Last Thursday evening, after the Whitefish Review’s issue #12 debut (hooray!) that featured the wise Rick Bass and the graceful playing of Stellarondo, I found myself sobbing at the Great Northern. I was saying goodbye to a dear friend and adventurer, Heidi. It was her last night in a town she’s called home for over twelve years. Heidi, like all too many of my friends in the past two years, is leaving Whitefish, leaving Montana. For Heidi and her husband Durgano, Colorado presented job opportunities they couldn’t turn down. It’s been a similar narrative for many of my other friends, like Kelly and Matt. I met Kelly and Matt in the spring of 2007 at a Wilderness First Responder course in the snowy Swan Valley. It was Kelly who introduced me to the Glacier Institute and in the month after our course, I left Hope Ranch and was hired to run the Institute’s Big Creek campus along the North Fork of the Flathead River. The Heatons moved to Red Lodge, so at least they’re still within the state boundaries. Lea moved to Colorado for graduate school. And in January, Laura will depart for New Zealand for a year to work at a speech therapist. Although I do miss the presence of the Lydons during the winter months in Whitefish, I’m thankful that they’ve opened their home to us in Girdwood, Alaska for adult spring break ski vacations. Save Cole and me, our Thursday night telemark team has gone away to Minnesota, Vermont, Colorado, Alaska.
I could list all the close friends and acquaintances who’ve left behind the small mountain town I so dearly cling to but that’s not what I’m after. I’m not unfamiliar with the transient nature of a ski town — there’s always a flux in population between the opening of Whitefish Mountain Resort and the beginning of summer and Glacier National Park becomes the place to be. Small mountain towns don’t boast the most jobs or careers or even sizable paychecks. Folks like Heidi, Kelly, Lea, Laura, and more are drawn here because of the commanding landscape. Job prospects are few. But these are men and women who are not devoted to the time clock and would rather log ski days than work hours. Perhaps that’s why this is a community so closely knit together in our pursuit of happiness in big sky and unfettered wildness. Yet, there comes a time when the mountains and the lakes aren’t enough. I’m not saying that Whitefish is the only place to live. There are many other wonderful places, even place outside of Montana, to call home. It’s just that this is a place that attracts a wandering soul. My friends were not native Montanans; they came here because what Montana offers is something rare and special and can’t be found in most places in this country. Despite the origins of their birth, this place drew them in. Native is a term not taken lightly in Montana and there is most certainly a fierceness to draw the line between natives and newcomers, but what I think joins us together is a love of the land. In that, we are all native, to quote Annick Smith.
As I scratch out Montana addresses in my address book and add new Post Office boxes and new state abbreviations, I realize that there are times when a hike in Glacier can’t pay the bills or support a new family. It’s just tough, as in your-eyes-are-watering-tough, when you give that last hug, and say farewell to those people who’ve become so closely tied to your own adventure in Montana. These are the friends you most rely on in the backcountry and know they’ll always have a cooler of cold beer in the back of their pickup truck at the end of a long day’s hike. It’s a bond best formed under snowghosts and on top of scree.
I’m constantly thinking about why people are attracted to certain landscapes. How people can devote their entire lives to rivers and mountain peaks. How people measure their pulse against the rip of the wind, the slice of blue in an open sky. The land we stand upon is not forever bound in its place and neither are we. As much as I want my friends to hold onto this place, I know that’s not always possible. Even the mountains are still moving and shifting.
So, to my friends who shared their lives in the Flathead Valley and will now reside elsewhere, I certainly hope you don’t mind a houseguest, even one who don’t shower frequently.
And I know that your heart will always belong to Montana. I’ll watch it carefully, don’t you worry.