December 18, 2012
“God I love Montana…”
“I do too,” replied Cris, torn from her own drifting thoughts by my abrupt proclamation. “What makes you say that now?”
We were westbound on I-90 crossing yet another expansive valley flanked by gorgeous snowcapped mountains all around. Passing storm clouds filtered the midday light casting the landscape in a golden glow. I didn’t answer her. I didn’t have to. The windshield panorama spoke for itself.
It was hard to believe we were already here. For months we’d been looking forward to this trip, and this return. At times it seemed the moment would never come. But here we were, already three days in and moving fast. Things were going well. We’d raced across the plains to reach Wall on the first night, and the second stopped in Bozeman to enjoy an annual meal-in-passing with our good friend Tracy. We’d hoped to connect with other hiker friends there, Dude and Cole, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards this time around. Our schedule required that we keep moving, and we set aim for that sacred valley in the northwest corner of the state.
With a quick stop for lunch in Missoula, we turned north on Highway 93 and began our final push. Drawing closer and closer to Whitefish, memories came flooding back of every time life had led me there before. I remembered my first arrival in the Flathead; tentatively driving along in my old Dodge Dakota under ominous gray skies. A sudden snow squall had the roads a mess and my hands gripped anxious at the wheel. There was much trepidation, even beyond the driving conditions. I had all of my possessions under a tattered green tarp flapping in the back of the truck. My buddy Bill followed behind, gurgling along in his ’78 Blazer, also loaded to the gills. Neither of us had ever been here. We had no knowledge of the valley, no place to stay. No promises other than the chance for a job interview at the local ski resort and the desire to see a different side of life; experience a world that Iowa could not offer. Montana was a dream; wild and full of possibilities. Whitefish delivered all of that and more.
For several years I made my home here. First only in the winter, migrating back and forth between seasonal jobs; then finally deciding to stay during the summer too. It became the place where I felt most complete, and I came to know it well. I learned the back roads, the local hangouts. I knew the faces on the street downtown. I memorized the names of lakes and mountains and where to find the best burger around. But most importantly, I learned things that can only be truly understood by those who have shared in the experience. The bond between those who found a place here; a sense of friendship and belonging. The camaraderie of those who were local born and raised, and transplants like myself who had gained acceptance for recognizing and appreciating a lifestyle like no other. The emotion of standing outside of the Northern with friends late on a Tuesday night, watching fat flakes falling over Central Avenue and feeling the anticipation build, knowing that tomorrow would be a powder day; and not having another care in the world. That’s Whitefish. I will forever be grateful for the time I spent here, and feel whole again with every return.