Under the Big Sky

I think I am happiest when I am loping through the mountains of the American West.

This is the thought that pops into my brain as I bound down Entertainment Trail in Helena, Montana.

After a month in Europe [I’ve been terrible at updating my blog. Life update: My boyfriend finished his dissertation! I finished the school year! Then we lived in a camper van in Europe for a month! Then I came to Helena to write while he surfs! Then we go to the PNW and then home to Hawaii!], I have made my way back to Helena, Montana, and got myself to the nearest trailhead as soon as possible.

As I bound and push my way up Mt. Ascension, I finally come to a stretch of beautiful, single track trail around the mountain and through a meadow. It’s here that this thought pops into my head.

I leave the meadow, and go through a few minutes of forest before turning a corner and stumbling onto a beautiful field of wildflowers.

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It stops me in my tracks. I take a breath, and in awe at how truly beautiful it all is, and how blessed I am to be in this space.


When describing my summer plans to people, one of the first questions I inevitably got was, “Why Helena?” I admit, in a whirlwind of Europe, Colorado, and the Pacific North West, Montana is not normally perceived as “exciting” as the other places on my itinerary.

And, in some ways, that’s fair. Helena still has a small-town feel (Population: 31,179). It has an ice cream shop, a few coffee shops, and some local boutiques. It does have some excellent breweries and a wine bar, and it’s also a place where the drivers are so polite to pedestrians that it can sometimes cause a traffic jam. I wouldn’t describe it as a “party” city.

Which, to be fair, isn’t what I wanted. So, after falling in love with this place last year, Helena popped into my mind when I first realized I had the time to give to it. Still, I wasn’t sure how it would be to come back. I didn’t know if the small-town feel would make me as happy as it did last year.

Then, on my first morning, I ran these mountains, and my heart has been floating there ever since.

On my second morning, I ran a different set of trails. The trails here aren’t overcrowded (like they are at home), but you’ll pass by a handful of folks out there– which is nice since there is quite a bit of wildlife in Montana. People are generally very friendly when they’re hiking and this time proved no exception.

I was running around Mt. Helena when I stumbled on an older woman and her three adorable (and very big) dogs. As soon as they saw me, they immediately began bounding over to me, which stopped me dead in my tracks. I love dogs, but I also know they can have different reactions to a new human than you plan.

“Don’t worry,” the woman called as she ran over. “They’re friendly! They just love to be pet.”

I started scratching their heads and ears and laughed, “Don’t we all?!”

She took a second, then laughed– a sparkling sound that made her throw her head back a little. Then, she reached over and patted my shoulder. I love touch, but I rarely receive it from strangers (something I often consider a blessing). I was gross and sweaty from running. I had only been back in Helena for 36 hours.

Still, this woman, who did not know me, took the time to laugh, show me some love, and wish me a safe run. The familiarity of the gesture, the willingness treat me as a friend even in my very not-cute state, is something that stayed with me the rest of the day.

And it was another reminder of why I love this place.

I wrote, last year, that I was admittedly very nervous coming here as a woman of color. Both times I have arrived at Helena Regional Airport, I’m the only person of color there.

I also shared that I had found nothing but kindness and warmth once I was here. That remains true (and I’m seeing more diversity!). I still get some looks, but I am still consistently shown a sense of friendliness that, honestly, I have rarely found anywhere else.

And that has been very, very relieving. My newsfeed is pretty consistently filled with videos and stories of people from oppressed groups having their humanity stripped in public, or being attacked and assaulted outright. It is easy to feel on edge and have very valid concerns about one’s safety just existing in public spaces.

Still, it is nice to know that there are still parts of our country where people are just treated as… people. While I’m sure Helena is not perfect, there is still an overall culture of care that flows through its streets and in its citizens. It is an important reminder that, in a world that consistently feels more hostile, there are places where people coexist with care for the humanity of those around them.

Why is that? Where does that come from?

I was pondering that as I walked home the other day. The streets are tree-lined and quiet– just a few folks walking their dogs or in their gardens once the heat had finally settled down. I passed a woman on her porch, who greeted me, then looked over my shoulder.

I turned and was treated to another beautiful Montana sunset. Gold and orange streaks filled the sky, while the clouds were painted brilliant shades red and purple, adorning the sun as it went behind Mt. Helena.

I once had a professor who noted that “the way you treat land reflects how you treat  people.” There is something about people who grow up or spend time in nature that embodies this truth. Within them is a willingness to connect with things around them and a deeper understanding of their place in a larger world. It comes from knowing the people around you are tied to the same earth that you are and, just by existing there and holding that land in reverence, you create kinship. It goes deeper than culture– it goes to the very place of you that connects with time and physical space itself.  Perhaps the kindness and warmth I have found in Helena comes, in part, from that place.

The woman and I took a moment together to watch the sunset. We did not know each other, yet under Big Sky, we were both children from the same creator, in awe of the beautiful place we were in.

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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At Hellgate Canyon

Stop. Breathe. Again. Good.
Wind whistles in endless pine trees
as your neck cranes higher to look.
-do you see it yet?-
The bright blue sky– paint from a God-hand
streaks through the gaping canyons of yourself.
Places unexplored.

Sit on the black-orange-mold-moss that scares you.
Let yourself reflect on decay, on the parts of yourself dead and dying.
Smell the lambs ear of sage offered to you,
smell the tobacco you offered underneath that,
smell the salt of your own skin underneath that.
Places unexplored.

Sit among the sound of rushing waters– the call of your own blood
bubbling underneath.
Now is the time to ask, to listen to its burbled question,
What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?
Have you stopped to actually listen to the reply?
Have you turned the corner, seen the arrow of your own heart
and the sacred sites it points to?

When you are wobbling on the silk-water of shining rocks,
will you take the steadiness of hands offered?
Embrace the chill?
Both?

Stop. Breathe. Again. Good
Smell the braid of burning sweet grass, a protection.
Love the untamed red of the unknown mountain cherry and
see the ochre faded rust on stone, the handprint swiped like blood.
Smile at the violence used to create
the unexplored gaping canyons of yourself.
Look up at the sky and the wind,
feel your neck crane.
Do you see it yet?
Do you see?

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Many thanks to Melissa Kwasny for leading us here and through the exercise that led to this poem. Needless to say, this experience has already been transformative.