Montana’s romantic and rugged landscapes have always had a profound impact on people who have spent time here. Author John Steinbeck, who journeyed through the state in 1960 with Charley, his French poodle, declared “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana, it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
Nearly 60 years later, Montana can still steal your heart, open it more fully, and bring you home to your self. What attracted me here back in 1992 was the palpable feeling of being surrounded by nature, and a heightened sense of personal space and freedom. Time still feels slower and calmer here than it did where I grew up in central Virginia, or in Tokyo, Japan, where I taught English for two years in the late 1980s.
Montana is where I stopped being a restless nomad, where I put down roots, and where I got to know the landscape and my true self better. Here, cities and towns still seem to be swallowed up by a beckoning, undulating landscape, with the horizon visible in all directions. Even in mid-winter, the sun seems reluctant to depart at dusk. Lingering sunsets glow and cast their spell on all who pause to notice and savor them.
Noticing what’s happening in our natural environment is a common trait shared by Montana lovers. In social interactions, people tend to talk about what they have been doing and enjoying outdoors long before sharing what they do for work or where they live. Paying attention to the language of the landscape and nature over time fuels and feeds hearts, souls and minds in a way few other things can. I am especially thankful to be sharing my life journey with someone who also loves living immersed in nature and adventure.
There’s a place Erik and I both like to roam once we’re over Homestake Pass heading east. Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is about a 20-minute detour off of I-90 near Logan, Montana. We love visiting here in all seasons, as it reveals different gifts every time we go.
In winter, we tend to hike on sunny, drier south-facing slopes, as we did about a month ago. Bare rather than snow-covered ground predominated there, and we came across a shed rattlesnake skin impaled upon a prickly pear cactus. From our vantage point, about 300 yards away across a yawning ravine, steep north facing slopes were still deeply cloaked in winter where snows had drifted and piled up with the wind. Above us, hawks, and later on a golden eagle, silently glided and soared in search of sustenance.
On top of the actual buffalo jump, stone tipi rings jut out more prominently in winter. Stunted junipers and other wind tolerant trees flourish in places where Native American eagle catching pits once stood. Grizzly bears, elk and wolves roam not far from this still largely untamed landscape from time to time, although you’re more likely to encounter mule and whitetail deer, and other hikers and their dogs.
I love Montana and its natural beauty and bounty. It’s difficult to analyze, but it anchors and continually reminds me I’m part of something much larger than my own life, thanks to previous generations who saved, protected and were wise stewards of a place they also loved. When you care for and nurture a place it ultimately nurtures and cares for you as well.
Just minutes from home here in Missoula, there are protected natural areas where you can hear your heart beat fiercely over pulsing sounds of freeway traffic, blaring emergency sirens, and droning aircraft overhead. You can feel and hear the wind coming from great distances before it caresses you on a hot summer day, or makes you zip up your jacket on a mid-winter walk. Often, ravens ride thermals overhead, while horses graze in nearby pastures.
When you quiet your mind and ego in such places, you can remember what’s really important, and that seems way easier to do in a place not covered in concrete and asphalt. To me, my love for Montana and nature reaffirms that I am not in this alone. My wild, beating heart and soul is much needed in a world and time where many have embraced fear rather than love.
No matter where you travel in the Last Best Place, Montana’s landscapes leave an indelible imprint; their vastness and beauty have continually shaped Native American worldviews and those of more recent arrivals. Despoiling places for short-term gains and shattering environmental consequences will hopefully remain in Montana’s rearview mirror, so future generations can experience wildlands large enough for grizzlies and eagles to thrive and soar, alongside the human heart, spirit and imagination. That would be a courageous and selfless act of love, paying it forward.