I’m sure I’m going to love Montana. And when I don’t, I realize it doesn’t give a shit either way. Outside of Yellowstone, everything ushers you into the park, and once outside of that, there seems to be a collective shrug, like that wild freedom may as well not exist. There are farms and ranches and big parking lots for truckers, some of which have the state flag flying outside. I say I like it, it looks like a kid’s drawing. We learn it was ranked third worst by the North American Vexillological Association in 2001. This makes me like it more. The worst was Georgia, which like, fair, because that one was pandering to racists.
In Bozeman, we are delirious and hungry, so we splurge on a vegan-friendly diner for midday breakfast food and bottomless coffee. Almost every waiter is in mom jeans and Dansko clogs, and they all offer us more coffee in a balletic sequence, like we’re in some kind of Kafka story about supply and demand. We order a feast, and stow the leftover granola and coffee in containers from the car. We change in the bathroom and brush our teeth in the parking lot. A man at the gas station with a tucked-in shirt and patchy beard holds the door open for me which is hilarious, given how disgusting we are after days of camping.
We get to Missoula in the afternoon, and the sun is out in full force. Trains go by behind the house, and a baby runs around with tiny replicas, on a mission too classified for us to know. He’s got a lot of projects. And they are very important. Dirt must be moved from the backyard to the front yard, sometimes from the front yard to the backyard. Occasionally the trucks help the transportation process, sometimes it is done by hand. Sometimes the dirt needs to be watered with the hose. Sometimes mom is needed to watch the progress, or carry dirt. There is a determination and a single-mindedness about the projects that I can relate to. I don’t understand the internal logic, and he does not trust me enough to bring me into the projects. But, even for a 2 year old, his life is ruled by work. Maybe this is some highest American ideal. He has found a pure passion that is a form of work, and he will do whatever it takes to see his projects through.
I feel trapped here. I don’t know why, it’s almost like I caught the panic Squishy was trying to communicate. I don’t know what it is, but Montana doesn’t seem as Montana as Idaho or Wyoming. This doesn’t make any sense, but perhaps it’s a come down from the other worldliness we felt, the bubble that held us through Idaho and into Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We are told that the air quality in Missoula is bad, and it traps the fire and pollutants because it is situated in a little bowl in the mountains. We are lucky to have arrived just after smoke cleared out.
There is a free bus, and we take it into town, but it feels desolate. There are mountains that stick up all around, but it’s hot and dry and flat in town. There’s construction happening on the bridge, and our hosts tell us it’s been under construction for years. We work at a coffee shop, irritable and with unshakeable moods. These moods don’t lift. Maybe in Missoula the funk gets trapped like the smoke, and we sit in our little clouds until we speed off the next morning. But we try to push through them, walking in the heat to a café that doesn’t have the menu item we were seeking, and retreading our steps to go to a different café where we eat and split an overpriced local Kombucha. Maybe it’s the absence of students in what are clearly college spots, or the empty rows of stools up and down the brewery, or how we’re told that people sort of end up staying here by default.
“They get a flat or they come to school here, and then they never leave.”
It’s said promotionally, but it makes me feel uneasy. It’s hard to explain. I lace up and run in the heat of the afternoon, heading toward the river. By the water, there isn’t really a path, but people have made one, stomping through. A lady with her small fluffy dog, pink tongue heralding the rest of it, smiles widely at me as we pass, and a group of teens with an aura of boredom I recognize stare at me without bothering to pretend not to. It feels like a small town, though it’s been growing, we’re told. It feels like IKEA furniture assembled multiple times — a little flimsy, a little worn, a little unsure.
And look, this is not to say I know. I don’t know anything, but it’s a feeling I can’t shake. Though the mountains are beautiful, and we sleep under painstakingly handmade quilts like we are sleeping under time itself. Though the sky is big, yes, huge, it is full of yearning, heavy with pollution from nearby wildfires most of the year. I remember a phrase from long ago, that I learned from Little Women: “castles in the air.” I wonder if that great big sky creates more room for those, or if it gives them less purchase. It’s hard for me to see. My head throbs from the sun and exertion, and I forget my phone charger, again, plugged into the wall. But we can’t go back now. We don’t even drive back to town for groceries. It feels too good to drive through all that space, like cutting through it is the only way to see