I miss Montana.
In 2009, I was just about to finish my dissertation and I had accepted my first job – a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college in Montana. I was moving to Montana from Chicago, and I was excited – but also apprehensive. My anxiety came from a few places. First, just the idea of starting the job itself – being the one in charge, and standing in front of a room of students who wanted me to have the answers – was fairly terrifying. Then, there was the more immediate anxiety of leaving my wife behind in Chicago. She had one year left in her grad program, so I was headed out West on my own. And then, there was concern about Montana itself. I had visited the campus for my interview, and I fell in love with the college and the town. But, a visit was one thing, living there another. While I was not a Chicago native, I knew I loved the city tremendously and just didn’t know how I would function anywhere else – especially someplace so much less urban.
When I packed up and headed out, my dad traveled with me. We stopped at Mount Rushmore and we drove through the Badlands. We followed a semi through a reservation, and it was the darkest night either of us had ever seen. And with every mile, I realize now, I was slowly falling in love with the mountain West.
Montana is spectacular: raw and wild. Drive just a few minutes out of town, and there simply are no people. Just amazing mountain views everywhere you turn. I took a float down the river with some friends, and fished for the first time. I was terrible at it, but I had a blast. We were out too late, and I remember sitting in the raft, looking up, and seeing the Milky Way for the first time in a very long time. I visited the state and national parks often, and regularly took long drives just to explore. I was never, ever disappointed and often awe-struck.
The people were just as fascinating as the scenery: my neighbor was an artist, a potter, but also a carpenter and a Western ware model. People brought small children to bars. People were polite and friendly and everything was casual. I still miss the local brewery.
Even the things that were hard about Montana I remember fondly. Even the cold. It was cold there like I had never personally experienced before. I used to plug in my engine block warmer on the coldest nights. I remember one day it was so cold my car frosted on the inside as I drove to work, even after sitting and warming for a few minutes. It felt like, in some small way, me versus the elements. It was an adventure.
I miss other places. I still miss Chicago something horrible. I miss my hometown, and the place I went to college. But none of those places got under my skin and into my bones quite as fast as Montana.
Work took me away from Montana, and I haven’t been back in a few years. My wife and I have a small child now, and planning travel isn’t always easy. But I know, deep down, that I can’t not go back to Montana.