This is the story of a city I used to love. I came in 2014 to attend grad school, but I grew up just 2 1/2 hours away in Spirit Lake, Idaho. Landing here was a natural progression for my career. During my studies at the University of Montana, I grew to embrace this city, even though jobs paid little and working in social services drained me. I grabbed onto small comforts I found. Exchanging a “hello” or “good morning” with a stranger on Chestnut Street. Not dressing up just to head to the store or farmers’ market or even out for a beer, because no one judged me for wearing stretch pants and an oversized sweatshirt. Watching in amazement as people used flip phones, unironically. It was all in contrast to where I came from, everyone trying to keep up with the Joneses.

I finally found happiness in what mattered. Splashing my feet over the edge of an inner tube on the Clark Fork River in July. Pulling trout out of a secret spot in May. Hiking the “M” alongside most of Missoula. Walking a friend’s dog along lazy city streets. Snow falling, swaddling neighborhoods in the soothing silence of a world on pause. Never subscribing to cable. Embracing friends in moments I never wanted to end. The faint smell of body odor in Orange Street Food Farm. Rosemary focaccia bread from Le Petit. Coffee from Black Coffee Roasting Company. Seeing John McMurty in concert up close for the first time. Dancing in a theatre to Michael Franti & Spearhead spinning and holding hands and laughing, as a community, as one.

The pleasures outweighed anything I missed from where I came. And yet, I wanted to change nothing about where I now called “home.”

Things have changed. Every other license plate bears the name of somewhere else. California, Texas, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania… Now Porsches and Teslas and sports cars careen down the roadways instead of beat-up trucks, SUVs and late model Subarus.

If a newcomer wants to blend in, they switch to a Montana plate but like the population, the numbers on the plates just keep going up. They buy their fantasy trucks, their oversized SUV or bright colored cross-treks and lend a certain hostility to driving where courtesy used to live.

Even I had to relearn to drive when I moved here. But the white-knuckle stress from the city melted quickly. Headed home each night, I’d watch in amazement as traffic backed up for a quarter mile over the thin Russell Street bridge. Then we’d stopped where the Milwaukee Trail crossed next to Home Resource, letting the bicyclists give a quick wave or nod as they sped past. Drivers always let someone pull into traffic if they were trying to turn left. But now, everyone has somewhere to be and can’t get there quick enough. The two fingered “Montana wave” doesn’t exist anymore. I know. I’ve tried. People don’t wave back. 

Lately, I’ve bought things on Facebook Marketplace to decorate the office where I hope to keep practicing therapy. Second-hand things, nice things, things that people said they’d never sell. A hand-hewn coffee bar, artwork, and a card catalog crafted into a side table.

I’ve met the people who made these things and made this town Missoula. They’re the ones I used to see at breweries or shared hello’s with on the street corner or the strangers floating down the river beside me. They pushed my car out when I got stuck in a snowbank or shoveled my walk when I broke my leg. They embody a certain grit with skin a little more rough from the sun and clothes from thrift stores without fancy labels like Patagonia or The North Face. A smell like mountains and rural life.

When I ask why they’re selling these homes, they say, “We’re getting out of this place. It’s not Missoula anymore.” My heart cracks open because I know it’s true. 

This isn’t the city I love anymore.

They say the happiest people on earth is Finland and they’ve claimed that title for four years running. According to The Washington Post, it is lifestyle that brings the Finns happiness, not material wealth. In an article dated March 31, 2022, the writer shares her own experience as an American foreign exchange student living with a Finnish family. Over Christmas, her family sent her dozens of gifts. When she showed her treasures to her host family, they said that was nice. But for them, the holiday was about being together. That was their true joy. 

Missoula used to be Finland. Wealth didn’t matter much. The experiences we shared, the people we knew as neighbors, the Octopus playing chess downtown, the trees lining the river by Imagine Nation Brewing, Hob Nob, $5 breakfast burritos at Market on Front, a less crowded river under smoky summer skies where some stranger would toss you a beer… 

Tonight, as I drove down Cregg to Wyoming Street I recalled when it was a thin road rising out of a dirt field. Now, condos and cranes stretch upwards, foreign structures against the crisp gold of the sun dwindling in the evening sky. 

I wonder if one day, the osprey won’t return.