About a decade ago, I moved to Portland, Oregon from my home state of Indiana, and then a few years later to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. During our time out west we came to own a property in the northwestern corner of Montana, in the Cabinet Mountains of the Kootenai Valley. I loved — still do love — the mountain west. But I don’t live there anymore.

A few years ago in an interview, Neil Young said this:

For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it.

My relationship to geography is confusing as hell. I loved Montana, but while I was living in Portland and Coeur d’ Alene and getting up there only every other weekend or so, I felt painfully isolated. I worked in my home office. All of my family and most of my friends lived in Indiana. I was in an ambivalent marriage, and utterly in denial about it, mostly because I’d already invested fifteen years and I had a young child.

View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana
View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana

Being in Montana took the sting out of most of those feelings. It’s not that I felt safe there; I didn’t. Montana, with its bears, its icy mountain roads and its forest fires near my house every July, always seemed like it was trying to kill me. So I didn’t feel safe. But I felt alive.

In fact, Montana was the only place I could tolerate feeling unsafe. Everywhere else, I just felt the low-level anxiety of an untested person with a life she didn’t know was about to fall apart. In Montana, I could see the real dangers. Except for the mountain lions, they weren’t lurking about, unseen. They were evident.

When my marriage inevitably went belly up out of the blue, I was in Indianapolis when it happened, visiting family. And here I am still, eight years later. Despite a promise to myself that I would never relocate back across the Mississippi River, I knew I was moving back here when it all went down. There were all sorts of good practical reasons for that decision. I’m the kind of person who thinks of those, and acts on them. But then I pine for the things I love that are not practical, the considerations that feed only me.

Eight years on, and I’m still not leaving yet. My kid came through his parents’ divorce when he was five years old with the help of my family and my friends, and I made a commitment that I wasn’t going to rock that foundation again until he was fledged. His dad lives here now, too. One of the only things we still share, other than a strangely lighthearted co-parenting friendship, is an ache for the places we abandoned while we were dismantling our marriage. That’s the only mark left from that ugly parting, and we both bear it still.

So the story of my geography is a struggle between the two most important things in my life: my relationships, and my identity. I found me in Montana, wrapped up in a strange sense of satisfied place that had nothing to do with anyone but myself. I haven’t known it since. I’ve nurtured that self, and grown it, in many other ways. And truly, I think I had to leave Montana to do that. But that sense of being just where I ought to be? That has never really returned.

I think of the other gifts I’ve been given since leaving that wild corner of the country: many more friendships; a marriage of love, intimacy and constancy; a new family; the privilege of being with a friend of three decades as he faces a deadly illness; and scores of explored landscapes I wouldn’t have seen if I’d stayed in a place I never wanted to leave.

I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. But sometimes, I do perceive a sly elegance to the way life unfolds.

I haven’t been back to Montana since I left my house one day in April, eight years ago. I latched the gate behind me and trotted up to the passenger side of the truck, completely unaware I was leaving for good. If I’d known, I might have taken another breath of pine, or one last look at the landscape. Or I would’ve chained myself to the gate. One or the other.

But in two weeks, I’m going back. Not to the Kootenai Valley — I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back there — but to Glacier, where I spent many happy hours hiking and backpacking and paddling. Going with my husband to Montana is probably a bigger act of trust than marrying him was. He’s never been there. Sharing my sacred geography, that place I’ve made bigger than life in my own head since being away, is a surprisingly vulnerable act. But I’m ready. Even if he hated it (which he won’t), I’ve grown enough to understand that we don’t have to be the same person. We are not fused. We can be apart in things, in space, in opinion. This relational breathing room came from the emotional calisthenics of my divorce and new marriage — all of which happened here, in Indiana, my place of discontent.

So Neil Young is right, and geography has a hell of a lot to do with whatever you’re doing, or feeling, or writing or photographing. Here’s what he said after that:

You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.

I’ve been in a good place. And I will be again. So I guess I’ll always be on my way from there. And always on the way back.














22 thoughts on “Back to the wildest corner

  1. I love the West… the wild west. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, the Cascades, Sierras, southern Utah, New Mexico… the high country… but I’ve never lived there… always going there and then returning home, then going again, repeating the pattern. I love the West! The wild west!

    1. I still have yet to see southern Utah and the Sierras. Looking forward to both. New Mexico is where my in-laws live, and I’ve been spending a lot of time there in recent years. LOVE it.

  2. Never been myself, but definitely sounds like a beautiful place. And hmmm, I’ve never thought of writing with regards to location. That’s an interesting way of looking at things, that’s for sure.

    1. I think place is another thing that can get wired into people, like any other passion or relationship or circumstance. It’s huge for me. Maybe not as much for others, I don’t know. 🙂

      1. I think it could definitely be that way for some people more so than others. I really just think it depends on the person. But the world around us can definitely be good inspiration for writing. That is, whenever you know where to look for it.

      1. Yes, it is. He starts in fall. The girl graduates college next weekend and starts here first “real world” job on July 1 (in Eugene!). She and I are taking a road trip through the gorge in between. Life is changing.

  3. Where to start? Wonderful essay. I am a New Englander who cannot be away from the ocean for very long so I get the geography. I have been to many places out West. Glacier NP is on my bucket list. I love national parks. Travelled the southern border of Utah from West to east. Stayed in Yellowstone in WY. Subsequently spent 7 min in Montana just to say I did!
    Spent many hours listening to Neil Young and each decade change the words from 24 and there’s so much more to 34 then 44 and now 54! His quote sounds like a variation of my own philosophy. My thought is you spend your life becoming your mother or active trying not to become her.
    “I didn’t feel safe. I felt alive.” Sentiment of Explorers of the Infinite” one of my all time favorite books.
    Finally, have you watched Stephen Hawkings’ Genius recently? I am catching up w it on demand. I like his way of making life’s tough questions manageable for average people to contemplate.
    Thank you for your thoughtful essay. Truly enjoyed it.

    1. I love that you spent seven minutes in Montana just to say you did. I would do something like that myself. Because why not? This trip is going to be long, and we’ll be doing an overnight backpacking trip in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone (wolves!). And also hitting the Badlands in South Dakota.

      I haven’t watched Genius yet, but it looks like I might want to. Thanks for the rec!

  4. An insightful article!! The saying “For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it.” rings quite true!! I have an experience of it. Whenever I’m at my university, the thoughts that I have, the photos that I click have a sense of aloneness and solitude in them. Back home, my thoughts and photography directly reflects my happy, complacent and stable state!! 🙂
    Regards, Chaitanya Haram

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