I’m leaving my home state, headed halfway across the world to the lush and fecund landscape of Northern Spain where I’ll be teaching English for a year. And although our relationship is far from a summer fling, I like to think of these last few months as a kind of sweeping affair. As I drive the country roads and highways this summer, I’ve been writing a love letter to Montana, memorizing the gestures, curves and shades of the terrain, taking an inventory of the topography of the heart.
There is something so expansive about the rolling blonde hills, how you can trace the path of the wind in the undulations of their grassy slopes. Deep green hay fields run right to the bottom of a stretch of black and white mountains that erupt from the plains. There are broke-down barns and broad-backed ranchers out in the fields fixing fence. Because there’s always fence to be fixed. Thunderstorms boom through the valleys, twisting the sky all shades of grey and black and then suddenly breaking, cathedral shafts of sunlight filtering down through the clouds.
At my parent’s house near the serpentine spine of the Continental Divide, I can walk from my front door, through our twenty acres and straight onto Forest Service land that stretches for as far as the eye can see. I’ve heard haunting choruses of coyotes from my bedroom window. At the kitchen table, I’ve watched a herd of a hundred elk come down from the forest, spreading out across the hills in a wave of dun. I’ve wandered those hills in every season, found the ruins of cabins and shards of blue and white china, the colors still vivid after a hundred years.
Find a spring, and you’ll probably find some remnant of human life—an empty bottle of tonic that claimed to cure all ails, an old trough half-sunk and mossy in the water. There are rocks arranged in inexplicable circles on certain summits, which seem too ancient and somehow holy to move. Fall is marked by golden shivers of aspen leaves, winter by the starkness of the naked cottonwoods against the grey sky. Spring arrives with a wash of early color, the delicate purple of pasque flowers and the startling magenta of shooting stars hidden in the grass. And summer blooms in great yellow patches across the deep green landscape with the arrival of the arrowleaf balsamroot.
I’ve heard people driving across the country complain about how long it takes to cross Montana, but I like the feeling of living in a place where you can drive for hours and still be home. The Yellowstone River snakes through the prairies of eastern Montana, where the mountainous landscape seamlessly blends into the Great Plains. And as you come further west, your existence becomes defined by which mountain ranges frame the sky, their names a poem in themselves: The Beartooths, the Elkhorns, the Tobacco Roots, the Crazies, the Bitterroots.
Yes, I believe you can miss a landscape like a lover, in the same way a certain person can be a home, a place you’ll always keep returning to. And I fall in love easy and reckless—completely. It’s something that gets a hold of you and never quits: the dusty smell of sagebrush on a hot, wide-open afternoon, the humid, sensual perfume of wild rose after a rainstorm. It’s home.