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.
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.