An Ode to the Last Best Place

Yesterday morning, I climbed up Mount Helena one last time this summer.

When I first accepted a spot in this fellowship, I not only had no idea what to expect, but entered the process full of misconceptions. Firstly, I had no idea exactly where I was going. I had mistakenly assumed I’d be in Wyoming (where, to be fair, much of Yellowstone lays), for much of my summer. Either way, both Wyoming and Montana were states and regions unvisited and unmapped in my life. I had, in truth, no idea what to expect when I came out here.

Now, after two weeks in Helena, I walked outside a few nights ago to a raging red sky, and heaved a sigh that this was the last time this summer I’d watch the sun set at incredibly late hours under the face of Mount Helena, the last swipes of God’s brush streaking brilliant streams of orange-gold in purple canvas. When I left Hawai’i this summer, I didn’t expect to find lava in Montana skies, but there it was– another sort of fire goddess over the endless horizon around it; Big Sky a name never seeming more apropos than when the heavens are endless fields of light.

Then, this morning, I started trudging (there is no other word, my body ached) up Mount Helena’s 1906 trail– the only other time being my first morning in Helena. Every few minutes, I forced myself to stop and look around at where I was, still in awe at the scope of the place. Endless sky and blankets of pines cover the mountainside in a formation that I know is wild, yet is almost painful in the true perfection of it.

And I cried.

Not out of sadness, though I’m really sad to be leaving, but out of a far deeper, more visceral reaction. The gnawing in my chest when I saw the pines or looked up the faces of gulch cayon walls spoke to something more wild, more primitive even, in my being. It spoke to this deep connection between me, the feral beauty of the land, the creator who had set it all in motion, and the fate of that endless cycle in the future. Seeing the raw beauty of this place hit me right in a spot of my body that swelled with gratitude, awe, joy, and serentity that I honestly don’t know if I’ve felt before.

The word I keep using to describe what I’ve expereienced in Montana is “vast”– the immense vastness, the sheer scale of its beauty has been overwhelming to witness. For all intents and purposes, it should– and does, I suppose– put into persepctive my own small place in the world. I am dwarfed by the sheer scale of this place.

Yet, far from demeaning in any way, the experience has only been renewing. I see this beauty, am awe-struck, and then am filled with a charge, a kuleana, to appreciate and be grateful for this place.

There’s a phrase in Montana often used by locals to describe the state, calling it “The Last Best Place.” There’s much debate and discussion as to the origin and meaning of the phrase– but it can be found throughout as a pride-filled monker for a big state that still has elements of small-town life (in my limited experience). A lifelong Montana resident I met out here described it as “the last place of its kind to be preserved. Public lands, small-town friendliness, strangers helping strangers, more cows than people, bipartianship, that kind of thing.”

And that’s overwhelmingly been what I’ve found here. As, admttedly, unsure as I was (especially as a woman of color travelling to a mostly White state), I have found nothing but kidness, joy, and a fierce and loving sense of pride. I have been welcomed like family, given new friends, bought drinks and passionately and lovingly debated politics with people I have just met. I have felt genuine interest in my story from people here; I have seen a genuine desire to share their own stories too. There’s a love not necessarily for a culture, but rather for the very land itself. For the actual soil on which we move on each day, for each pine tree blanketing the mountain.

No place is perfect, of course. No place, particularly in the American West, is without its history– bloodied and ravaging– of how it came to exist today. Montana is not without its struggles, especially as a rual community. That same resident also reminded me that the phrase is “a little self-depricating, in that a lot of Montanans (like people from anywehre else would do) come back home because they don’t know where else to go.”

That’s the thing, though. The place– the earth itself and the people here– have called home to my soul in a way I have never experienced from a place I had never been to before. It called back to the deepest roots of myself, the parts shorn from the land itself, and forced me to listen to my own beating heart. It cured, as Stephen Mather said, the “restless nation” bubbling in my blood.

So, when they call it “The Last Best Place,” I see what they mean. To this visitor, anyway, it’s one of the last places calling us home to the earth we came from. It’s a place that gives you the space to find, hear, and discover the best of yourself. It’s a place, at last, that allows you to sit under big skies of golden light, consider the large scope of human kindness, and allows your soul to start finding its way home.

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