By Kevin S. Giles
From my aisle seat aboard the sardine can of an airplane, I manage a glimpse through the window before the sleepy woman in front of me, blinded in a purple sleep mask, fumbles the shade down to block any evidence of the outside world. Imagine flying over some of the best mountains on earth and she doesn’t want to look.
Mountains look small from several miles up. We see them blotched over the landscape like paint globs on a canvas, snow gracing their highest peaks. We see their beginnings and endings and the context of their existence in the wide and wild place we know as Montana.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
It’s always a bit unsettling returning to my native state. The mountains point the way to a long-ago place, a yearning deep in the spirit. Random glimpses through tiny plane windows show me little of what I already know is down there. Those mountains are intensely familiar to me but a sudden turnabout from the crowds and traffic noise that surround me in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area, now 3 million people and growing. It takes time to hear Montana’s wind-born silence. Montanans know what I mean.
My seat mate, by his description an underappreciated rural roads supervisor from a Midwest township, wanted to talk about Obama and Muslims and shooting wolves. It’s never good to discuss a presidential election, or wolves, when there’s no escape.
When the plane lands, I shake hands and exchange first names with the humble burly man sitting next to me. He seems disappointed. He wanted me to join in his vision of America gone mad. Not in a plane, I remind myself. Not when you’re buckled next to each other for three hours, arms pressed together in a weird brotherhood, barely introduced and yet going on about matters like you are old friends. His son has a rifle and ammo waiting at home. They’re going hunting. I remember how it was for me. I recall Dad with his pump-action rifle strapped over his shoulder, bill on his cap folded up, tucking a large chocolate bar for survival into my coat in case he lost me in the woods during a snowstorm. In those mountains, where my heart lies.
In Minnesota, we have bluffs and river gorges and scenic views over shimmering lakes, but we don’t have mountains. It’s hard to explain why mountains matter to someone who has never been to Montana. Outside the airport in Kalispell, I catch a picture of Glacier National Park through a canyon, perfectly framed between tall mountains in the foreground. Glacier calls to me. I was born here, in the nearby town of Whitefish. We lived in Columbia Falls then but it didn’t have a hospital. When I was 4 years old we moved farther south to Deer Lodge, a prison town in a broad valley below Mount Powell. That mountain peak, looming over us, calls to me as well.
When I was a boy I never imagined living anywhere but western Montana. We visited Minneapolis and St. Paul on summer vacation once or twice, Dad at the wheel of our pink-purple Buick station wagon, impatient drivers surging all around us. Buildings were taller than I thought possible. People, so many people. Motorists honking horns, cops blowing whistles, buses rumbling. Back home in Deer Lodge, on a winter night, snow muffled sound except for City Hall blowing curfew, chimes on the hour at the Catholic church, boxcars banging at the railroad yards. Those mountains cradled us in a snowy blanket.
It’s not easy for any Montana expatriate to feel immediately at ease on a return visit. There’s a moment of regret, a feeling of no longer belonging, of having abandoned a good life in pursuit of ambitions elsewhere. I cheated Montana by leaving, moving farther east to where my native state is a mystery to many people and a dream to others. Many of my high school classmates left Montana long ago in pursuit of jobs, like me. A few returned to live here again. Some won’t, ever.
Back east, I never became citified. I never succumbed to a tolerance of jammed freeways and shuffling crowds. I do like amenities of a metro area, such as pro sports and cultural attractions and fine restaurants, and I’ll even set aside my distaste for crowds and gridlock to attend Minnesota’s great get-together, State Fair. On that one day, the number of fair-goers will exceed by 50 times the entire population of my hometown in western Montana. I am a conflicted man or maybe, a rounded one. My mother taught me to appreciate education and culture. My father taught me to love the outdoors. They both taught me to write – my mother, deliberately, and my plainspoken father who swore like a lumberjack and taught me by example the value of straight talk.
I think now and then how it would be for me, a native son, to move back to Montana after so many years. Maybe, as Thomas Wolfe’s literature tells us, it’s true that we can’t go home again, that we can’t recreate our fondest memories. They linger in the dust, footprints to the past. If we hesitate, winds of time dull our tracks until we’ll never find our way back. Or maybe not?
I return to Montana again and again, drawn to whispers from those long-ago days. Sometimes it’s by train, sometimes by car, sometimes from airplanes high above the land where it’s impossible to detect where states begin and end. Through the clouds, the nation streams past, speed compressing cities and prairies and oceans into constricted passenger cabins where travel becomes a test of endurance. We sleep and read and jabber our way across the country. Conversation, being a powerful potion, shortens the ordeal. On this trip, I don’t want to talk presidential politics with the unappreciated township roads supervisor sitting next to me, but I do hear his call of the wild. Those Montana mountains beckon to both of us.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)