We pull into our campsite on fumes of luck and instinct. Always in search of something not on the map, somewhere we’ve never been, a new favorite spot, my husband and I have become pretty good at sniffing out fire pits by a fishing access or a little-known swatch of public land. Someday, I hope our daughters’ feelings turn from tender impatience to tender appreciation at the nuance of studying paper maps and making wrong turns in search of something we don’t know yet.
Mama, what do you believe in?
On a cross-country camping road trip last fall, my six-year-old expressed concern with our plans, saying that she just didn't know how she felt about it because she just didn't know what it would feel like. And I said, Amen. That's life in a nutshell kid. We just gotta go see what it feels like to decide how we will feel about it.
The site we find is rich with tall emerald grass, a small beach on the Boulder River and a giant slice of flat earth to support our tent. Our daughters, Margot and Ruby, tumble out of the car, ready to run and discover every nook of this unfamiliar ground. While we set up camp, they discover a secret fort under the cottonwood tree, dry wood that is perfect for making ships, sand that will form delicious pretend pies, a mysterious deep hole on the riverbank, deer tracks and an aspen that has been halved by a beaver.
But Dada, WHERE does all this river water keep coming from? How were the very first water drops invented?
People talk about loving a place, being from a place, and I always lean in wanting to understand what it is that makes a person’s blood move in tandem with a geographic coordinate.
I am from Montana. I have loved Montana since the moment I was swimming in the sea of my mother’s womb, the daughter of a daughter of a daughter of a daughter, all Montanans. That stout lineage doesn’t necessitate a love but surely makes it hard to resist. The obvious physical beauty is easy for anyone to appreciate, even as a distracted witness hurling down I-90. It’s getting up on the Rocky Mountain’s sturdy scaffolding or pressing one’s heartbeat into the Bitterroot River that will make even the most outdoor-averse human press their palm to chest, mouth open in born-again shock at the feeling of the smallness of us and the greatness of Montana.
Mama, when I get up high on a mountain, I feel stronger and faster and so happy! Do you ever feel that way?
This land holds the homesteads, farms, lore and ashes of my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. My maternal family moved to the west shore of Flathead Lake from Ohio in an emigrant car with a crock of pickled eggs, two horses, a cow and chickens. That makes my daughters the sixth generation to walk on this land. I grew up inhaling the stories from my paternal and maternal sides — of my great-grandma riding five miles on horseback to school in Polson, my grandmother hauling her boys on hikes around Lake Como (where we spread her ashes years ago), my grandma baiting hooks at Lake Mary Ronan, my mom baiting hooks on Petty Creek, my dad and grandfather muscling their way up the old Snowbowl ski hill road with chains on their 1947 Ford.
My biorhythm was established by my ancestors — a kind and capable stock of women, with working calloused hands, unflappable grit and deep generosity. When my great-great-grandmas moved to Montana, they had to live in tandem with the dry, rocky, rattlesnakey land they tamed into farms and homes. One-hundred-twenty years later, their impassioned working of this earth and courageous mothering is the marrow in my bones.
I wake in our tent at dawn’s beginning, a choir of birds earnestly announcing this new day. I study my daughters’ sleeping faces in the lavender light and slide a bit deeper into my sleeping bag, hoping my husband will wake and make coffee soon.
Andy does get up to make coffee, maybe partially because I’m asking him in my most convincing way but mostly because he can hear the fish rising with the sun. From our tent I listen as the camp stove hisses and Andy readies his fly rod. Last night we noticed the grasshoppers were out, so I imagine he’s tying a hopper on the end of that long, coiled line. Norman Maclean said, “In our family there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing” and this gospel certainly applies to our family. Our faith is in rivers, our rituals prescribed by the mountains’ verse.
My daughters and I step into the cool water, trout perfectly camouflaged around our toes. The air moves, tickles skin and lifts gold hair and giggles into the season’s current. Trees promenade with birds, my husband’s fly rod keeps time with the river’s pulse. I dive under, intentionally and gratefully knocking the breath from my body, swimming into this land’s artery, into the endless pool of my foremothers.
Andy catches a rainbow trout and then a brown. He holds them still for one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three, so they can study the exotic oil-slick scales and full-moon eyes. He gently submerges the fish, and we watch it instantly disappear.
How did the trout get a rainbow on it? Did his mama give it to him like you gave me blue eyes?
It’s time to drive home. We pack up camp, folding and tucking each object into the trunk as our daughters race around making mud sculptures and ladybug houses, attempting to squeeze every last bit of play out of our last few minutes here. I crack open our weathered gazetteer. We decide to take a snaking dirt road toward Livingston.
No matter how much we’ve explored Montana, there is almost always a different road to travel by, and we like the one with the views we haven’t named yet, the one with the adventures we haven’t created yet. The one that holds a history we want to learn and a future we care about preserving.
Mom and Dad? If I go somewhere else to college or something, I can always come back to Montana, right? Because I know I will always want to be in Montana.