Before coming to Montana, I had never been particularly outdoorsy. I was pretty much a city girl, having grown up in the swampy humidity of Houston, Texas. My time in Montana changed all that, and I will be forever grateful.
It was in Montana that I first encountered a real sense of wonder in creation. I am sure all the superlatives have been said and said forever. But majestic, awesome and breathtaking are still words that would describe my experience there. I actually marveled at what I saw. I don’t think I had ever marveled much before coming to Montana.
When I was weeks away from graduating from college, I had the usual set of unspecific plans for my future. Thank goodness, some of my friends were more focused than I because they invited me to apply for a job with them on a ranch in Montana outside of White Sulphur Springs. I applied for a cook’s job there, where I would help prepare meals for a large number of staff and guests, three times a day. So far, this was terrific. The only problem was that I had no idea how to cook. (I may have embellished my culinary skills and experience a little bit during the job interview.) Montana was a very strong attraction. I wanted to see it. I wanted to work there.
I got the job. I learned to cook.
As a young person, I found an emerging sense of independence in Montana. It is a place that encourages a spirit of independence. But being independent isn’t enough. With the other people with whom I worked and played, I understood that teamwork is a necessity, not a luxury for the single minded. We relied on each other, and that made my experience all the better.
I forged some lasting friendships with people who also were newcomers to the experience of marveling at our surroundings. Camping taught me about more than what not to be afraid of and what to honestly be cautious about. It also taught me about feeling literally closer to the earth while at the same time watching, in awe, the vastness of the night sky. I think that Montana showed me, at a very personal level, that we are all caretakers of this planet, and we need to take that vocation very seriously. If we are surrounded by nature that is so majestic and awe inspiring that it takes our breath away, then we should be responsible stewards of that beauty. Otherwise, the people who come after us will cease to use words like majestic and breathtaking. They might cease to marvel.
Learning cooking skills, being out in a remarkable environment, camping with friends–all these experiences began to bring me a keener sense of self-reliance as well as self-confidence. Just because you have never done something before doesn’t mean that you can’t learn how. But Montana can still be a rugged place, so I learned that self-reliance and self-confidence need to be balanced with a very healthy respect for nature.
I was truly sad to have to leave Montana and go on to what would be next in my life. (I also think that the people selling Patagonia clothing were sad to see me go as well. But if nothing else, I was now dressed for a more outdoorsy life.) I don’t think that I made any kind of deliberate decision to base my life on that special time and place, but it is clear to me that I carried a great deal of my Montana experience with me right up until the present.
I took that sense of confidence and self-reliance and headed down a much-less-scripted path than many of my old friends and peers. I found that making the unconventional choice would fit my own life better. This path is a little more risky, and failure is always a distinct possibility, but the personal rewards make the risks worthwhile.
Let me tell you about one recent experience that might explain this best. Just before Christmas of 2015 I was invited to fly to Jordan to spend time at two refugee camps. There, I was part of a delegation that would work with young women and girls who had fled the violence and destruction of their homeland of Syria. It was, at times, scary. It was something I had never had to encounter before. The expectation was that I would be able to connect with people with whom I had so little in common. Or so I thought. Failure was a distinct possibility. After all, we were there to offer a sense of hope to people for whom hope was a distant, if not impossible, dream. They had no home to return to and no place to see their future. They were simply in this place, this same place, day after day.
Self-confidence, knowing when fear was appropriate and when it was just me, self-reliance combined with teamwork–these were valuable learnings that would carry us through. I found the genesis of those skills in Montana all those years before.
I am fortunate to have been given some incredible opportunities in life. Doors have opened for me, and I am very grateful that I have tried my best to walk through those doors into experiences that I could have missed otherwise. It is not just coincidence or chance. I think it is a matter of being open to a wider world and new perspectives. Maybe that is what “big sky” really means.