Sometimes it takes a while to understand a leap your heart makes. Last week I left a meeting with climate change on the agenda, vitriol in the air and everyone, including me, talking past one another … and found myself thinking about my time in Louisiana.
Half a century ago, I spent six years chasing a dream, the last three in Baton Rouge. I never fit in Louisiana. And it never fit on me. Southern women are not like Montana women, and Southern men expected them to be (and probably still do). So other than the monks I taught school with and adored, I had no friends. And the old friend I missed most was Montana.
There’s a way of being in Montana that becomes as much a part of you as breath and blood. It never takes you long to get from Point A to Point B in your hometown. It may take a while to get from your hometown to someone else’s, but ohhh, what you see along the way! Green ribbons of river … lazy, golden plains … and just around that bend, a mountain range rising up to gob-smack you into the asphalt.
There’s the familiar but ever-new cycle of four distinct seasons, each with its own joys and hardships. There’s the bond the shared experience of living in Montana forges. You may need only six degrees to get to Kevin Bacon elsewhere, but in Montana two usually suffice.
As time dragged on in the flat, crowded, unbearably humid Pelican State, I came to realize that the dream that lured me there wasn’t going to come true and that, even if I wanted it to, I couldn’t live anywhere but Montana. So I got on a plane and headed home.
I can still remember lapping up the scenery as the plane circled over Billings. There were “the rims” I’d hiked throughout my childhood. The cottonwood trees still lined Poly Drive, where caterpillars rappelled from the branches on a hot summer day. The west end, oozing farther west each year. And beyond all that, the Beartooths, jagged and snowy-peaked, so imposing they seemed just a short hop from the old Sage Drive-in. But that’s the way mountains fool you.
Just like that, the emptiness I had brought onboard with me in Baton Rouge got hijacked. I was home.
Some lessons you get down cold the first time. Since that plane touched down on Logan Field in 1975, I’ve never left Montana for anything but a visit. I’ve lived in seven different Montana communities and in no community at all and I’ve visited pretty much everyplace else. Everywhere I go here suits me just fine.
I like the way we do people here in Montana. I like how our public schools build friendships and understandings that last lifetimes. I like going to a divisional tournament to watch your cousin’s kid and then falling for some spunky team from Malta or Fairfield or Columbia Falls and ending up with their fans on hard wooden bleachers, towed along by the excitement of the band and the crowd and the thrill of young athletes doing improbable things. I like the way, no matter what crowd you’re in, you invariably discover an old college classmate or strike up a friendship with someone who knew your dad or sister or son.
You learn pretty quickly in Montana that if you say something mean about someone on a stage or court or field, sure as shootin’ his mother is sitting right behind you. And you learn that interdependence trumps partisanship. When your rock-ribbed Republican neighbor has a heart attack up by the mailbox, he doesn’t care if the person who rushes over to administer CPR is a snowflake.
As Judy Blunt captured so poignantly in her recollection of taking her feverish child to the hospital in the middle of the night on deserted gumbo roads, when a fellow Montanan needs help, you get out of bed, drive your truck to the road that mother will soon be on, and sit there in the dark with your headlights on, lighting her way.
I hope we don’t lose that. We’ve had plenty of reminders recently that there’s more than one climate change going on in the state we love. An elderly referee, still at it because games are getting canceled for want of referees, gets cruelly mocked by mouthy fans. A citizen angry about his taxes becomes so disruptive that the meeting has to be adjourned. A school superintendent who dedicated her career to her community’s children worries out loud about the impacts of yet another failed levy and gets pilloried.
As for me, I shudder whenever I see a child attending one of our city commission meetings. All too often, they’re PG-13.
“This is not who we are,” a fellow citizen re-assured me as I left last week’s meeting, desolate in a way I’d almost forgotten.
Maybe not. Glaciers don’t melt in a day, but they melt a lot faster than we once thought. Is this who we are becoming?