Everybody wants a piece of paradise,
A house upon a hill, and a view of heaven.
Elegiac lyrics to “Paradise Lost” by the musical duo Storyhill mourn the domestication of the vibe, vistas, elbow room, and rural character of gorgeous Western towns such as Bozeman and Missoula, Montana. Among the swales, kettle ponds, forested draws and wind-blasted ridges here in Missoula’s North Hills, though, there are still few houses — just views of heaven, room to roam, and the illusion of undisturbed paradise.
Missoulians have largely managed to keep homes off their signature hills and mountains, especially looking north of town, beyond Interstate 90. Ascending a public trail starting near the Orange Street exit, outdoor lovers witness spring wildflowers such as arrow-leaf balsamroot, shooting stars, sagebrush buttercups, and yellow-bells, but soon start noticing leafy spurge, an intruder left largely ungrazed due to a milky, poor tasting substance it contains.
Just east of Bozeman, there’s a subdivision along the Old Bozeman Trail, replete with a gateway entrance sculpture of a sow grizzly and her two cubs, not far from where one of the last area ranchers still herds cattle from pasture to pasture, slowing down summer mountain bikers and motorists, or heavy trucks hoping to dodge stop-and-go traffic on Main Street downtown. To Bozeman’s southwest, away up Cottonwood Canyon, a few of these sculptures’ wilder brethren likely persist. From there, a checkerboard gauntlet of private and public, motorized and non-motorized lands becomes their travel artery into Yellowstone National Park’s wild heart, and wherever else they can still manage to roam throughout Greater Yellowstone.
Back in the 1860s, the unpaved version of The Bozeman Trail hurried through then unceded Native American lands, allowing Fort Laramie Treaty-breaking fortune seekers a risky route to gold fields farther west, especially to boomtown Bannack, population 3,000 back in 1863, and Montana’s first territorial capital. “The Bloody Bozeman” did in fact pass through some of Montana’s true gold — the Gallatin Valley — home to fertile agricultural lands, enriched by glaciation, wind-deposited loess, and a relatively wet climate.
This valley lured many gold seekers to leave the trail, settle the area, and found the town of Bozeman, to fulfill the burgeoning needs of those prospecting farther west. Large scale agriculture began flourishing around the turn of the 20th century. Today, nearly a decade into the 21st century, considerably less farmland is being tilled. Instead, more foundations are poured, houses thrown up, and roads constructed, for the peace of Big Sky living that these new homes afford their owners-a slice of paradise. Some of the most productive agricultural land here is disappearing fast, seduced by some of Montana’s highest real estate prices.
It’s impossible to close the fence after cordoning off your own slice of paradise. People will continue leaving untenable places for ones still exuding possibilities; I was one of them, 17 years ago. Almost always, the deterioration of a place seems to have occurred sometime after we got here. Blame it on newcomers, gated communities, real estate agents and companies, you name it. The larger world keeps intruding and encroaching nonetheless. Whose land is it anyway?
Montana’s resourceful, self-reliant spirit beats fiercely in its remaining wild lands and landscapes, in the wisdom and traditions of its many Native Americans, ranchers, farmers and other stewards with deep and enduring ties to the power of place. In the late 19th century, many Native Americans in the western U.S. performed Ghost Dances, unsettling newcomers and fledgling state governments alike. Stripped of their livelihoods and lifestyles, their intention-fueled prayers and dances focused on driving out white intruders, reclaiming ancestral lands, replacing cows and ploughs with bison, and returning to living in integrity with their surroundings.
We all know how that ended, Native Americans most painfully of all. Montana ghost towns such as Bannack remind us too, that prayers, dreams, and intentions alone don’t guarantee a happy ending, no matter what your wishes may be for the land. The land doesn’t truly belong to anyone. It’s time to start treating it that way.