An Ode to Montana

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Montana is an incredibly beautiful, not to mention enormous, state. From east to west it’s about the equivalent of driving from Chicago to New Jersey. Crazy big.

About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to do some backpacking inside Glacier National Park. It was one of the most memorable backpacking trips, from seeing a massive and somehow majestic moose standing only a few meters away to crossing a waist-high, ice-cold mountain river hoisting my camera and the rest of my pack above my head in an attempt to keep it dry. We also came across a mama bear with her two nine-month-old cubs. Luckily, no mauling ensued.

When I arrived in Bozeman earlier this month, the little airport felt welcoming and cozy. It was built like a mountain lodge with raised wooden beams supporting a roof that takes on an average of seventy-two inches of snow each year. Outside, the Montana that I recalled entering many years ago, with it’s clean air, grand mountains nestled on an eternal horizon, and impossibly large clouds somehow not blocking the warm sun that fell on my face, greeted me kindly. Although many years ago, I had landed in Kalispell almost three hundred miles away, this was the same big sky country. It felt like an embrace from an old friend.

We stayed at a newly built dwelling called the Sage Lodge in Pray, MT. They were still putting the finishing touches on the rooms. When we checked in, we were missing oddities like lightbulbs and the sliding screen door handle. Strange, but the staff were mostly friendly and you couldn’t beat the location, which was almost on top of the Yellowstone River and a thirty-five minute drive straight across the Wyoming boarder into Yellowstone National Park.

Since taking on the minimalist way of life, there wasn’t much packed in my suitcase. It was light as a feather. Two t-shirts, an athletic long sleeve pullover, a SmartWool shirt, hiking pants, jeans, socks, hiking shoes, sandals, pjs, undergarments, a hat, sunglasses, and a toiletry bag. (Minimalism aside, I was glad the lodge we stayed in had laundry because by the third day, I needed them all cleaned.)

I’ve heard fishing is good for the mind, body, and soul, and we were in the best fly fishing spot in the world, so I figured why not. And it did not disappoint. On the Yellowstone River, there are rules about which fish you can keep, which you must release, and others you must keep or kill. According to the law, we released all our catches.

Every time I’d get a bite, I’d “set” my pole, which basically means pull it up as hard and fast as you can, and hope there’s a fish on the other end of it. I missed most times, but managed to net two beautiful rainbow trout. The experience of pulling them in, feeling their weight on the other side of the pole, and then guiding them gently into the net was invigorating. I’d wet my hands, hold them for a quick picture, and then they went back into the water hopefully a little wiser for the wear.

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We also spent a day in Yellowstone. Did a six-mile hike out and back to the Imperial Geyser, saw a few bison, a bighorn sheep, and watched good ole Ole Faithful do its thing too. Impressive.

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When the four days were over, I was sad to leave Montana. There is a rugged wildness, a real wilderness, about the state. And yet, I felt safe and supported by the mountains, the rivers and streams, the vast earth. Maybe it was just nice to get out of the city and see the stars. Whatever it was, I want to go back.

People say Montana winters are a “dry cold,” which I guess is supposed to be less cold somehow. I don’t know about that, but I might go back this winter just to test out the theory. I’m thinking snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Anything to get outside, even in the freezing temperatures, to be with those mountains and rivers, and under that big sky again.