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Do you live in your spiritual home?
Thirty years ago, give or take a few weeks, I arrived in Missoula, Montana for my first semester of college. I was seventeen. I traveled from New York where I had been a badly behaved teenager and had barely graduated from my gigantic suburban high school.
I chose UM because I had seen beautiful photos of Montana in magazines and felt powerfully drawn there. Also it was a relatively cheap school that I could get into with my abysmal GPA and perfect lack of extracurricular activities. I had nothing to recommend me but a portfolio of goofy high school art and an earnest college essay framed around the promise of starting anew. But despite being bad on paper, the University of Montana accepted me.
Last Thursday we passed through Missoula en route to Helena, where Colin is from. We got ice cream at Big Dipper and then Milo and I walked over to my old college apartment. I like to check in on it every once in a while to see if it’s still there.
I lived on the corner of Second and Hazel for two or three years, initially with my first boyfriend. We had a tumultuous on-again off-again relationship that finally ended for good when he put his fist through the glass window of the front door in a rage. After that I lived there alone for a bit, but I couldn’t really afford it so I moved into the attic of a big, fun house full of people, one of whom was Colin.
While we walked I tried to explain to Milo what a great and formative thing this had been for me, the decision to go to Montana. I may also have been trying to impress him with the fact that I moved two thousand miles from my hometown to the hinterland of the rockies where I didn’t know a soul at the tender age of seventeen. I thought that would seem brave, but if Milo thought so he didn’t say. In fact he didn’t seem impressed by the decision to move so far from home, only mystified by it.
I loved Missoula from the moment I stepped off the plane. I felt happy there in a way I don’t think I ever did in New York. And thirty years later my love for Montana remains profound, bottomless; I feel it in my bones. I refer to it unabashedly as my spiritual home. To which my Montanan father-in-law responds with some version of: Well, when are you going to move your family here then? To which I reply with some version of: Life is complicated, Mike.
We were only in Missoula long enough for ice cream. Then we headed for Helena to celebrate the wedding of Colin’s cousin Sara and her husband, Dan. We took the long, gorgeous way so we could stop for dinner at Trixi’s, a saloon in the middle of nowhere where Colin loved eating burgers when he was a kid.
In Helena we went to the 30th annual Montana Pride Parade. We signed some books and spent a bunch of money at Montana Book Company. We saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie at the multiplex. We got candy at The Parrot. We visited Colin’s childhood bestie in his new house on top of a mountain. Everywhere we went people talked about grizzlies; how they are expanding in numbers and moving ever closer to houses and towns. We went out to Colin’s uncle’s place to celebrate Sara and Dan. It was a sweet party with a band and a fire pit. A little bit of rain cooled things down and cleared away the wildfire smoke.
On Sunday we drove out to my father-in-law’s house on the Missouri. I vowed to jump in the river, regardless of the weather. It was cool and windy but I kept my promise. It felt amazing.
I’m lucky to have married into a pretty magical Montana family. The Meloys have been in the Helena neck of the woods since they homesteaded a ranch in Townsend in the 19th century. Colin’s great uncle Henry “Hank” Meloy was a prominent Montana artist. Hank and Colin’s grandpa Pete, a judge, were instrumental in the founding of The Archie Bray, a well-known ceramics foundation and residency program outside of Helena.
Mike’s house on the river is full of art. He asked us if we wanted to take some pottery home and I snatched a bowl off his kitchen shelf. Nobody was sure who made it: Hank Meloy, or Pete, or both of them together. They collaborated on a lot of ceramics. I think generally Pete threw the pots and Hank painted them.
On the way back to Helena, Colin pulled the car over so I could gather a bunch of sagebrush on the side of the highway. The sun was setting and the view in both directions brought real tears to my eyes. I didn’t want to get back in the car.
I live on a sweet old farmstead in Oregon and I get to spend a lot of time in Astoria. I don’t have anything to complain about. I’m lucky! I’m lucky. But this visit to Montana reopened an old wound of longing for that place. I thought it had healed but it hasn’t. Life is complicated.
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