There will be a lot of lasts this week. This is in fact our last Monday in Missoula. Last kickball game tonight, last flag football game for Carson, final cross country practice for Cole. Next week at this time we’ll be in Salem, Oregon meeting up with our trailer that will ship our belongings to Alaska.
Today we are going to take a few hours and go to one of our favorite hot springs. We have a long week of packing our life up into boxes, so I want to spend one last day enjoying the good life of Western Montana.
There are few places like this, and after three years I understand why people carve out a life here despite a poor economic base. The amenities in this region of the Northern Rockies are like nowhere else. Mountains, lakes, rivers, hot springs, national parks and wildlife better than the best zoo are just a few of the reasons people move here.
The adventures we’ve had here as a family can only probably be rivaled by some time spent in the last frontier, but we won’t know that until we have lived it for awhile. Place is the great forgotten character in the story of life. Missoula is a place where people are in touch with that primordial notion of the home pond more than anywhere I’ve ever visited before.
A sense of place defines Missoula so much that people are willing to make less money in return for living in proximity to places like the Rattlesnake wilderness or the Bitterroot Mountains. People carve a life out of some very meager economic sediment. Many of our friends have multiple jobs or cram their families into tiny apartments in order to live somewhere many call the last best place.
I struggled to see this when I first moved here. In fact, for nearly three years I was frustrated at the idea that anyone should earn less because of some nature tax. I still think the idea is absurd, but I’m less inclined to blame those who choose to reside here in spite of the nature tax.
But I will gladly blame city officials and those leaders of the largest industries, including the university, for continuing to make Missoula Poverty With A View. A nature tax does nothing to improve this city, nor does it keep people away as you might hope. Californians continue to move to Montana every year.
Place is integral to our story. When my grandparents told their story, place was a character that shifted with them. It was a trail through mountain passes, a city in northern China, a refugee camp in the Philippines, a boat sailing across the Pacific Ocean. It was an apartment on Geary Street in San Francisco, and I caught up with their story when place was a lovely little house in Pacifica, California.
For others, place is a still point, like every 4th generation Montanan I’ve ever met. They are in tune with the fenced parcel of land back to their great grandfathers who homesteaded these parts. For Native Americans, place is a 10,000-year-old continent finally free of ice where they could roam and have their being.
I don’t have a strong connection to place. If I did, it would be a cedar-lined ocean shore with thundering surf and a salty nose. That’s as close as I can come to identifying with place. I love my parents’ wooded home in the Willamette Valley, but it’s a stop for me. My birthplace of Santa Rosa, California is one of my favorite places. My grandfathers plowed those grape-seeded hillsides and valleys. Richenau an der Rax is where I think I fell in love with mountains, hiking, skiing and life in a quiet woodland. Pasadena, California is where I learned to love big, ugly, sprawling cities teeming with humanity. Salem, Oregon is where I found my best friend. It is also that which is most familiar to me and therefore that from which I most readily flee. Honolulu, Hawaii is where I fell in love with the crossroads, those cities that blend life from many different pathways.
In Missoula, I fell in love with community. No other city exhibits community the way Missoula does. From weekly gatherings for lunch or dinner in Caras Park to First Friday art walks and community runs along the river, I’ve never seen a town so aware of its identity. That I could readily talk to the mayor, leading citizens, long timers and newcomers at any point of any day speaks volumes about how tight this city is.
I don’t have a sense for what Anchorage will be like. Four days there was not enough to get even a small feeling about it. But I can’t wait to find out what I think about it a year from now.
Maybe place moves with me, as it did for my family as they emigrated across the vast Eurasian Steppe. Maybe the cities I’ve lived in collectively add up to place for me. I don’t know. All I really know is that I’ve yet to find that stretch of cedar-lined coast with roaring waves and salty air.