waters of my womb with forces I could not have stopped for all my might. My father’s chest, full of poison, rose and fell through the wind of a machine; unplugged, it simply fell and stayed there, as dead as my daughter was alive. Water. Wind. Empty boat.
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***
People fight a lot in the rural West, mostly about land.
The fight over land is an age-old battle. Just look at the Middle East. The quest for land is more than blood-sport; it’s what we can see of “god,” of “The Universe,” of the gift of life. Without land, we’re not fastened to our lives. We have no tangible roots. We have no place to do our loving. We have no place from which to gaze at our stars and feel as small as we know we are. No place for awe. No place for the awesome.
I don’t understand the Fundamentalist Christian Right who seem to forget that they were supposedly made from “the dust of the ground,” never mind “the breath of God,” and that in Genesis 2:15 the “Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” But I don’t understand the idea of praying for parking places, either.
I don’t understand the environmental activists who steal forth in the night with spikes and hammers to give trees the bite that will take out logger’s eyes, never mind the probable fact that that logger has a family and food to put on the table.
I’ve lived in Montana for twelve years now. I’ve sat at the bar with all sorts, listening to all fires, and not making much of an effort to put any of them out. Around here, it seems that one person’s fire is another person’s water. I have made it my work—my passion to understand “the dust” and “the breath” I was created by. To receive creation and my created self in it—that has been my journey. To be as open-boated as possible.
It has been a journey of open space. Of “wandering rights,” as Terry Tempest Williams puts it in her “Open Space of Democracy.” Of “stewardship,” as Wendell Berry puts it over and over again. It has been a journey of falling in love, with my “own back yard,” yes. But it must begin somewhere.
My backyard has been vast, surrounded by state lands on three sides. I’ve ridden my horse in the woods on trails blazed by the Flathead Indians hundreds of years ago, connecting their tobacco fields to their lodges down on the Flathead Lake—over a fifty mile trek, and galloped alongside of a migrating herd of elk along the way. I’ve roamed through Glacier National Park breathing in my lesser rank on the food chain deeply, with the very real chance of running into a grizzly bear, and I’ve returned home, my head screwed on as straight as it’s ever been. I’ve sat sequestered in my living room watching ash fall from the sky as forest fires rage ten miles to the west, and easterly winds blow thirty miles per hour straight toward us, missing us by a ridge. I’ve known people who have been trampled by avalanche, river rapids, rockslides, fallen trees. I’ve grown to understand these things—to empty my boat when they come.
But how am I to have an empty boat– a surrender between the brackets of birth and death– when the very thing that has taught me open-boatedness, is in full frontal attack?
Land.
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Thirteen thousand acres of state-run school trust land—lands surrounding Whitefish, Montana which have become our green belt, our Commons as Gary Snyder puts it– the place where we take our walks, let our dogs run, cross-country ski, snow shoe, ride horses, mountain bikes, show our children their first spiderwebs covered in morning dew—it’s all up for grabs to private developers. I thought we lived in a state which prized open space. Turns out the almighty dollar reigns after all, even out here, in what the developers call: “God’s country.”
I have been to meetings. People scream at each other. “Not in my backyard!” or shake their heads and come away saying, “Development happens. We can’t win.” It’s been years of Us and Them and I know people on both sides. All of them like to wander. You’d be hard-pressed to find any one of them, on either side, who wouldn’t stop and gasp at the sight of a buck rising from a field at dawn.
I’ve been quiet, trying to empty my boat. I don’t know how to do this without fighting. And I’ve been told, you don’t have to fight to win.
But there are gates. At the end of every trail, there are gates now. My boat is getting fuller and fuller every time my horse puts his nose toward our old trails and I have to steer him somewhere else, where there isn’t a gate. Soon we’ll be riding along the highway, dodging logging trucks and ousted deer.
One day a man chases me down with a pack of dogs and a gun—tells me that he’s just bought this land from the timber company. I tell him that the private land owner is protected from law suits by a governmental statute—that horse people are excellent stewards of the land, can help protect trails, keep high school partiers away, report vandalism.
He shakes his head and tells me I am not to trespass again or else. I eye his shot gun and choose not to tell him about the mountain lion den just over the ridge, the two black bear cubs that like to hang out in the stand of Grand Fir, and the sow who patrols the area with fierce pride.
The time for fanaticism has come. My boat is full. And so is the one approaching. I am hollering at the people, raising my fists, wishing their bow to hit ground and split open to bits. I cannot surrender my wandering rights.
At the local Farmer’s Market I am approached by our representative in House District 4. “You ride your horse on the state land trails, don’t you, Laura?”
I stop in my tracks, practically run to his side, stare him far too close in the face.
“We have a twenty-four month window to create a hundred mile long recreation trail system that would put the private and public sectors into a partnership. This sort of precedent has national importance. If we can do it, it could serve as a model for other communities poised for massive development.”
The private and public sectors shaking hands to a hundred mile trail system that will last forever. Gates flung open. Open space re-made holy for generations to come. “What can I do? Sign me up.”
“You can apply to be on the stakeholders committee which will work with the city of Whitefish and the DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation), representing as many user groups as possible. The user groups that don’t step up, won’t have a voice.”
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I have stepped up. I have submitted my application and I am waiting. Trying not to imagine the opposing boat at all, but to believe that such an Us/Us partnership is possible.
In my deepest open-hearted-ness, open-boated-ness place, I believe there is one way when it comes to land: it must somehow be open to the creatures that love it. Somehow. We must preserve our right to make contact with our kindred “dust.”
I see the opposing boat now. I only hope that when we are upon each other, we can shake hands.

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Roaming in the Groaning

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Roaming in the Groaning by Laura A. Munson

My friend gave me a trout that she caught with her husband, ice fishing.
I asked her to tell me about ice fishing. I was new to Montana. I was bullied by other people’s peak experiences. By their permission to do things like ice fishing. I knew about art museums. Liberal Arts education. And traveling.
She said they go over to Browning where the Indian reservation is, on a lake where the wind blows so hard that when they stand up from the buckets they have been sitting on, the buckets blow away. She said that when there has been a fast freeze and lots of wind, the ice is clear and you can look through and see the reeds and fish below. She said she likes to bring her ice skates and hold her arms out and let the wind push her from behind, across the lake. She said she likes ice fishing because you can go any time of the day. Last night, they couldn’t go to sleep, so they packed up and went out on a nearby lake with their auger, poles, bait, buckets, and a few lanterns. They drilled their holes, sat on their buckets holding their poles, surrounded by lanterns on the frozen lake. They caught two fish. They gave one to me. She said she and her husband like to catch trout in the summer and then pick huckleberries and stuff them inside, wrap them in foil and cook them over their campfire.
“I’ll eat mine tonight with butter and lemon,” I confessed. (Unlike most respectable Montanans, I do not have huckleberries fresh, canned, or even stored in my freezer, because for me, the invitation to go huckleberry picking in the summer conjures up the image of a resounding dinner bell and the phrase Come and get it! In other words, I am afraid of coming face to face with a very hungry, 300 pound, uris horibiles.)
Then I proceeded to tell her that the mere act of getting out of bed to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night is hard enough for me, much less trekking out into the cold with a fishing pole and an auger.
She smiled at me. She’s heard of people like me. Her mother warned her against people like me. Still, she gave me a trout.
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I know. I know. Too bad for me. Trust me when I tell you that from the minute I laid eyes on this magnificent corner of Montana, I wanted to be the kind of woman who considers herself open to the wild-wonders-that-be. When my friend talked, for instance, I saw the lantern light flickering in her eyes. I saw the wind still at her back. I felt the tug on her pole. The stillness of the night and just her husband and this fish.
But I was not that person. I am still not that person.

I can see it in my child– the wonder of her. The tiny hands arranging colored pencils in a row and telling them a story about bees and skunks. I see it in art. The wonder—the risk– the abandon, played out in dances and canvases, words, songs. I see it in the majestic cathedrals of Europe—the catacombs—the flying buttresses—the stained glass. And true, when I have the courage, I feel it sitting on a rock by a river. I feel it on a sunny day, floating in salty waters just offshore. I feel it walking the dog in the meadow with patches of rain mottled with patches of sun. Looking for full-arch rainbows. Sleeping by the ocean. And still it’s hard for me to get myself out there, even to those quiet places. Sometimes all I have the courage for in Montana, is my own warm bed.

There is a sound here in the Northwest that I hadn’t heard before. It is reminiscent of a bird sound. Or a train whistle. But it is neither. It is the whoop. People whoop. There is pressure here to whoop. To skate the second the lakes freeze, to sleep in your car in the ski mountain parking lot to be sure you get the first run on a powder day, to land the biggest lunker, to bag the biggest buck, to kayak the most rapid rapids, to float the mightiest rivers, to sleep with bears and wolverines and mountain lions and lynx and to call them all Friend. I’d rather be eaten by a grizzly than die in a car accident on the freeway, so sayeth the soothsayers at the local bar, apre-whoop.
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Another friend—a long-time Montanan– gave me an Atlas for a Christmas present one year because he asked me what I wanted and I told him– an Atlas. “I like to travel. I can’t imagine I’ll live here for very long.” He’s that kind of friend—gives me what I want, even when he doesn’t understand.
I held its heft in my lap and looked at him churlishly: “If you could go anywhere, where would you go?” I said.
He looked unimpressed. He said he wasn’t sure that staying right here in Montana was any different in the long run than traveling every page of those pink and green pastel countries and squiggly rivers. And he’s not one of these smug bumper-sticker Montana Native sorts either. And I’ll tell you one more thing about him– he’s in to the long run. Gets his oil checked regularly. Tires rotated. Always has extra gallons of gas in his garage. He said he lives in the most beautiful place he can imagine, and that’s okay by him. No need to travel. Plenty to do right here in his own valley. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, he said, watching me wilt. Although he’s not the kind to overly-measure a mood.
“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “How can you live here and not ski and not feel guilty about it? You don’t fish. You don’t hunt. You don’t even have a horse! Heck—you don’t even have a dog! Your idea of a perfect Sunday is a day spent with a history book about Queen Victoria. Maybe a little walk in the meadow. See a bird or two.”
He said this: “Montana has been here a lot longer than skiing. Fishing. Hunting. Horses—well maybe not horses…Heh-eh…but dogs, anyway.” He said that, and it changed my life. For a day. And a glorious day it was. I called three friends, and like an alcoholic at an AA meeting said, I hate skiing. I’m Laura Munson, and I hate skiing. It felt like I’d shed a tumor or something. I sat on the couch and read a book about Tuscan cooking and watched the snow fall without thinking for one second that the whole of it was only as good as the numb of my cheeks and my whooping ability to nail an Aspen tree with a bull’s eye of perfectly packed snow. What’s wrong with snow angels?, I said to myself. What’s wrong with catching snow on your tongue and calling it good? What’s wrong with watching snow fall from your window seat, with the cat curled on your lap? (This kind of deductive reasoning and ten bucks can get you a cup of coffee in New York.)
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I have another friend. He is a fishing guide all summer in Alaska, and then comes down here to Whitefish to ski in the winter. In the fall, he hunts deer. Not all deer. One deer in particular. He goes out in the morning alone, and walks the woods, looking for one specific buck. It’s been four years of this. Other deer present themselves, but he doesn’t take them. He knows his buck now. He knows where he sleeps, where he roams. He’s learned a lot about squirrels and weather, stalking this buck. This is what he can tell me of hunting.

My first year living in Montana, a childhood friend came to visit from New York City where he is a trader of bonds. He had a ten month old and his wife was expecting a baby in four weeks. He wanted to come to Montana and do anything but change diapers, get his wife pickles…no potato chips…no pickles, and yell at people on the phone about money. The first day he sat and stared out the window, content. (I was thrilled.) The second day he looked at the ski mountain and said, “I gotta go up there.” (Okay. When in Rome…) The next day he saw a dogsledder and said, “I gotta try that.” (Had to see a guy about a dog—humor. Okay, whatever.) That afternoon he saw the local casino and said, “I gotta try my hand at cards.” (I gave him the number of the local taxi service, which is, incidentally, a guy in a mid-70’s pick-up truck, probably occupying the seat next to him at the bar, albeit a fine driver.) The next morning he said, “I’ve got a hangover and my leg muscles are killing me. It’s exhausting here. I feel like I’m back in New York. Let’s just lay low today.”
I told him not to worry. Montana seems to have that effect on people. Something about getting out there and conquering it that nobody can resist. (Unless you’re me. Or my Atlas-less friend.) “It’s exhausting just considering the myriad ways in which one can keep oneself dry, warm, and in motion in the state of Montana,” I told him. “Relax. I give you permission. We’ll listen to the opera at the Met on NPR.”
This took care of his hangover, fast. “We could at least drive into Glacier National Park today, I suppose,” he said, nervously. “Just tell me they have Ibuprophen in Montana.”
So we drove into the Park. We got out. We stood by a river. I thought: Finally. A friend with whom I can sit on a rock, and just be. No guilt. No pressure to be in any form of aerobic, cardio-vascular frenzy. Minutes went by. He stood up. Paced. (He’s a bond trader; he can’t help it.) He found three chunky rose-colored river rocks and one by one, pummeled them into the ice, whooping, raising his hands in victory, suggesting, then, that we play a version of Boci ball in which we see how many rocks we can slide into the holes he had just made in what was otherwise, a smooth white canvas of Mother Nature. “Oh no! Not you too! Can’t we just sit here? Can’t we just be?” I objected.
He shrugged and played alone for a while.
It looked fun, but I had set a precedent– (which is another way of saying, in this instance anyway, I was scared.) I don’t recognize this. Give me something from the German Expressionist movement—let me tell you all about the mystic poets of the 14th century—how ‘bout we talk Conspiracy Theory regarding the foils of the Liberal Arts education?
But I threw in my fear towel, got up, and said, “Fine. Lemme me have a turn.”
I was rose-colored rock. He was sage green. We bowled away the afternoon on the thinly-iced banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River. There was whooping a-plenty. Even from me. I hadn’t whooped like that before. I’m not sure I had ever whooped at all.
He wrote me a week later to tell me that our afternoon on the river was the thing he’ll remember most about Montana.
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I have an elderly friend who visits from Chicago. He likes to take long walks in town. One day, he stood on the viaduct for hours, watching the freight trains change cars and tracks. “Incredible, this Montana,” he said in a hushed version of his immigrant Italian accent. “When I am tired of looking at the trains, I look up at the mountains. When I am tired of looking at the mountains, I look at the trains.” Then his eyes went a little crazed and he leaned in and said, “There is a verse in the Bible that I never understood. It is in Romans. Chapter Eight, I think. Paul is talking. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Now I understand. Groaning.” And I hadn’t even taken him into Glacier National Park yet.

Now I think of the pair of women I passed ten years or so ago, when I was living in Washington, and still so bullied by whoopers that I was attempting to climb a section of Mt. Rainier. Two women, with wooden, hand-whittled walking sticks, wool pants, old stiff leather hiking boots, bandanas around their necks…two grey-haired crow-footed older women stood rubber-necking a blanket of moss. I stopped. It was too green not to. They were too Patagonia-free not to. They were too still not to.
They smiled at me, so ogly and goofy-eyed. “Isn’t it beautiful?” they said, together.
“Yes,” I said, the way you talk to an Alzheimer’s patient.
“We take this hike every year and every year we see if we can do it slower than the last,” they traded off saying.
And I stood there for a while too, watching the green, seeing it for the green and not for the happy grey heads which nodded at it like old friends. And when I turned to go, as I recall, it was not for lack of courage, but for a genuine hunger to move on. Slowly. To maybe get to know this trail. To invite myself into a lifelong acquaintance with Mother Nature. To abuse a quote meant for Hollywood, to find the there, there.
And as I walked on, I heard the smallest little sound, from behind, like a mouse’s glee. But it was a whoop. It was. I remember it now.

It has been fifteen years that I have lived in the Northwest—almost half my life. I still haven’t done much in the middle of the night except for waking up to tend to my babies. But I know how to go down the stairs now…to pull up my robe around my neck, and step out into the night chill and stand there and see what gifts might present themselves. A deer or two. The distant glare of fox eyes. The green swirls of the Northern Lights. A Great Horned owl silhouette. A meteor shower like the sky is falling. There is always something. That is the promise. I wish I could tell that girl all those years ago that there is elegance in every kind of moment that Mother Nature presents. And you don’t need to be strong or brave or even particularly adept to know it. All you have to be is open. I wish I could have given her that permission.
“Creation is groaning,” I would have said.
“Sit a spell. Whoop if you must.”owlillustration-442x590

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Break Me In, Montana

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Break Me in, Montana by Laura A. Munson
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I begged for this. This house. This land. This time. This husband and these children. I begged to know a place season for season. To use last summer’s spent perennials as winter mulch. To rake it off when the Lenten roses poke through. To know, finally, which one is the North Star, and use it to find my way home. I begged to feel my heart sink with the leaving V’s of geese. And become buoyant again with their return.
I did not know I was begging. All those years in cities. Chicago, New York, Boston, Florence, London, Seattle. I would catch myself in storefront windows and say yes, I am alive. I see myself here in the crowd. In that great outfit. Those fantastic shoes. And return to the apartment with the cockroaches and the blinking answering machine, ready to make my home in some glittering concert hall, some stark white art opening, some hushed mocha-toned new restaurant. I did not know I was begging for this when I dropped to my knees one night at the side of my bed like my grandmother used to, and said, please, please, bring me home.
Three weeks later my husband walked into our brand new Seattle house and said, “I just got a job in Montana. You would be able to write full time. We could have our kids there, and you wouldn’t have to work outside the home.”
So we left.
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I watched the Cascades until they were little harmless divots in the horizon, and
I cried all through the dry nothing of Eastern Washington and over the pass that brought me, for the first time, to the Flathead Valley.
Over a hill, and there it was: Flathead Lake to the south, the ski mountain in Whitefish to the North, the Jewel Basin in front of us drifting off into the Swan and the Mission ranges. The canyon leading to Glacier National Park off to the east. Twin bald eagles riding a thermal over us.
“It feels like a set up,” I said.
I could not receive this place at first. It felt like it had power over me like one of those guru types posing to know you better than you know yourself. More so, it felt like my enemy. The answer to a prayer I never meant to pray. Like it would break me in half if I slacked off for one second. Grizzly bears. Forest fires. Avalanches. Mountain lions. Angry loggers. Angry environmentalists. People dying for and from what I could only perceive as folly—kayaking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, back country skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing, river rafting…and on and on.
“Let go of the city,” the lovers of this country would say. “Stay. Sit a spell.”
No, I secretly schemed. Letting go would mean a betrayal. Of that girl in the shop window.
Instead, I spent many years letting go of Montana. Taking hits off the city in drug-dose proportions. Looking down from my returning flight into our little valley, seeing the outline of the mountains, the five or six farm lights still on, landing, thinking I can do it this time. I can stay. Three months later, I would be up in the sky again, panting over the grid of lights below and the skyscrapers on the horizon beckoning me back.
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Until I had my first child. And the subway so suddenly went villain. The honking cars and heaving bus exhaust and hissing sewers…like land mines. I clung to my baby. I ended up in parks. Grant Park. The Presidio. The Boston Garden. Central Park. The Arboretum. Leaving the city windows to another girl’s self-fascination. Then I would hover over our little valley with the landing gear descending, see the half-dozen little lights below, the moonlit ranges, and begin to find thanks.
It occurred to me then, that letting go was not a leaving. But a climbing in. A yes.
I proclaimed that yes. At first quietly. Ashamed. Then louder. Then so I didn’t know the difference between yes, and living.
Fifteen years. Dog sled racers, endurance riders, snowcat operators, medicine women, stunt pilots. Grizzly trackers, loggers, bowhunters. Helicopter nurses, heart surgeons, brewers and preschool teachers. Electric company cherry pickers, and Flathead cherry growers. Pizza parlor proprietors and organic farmers. Cowboys. Rodeo queens. Horse whisperers. Blacksmiths. Piano tuners. Cross dressers. Quilters. DJ’s, hot dog vendors, mule packers. Vietnam Vets. Ski bums. Fly-fishing guides, bartenders, computer programmers, train conductors. Double Phds that live in their car and grift at the pool hall for food money. Wives who live to hunt. Husbands who live to cook their wives’ kill.
I still have not been mauled by a grizzly bear. Still have not even seen a mountain lion. Have only come upon the aftermath of forest fire…and found a bounty of mushrooms there. Montana never broke me in– like a cowboy who thinks it needs to break the mare’s spirit to gain respect. I was never that mare. It was never that cowboy.
Instead, it was there all that time– in purple Alpine glow and sparkling wide rivers, in the sight of my child’s fingers on a trout belly, the safe back of an old horse lakeside in August, dipping its neck down and drinking slow sips of glacial run-off, in soft rains and misting meadows, anthills and golden Larch, in the little white farm lights and moonlit snowy peaks– it was there, all that long sweet time…welcoming me home.northern lights

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