A Love Letter
I’ve been gone two years now. For 730 days, I’ve settled for almost no snow and summers that pulse with swampy heat and strange stinging bugs; ticks, chiggers, and vindictive yellow jackets that go insane in late August; mountains I would have once called hills; humans literally everywhere. I live in the jungled Blue Ridge of Western North Carolina now, a place of incredible biodiversity, amazing music and food, cultural celebration of difference, and forests filled with medicine exploding alive in waves from March to November. I live as something I thought I’d never be - an “east coaster - and some days I wake up and feel happily at home. Other days, like today, I wake up and think of my other home, your home, Montana. Joannie Mitchell comes to mind - I really didn’t know what I had until it was gone, and over here, much of the paradise has indeed been paved to put up a parking lot.
There’s a place in Montana’s Pintler Mountains southwest of Anaconda where my grandpa grew up herding sheep. He went back to camp every year of his life, just as my dad has, and my brother and I as well. We call it “The Big Hole,” because of its proximity to the river and the battlefield. Perched at the edge of a field of yellow grass and sagebrush amid outcrops of pines there’s a dead log that sits about five feet tall on its side. To the west, beyond a steep embankment are the Pintlers and the wide Pintler Valley.
Every summer of my childhood, I walked to that log and that ledge with my grandpa and brother just after sunrise to look down into the valley for animals. Every other year or so in the penetrating morning silence, we’d see something - a herd of elk hugging the treeline or a coyote scampering through the willows and very occasionally, a bear. Most often we’d spend ten minutes gazing down on the empty valley before heading back to The Log.
The Log is a family icon. My faded initials are carved all around it, one set for each year. My favorite tradition was taking a piece of grandpa’s orange bailing twine and tying it around the gray branches still attached. It served as a marker of our presence and looking back, I can see, of our devotion. My brother and I came alive with The Log, turning it into a train to faraway places or a spaceship to other dimensions. We have pictures of us there each summer, one sitting with our arms around each other, and another of us standing in front, to show how much we were growing. One year Grandpa counted 500-something rings and when he died, we took the iconic orange hat he wore so my grandma could keep tabs on him and pushed it into an old woodpecker hole. The past few summers I’ve visited by myself and been surprised at how many tears come rushing to meet me.
Since moving to North Carolina I’ve been able to come back each summer and visit the Big Hole. It’s the place I go to remember myself and my family, my origins and upbringing, my connection to the earth. When I'm there, the mysterious thing happens; an inexpressible wholeness blooms through my body that’s deeper than my anxieties. Maybe the word is “belonging.” When I’m there, I remember that I’m in a love affair with a specific place and that somehow it’s mutual, even though I forget for months at a time.
When I’ve been back lately, I’ve wandered from the log over to our old campsite, just across a rutted two track road. Others have found the campsite - deep motorcycle scars, trash, and the landscaping gravel they’ve trucked in to hold the stones of their six-foot wide fire pit tell me so. I’ve furiously dismantled that fire pit three times and each summer I come back, someone has built it back up even bigger.
Being in these Appalachian Mountains less than three hours from three major metropolises has humbled me about growing up in Montana. I currently live at the base of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak on the East Coast at 6684 feet. There’s a paved road to the top with parking spots for buses and a stone pylon that tourists take pictures next to in great swaths, waiting their turn for the Instagram shot. I haven’t yet had an outdoor experience where I didn’t encounter another person and it’s never been so clear to me the way I took the wild spaciousness and protected beauty of Montana for granted, nor how quickly it can disappear.
Something I love about Appalachia is the way many people here relate to the mountains as more than personal playgrounds. They regard them in their own right and treat them as if they had rights. It’s built into pockets of the culture to fiercely protect what’s left of the wild, with folks coming out in vast numbers to protest the destruction of remaining old growth forests, filling and overflowing Asheville’s city hall with boomboxes and parade floats and well-reasoned arguments to the Forest Service that there’s something more important than a logging company making money.
I love the way people here love what’s here, the way they tend to the Appalachian culture. I’m still blown away by how they crowdfund to buy land back from corporations and build their lives around conscious connection to the earth. Even though the rivers are largely polluted and they have to be stocked with fish anew each spring, even though there’s millions of people within half-a-day’s drive, despite the centuries of logging that’s decimated most of the old growth forests, people here fight for their land and their ways. Maybe it’s precisely that capacity to love the place where you are and the willingness to fight for that love that makes real culture.
Living in North Carolina and witnessing such devoted efforts to restore long degraded ecosystems where the mountain lions are already extinct and moss won’t grow on river rocks with waters running full of pesticides, my mind wonders what could happen if heartfelt conservation grew from the personal playground mentality in an emerging Montana outdoors culture. What could be preserved against the tide of big money and environmental deregulation if people showed up in similar numbers to stand for the vast and still-vibrant wilds of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?
When I’m homesick for Montana, my mind often goes to The Log, the Pintler Valley, my family and that unspeakable deep belonging. I believe that each of us has that place, a center point that holds the moments of homecoming; where the beauty of the world breached the boundaries of our personal story and flooded us with life. I still wrestle with the outrage of motorsports enthusiasts destroying what to me is a sacred site. I ache from afar when I see Montana being sold off to the highest bidder and its wild lands and animals being trapped, treed and tamed. And, who am I to talk because I’m here, not there and “Montana’s” true original inhabitants have been fighting against this same colonialism for hundreds of years.
Maybe the march of so-called progress and its consequences are the unstoppable destiny of our species. It’s taken me years of fighting to sink toward that acceptance. And if that’s the case, maybe my writing is simply a love letter. I think back to all the moments of taking Montana for granted and the way I linger, as awake as possible, when I come back now; the smell of pine on a breeze at sunset, the crisp morning air, the adrenaline blast of a grizzly bear encounter. I think of what could be and still hold the possibility of chaining myself to a bulldozer for those mountains 2000 miles to the west. I really don’t know if I’ll live in Montana, or be able to afford living there again and that scares the shit out of me. So just in case that’s the way it goes, please do me a favor: Slow down and love what you’ve got.