(I’m leaving tomorrow on a road trip that will eventually lead me back to Montana for the first time since I left it eight years ago. I have a weird shrine to this place in my head, so going back is a big deal to me. So I thought I’d re-up the piece I wrote on another blog a few years ago about the first time I was in Montana, at the house we’d eventually buy from my father-in-law at the time.)
I had a house in Montana once, an oddly designed, cedar-sided structure perched on a mountain bench in the northwest corner of the state, near the town of Libby. It was a sometimes-home, a place I fled to whenever possible. The house sat at the top of a winding gravel road that rose gently from the river valley below, a ribbon wrapping the mountain. One spring day a few years ago I left it – briefly, I thought – to return to the suburbs of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where we lived most of time. I loaded up the dogs in the truck, closed and locked the gate behind me as I always did, and drove down the mountain.
I didn’t know I would never see it again.
Seven years before that, late on a winter night, I saw it for the first time.
There are no real airports anywhere near Libby, Montana. The town is nestled in a bend of the Kootenai River, which carves its way through the Cabinet Mountains down from Canada, and eventually empties into the Columbia River. The closest airport with reasonably priced fares was in Spokane, Washington. We landed there, rented a car and drove north into the Idaho panhandle. About an hour south of the Canadian border, we veered sharply east into Montana on Highway 2, an isolated, cold mountain road that leads past the tiny town of Troy, into Libby, and eventually onto Kalispell and the Glacier National Park area.
Once in Libby, we followed Fifth Street out of town toward a now-defunct logging mill. (Later I would learn that moose sometimes wander onto Fifth Street and hang out, creating what passes for a traffic jam in northwest Montana.) Beyond the abandoned mill, we turned onto a back road that parallels the Kootenai River for several miles.
Along this usually empty road, at the base of a minor mountain, there was an unmarked gate – a battered metal bar of little consequence that served more as notice than a barrier. Late one night in December, we pulled our rented SUV up to the gate – we had missed it the first time and had to turn around – and I hopped out. There was a crunch as my boots hit the old, packed snow. The icy air froze the hairs inside my nostrils with each breath. I looked up at the thin, black sky; a few stars poked through the cloud cover here and there. I lay my hands on the metal gate and flinched a bit as the metal drained the warmth from my fingers – I should have put my gloves on first. As I’d been instructed, I unhooked the heavy bar from its notch and pushed it open with the weight of my body, using the momentum to swing it wide. The road ahead was dimly lit by our headlights, and it curved around and disappeared into a stand of evergreens, their snow-sleeved branches draped alongside thick trunks.
The SUV drove past the now-open gate, and for a moment I wondered if it would stop, and what it would be like to be left alone on the silent, cold road. But the brake lights soon flickered a few feet ahead, and I re-latched the gate and ran up the slope to catch them. This would become a ritual for me in the next seven years; the arrival at the bottom of the mountain, exiting the vehicle to swing open the gate, sucking in the pungent scent of pine in summer, absorbing the sting of the cold gate in winter. But all of this was new as I hiked up the hill that night in fresh tire tracks.
Once I was back in the warmth of the car, my then-husband, Gil, shifted into all-wheel drive and we climbed steadily upward. The lights of the town twinkled below. The road in places was unnervingly narrow and slickly coated with packed snow. Looking through the dark trees, I wondered where the bears were hibernating, and whether the mountain lions, who are not as sluggish in the winter, were lurking anywhere close.
After several turns around the mountain, another gate presented itself, this one closed and padlocked. Beyond that gate loomed a cedar-sided house with many angles and sloped roofs. This was the house my father-in-law had bought the year before. He spent time here only in summer, so the place had been closed up since September. The house was entirely dark, except for a single light above a door that opened to the garage. Gil reached into the back seat and fished an envelope out of his duffel bag with his dad’s handwriting scrawled across the front. He withdrew two keys from it – one for the gate, and another for the house. I hopped out again and performed another gate opening, and we drove the final hundred yards to the door on fresh, un-plowed snow. He used the second key to unlock the door, which had an ornate pattern carved in the wood. From there you could climb upstairs to the main part of the house, or go through a door in the back of the garage that led to the bedrooms and a glass-walled solarium.
The inside of the house was jarring. The place had been built in the early 1980s, when the color schemes of the seventies had begun colliding with the pastel palettes of the next decade. The front room, a sort of kitchen-great room combination, featured orange carpets and rust-colored formica countertops. The living room on the other end of the house had powder blue carpet and a bathroom with a toilet in a nauseous mauve shade. (Because nothing says Montana like a pink crapper.) In between the front room and the living room, as if standing between the two decades, was a nondescript dining area painted gray, with beat-up parquet flooring. The entire place had a lonely, unlived-in feeling.
A few days later I would find, sealed into the frame of the front door, the perfectly preserved skeleton of a toad that had been in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. No one had noticed it in the intervening years, or thought to remove it. I never had the heart to remove it myself, even after I owned the place. It became a kind of morbid mascot for my house in the Northwoods.
And yet, when I looked upward in the front room – instead of down at the unfortunate carpet – there was a gracefully slanted timber frame ceiling, its hard wood gleaming. A broad picture window looked out at the valley, and framed the tips of the Cabinet Mountains. I would stand there many times over the next seven years gazing at the view. In the evening, the sun might be sinking behind the peaks and setting them alight. If it was summertime, I would hear the chirps of grasshoppers, or the loud flap of a grouse’s wings through the open window. If it was the middle of the night, and I’d come upstairs for a snack or a drink, I might hear the coyotes and the neighbor dogs howling at each other down the road.
But late that freezing night, we just stood in the middle of the front room, looking around. The far wall of the room had windows that opened to a glass-walled solarium, and a hot tub on the first floor below. Gil cranked open one of the windows and peeked out. It was a strange house, with unexpected rooms and corners and crannies decorated in terrible colors, all improbably situated on the side of a mountain.
“Damn,” he said in awe as he turned from the window. I nodded, sharing his sense of homecoming. I’d never been anywhere I was more clearly meant to be.