Montana, My Love

The truth is this: for much of my life, I was indifferent to nature and the Montana outdoors. Despite being raised here, albeit in Billings but still in Montana, I held no particular affinity for mountains or streams, wild flowers or porcupines, meadowlarks or larkspur. In fact, I rather preferred to be indoors reading a book or listening to music or just daydreaming my life away, all worthwhile pursuits in their own rights but not to the exclusion of experiencing life in the grandeur of Montana’s natural beauty. I just didn’t get it.

I remember my disappointment as a child when my family took a vacation to Yellowstone National Park, a dream destination for most Americans and many others; I looked for the amusement rides and big tops, and felt tremendous disenchantment when told there would be no carnival rides and in fact not even a swing-set or merry-go-round, and absolutely no cotton candy. Why bother, I wondered.
A sedentary, overweight asthmatic, I hated physical education in school, and team sports always ended up being traumatic and embarrassing for me, always the last one picked for every team, always the last runner in, always the only one who couldn’t do a chin-up. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I took control of my weight; with the help of moderate exercise—that was extremely uncomfortable—I lost weight and began to join the world of active adults.
In 1993, we moved to Wilsall, Montana, in the Shields Valley. If ever anyone didn’t deserve to live in such a place of natural splendor, it would have been me, but I began to develop an appreciation for things I before took for granted. It’s a harsher climate there, with fewer days in the 90s (my favorite), but few mountain ranges compare with the Crazy Mountain Range viewed from either the east or the west. High, craggy, brilliantly white in the winter and majestically purple in the summer, I grew accustomed to living between the Crazies, the Bridgers, and the Absaroka Mountain Ranges. The flora and fauna of Montana at 5000 feet became my daily companions: moose, bears, deer, rabbits, gophers, and all manner of birds.
As I aged, I upped my daily exercise in order to maintain a healthy weight, going from daily walks with my cassette tape Walkman and Mary Chapin Carpenter reverberating in my ears to daily runs, as many as six miles a day, and usually in silence. Highway 89 N provided a stable running foundation without too much traffic and afforded me the opportunity to drink in the beauty and stillness and nature that surrounded me. It became—dare I say it—almost sacred.
Montana City, and the general Helena area, is as close to the Shields Valley in beauty and serenity as any place I’ve ever lived. During the past two months, I’ve been nursing a running injury, walking on the treadmill, mostly, and sometimes walking outside. Today, I went out on my daily walk headed north on Highway 518, the beautiful, scenic, low-traffic highway that stretches between Montana City and East Helena. Fifty-one degrees when I left the house, the sun was high and bright, a slight breeze brushed my cheeks, and the spring wildflowers were everywhere, even peeking out of cracks in the asphalt. McClellan Creek parallels the highway, and right now it’s full and a little muddy, but the sound of the water and the smell of the fresh spring grasses made me so happy that I decided to try a run. Along the edges of the concrete plant that gently interfaces with the natural surroundings, the picnic areas provided and maintained by the company, and through the little canyon I comfortably ran, coming upon a group of children on a field trip. They sat in a circle near the creek as an adult stood among them describing the birds of the area. I ran on another half mile or so, probably running a total of one and a half miles, then turned back toward home.
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I spent ninety minutes or so on my trek today, and as I ran, listening to the sounds and seeing the incredible vibrancy of Mother Nature, I felt a fullness in my soul that I cannot adequately describe with words, but it struck me that Montana owns me now; my heart—and my body—finally recognizes Montana as one of my greatest loves, and it will undoubtedly continue to be a very long and passionate affair.

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The Last Week of the Semester…

It seems appropriate–if premature–to write as we conclude the spring 2015 semester. With two days of classes left, this is both one of my favorite and saddest points of each semester. But that’s good: it’s my favorite because I can see the growth of students throughout the semester, almost magical in its astonishing development. It’s the saddest for the same reason. Students who have worked hard, proven themselves through the adversities of everyday life, and demonstrated exceptional resiliency are now moving on, and it’s unlikely I’ll have the privilege of working with them again.

I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I have contributed to that growth, that through my efforts, students have discovered their own strengths and abilities, and that I have made the world a slightly better place because of my investment in students’ learning. That’s no small matter; in fact, that is entirely IT. My paycheck each month is merely the remuneration for signing up with Helena College, but my pay, my intrinsic reward, is the gratitude and goodwill I receive in exchange for my heartfelt desire to help and see students succeed.

This semester, I have watched as many students have taken charge of their own educations, marched ahead with resiliency, and damned the torpedoes. I have watched, also, as some students have relegated their futures to the same fate as their pasts by giving up and giving in. I lose sleep over those students’ futures because I know they are now in a worse place than the day they began, in a worse place than the day they started in January because they now have debt tied to a failed semester. I always warn them, and I cannot understand why they do not hear my cautions.

I have learned, though, that wasting time on losses–anyone’s–is indeed a waste, so I choose to celebrate the wins vigorously. I love commencement ceremonies, and usually cry, and cheer silently to myself as I read and assess final papers, knowing that I send students on with competence and confidence, much like a parent sends his or her child off to college. Similar to my experience as a mother sending my son off to college, I really hate the empty nest, but I really love seeing fledglings fly.