On My Last Day in Montana
On my last day in Montana, I woke to the rush of the Yellowstone River outside the window of my motel in Gardiner and questioned why I had chosen to leave the state for that new job in Washington, D.C.
I spent the morning in Yellowstone. In the Lamar Valley, I watched dozens of bison and their calves, called red dogs, cross the road in front of my parked car. One red dog stopped five feet from my car and looked straight toward me. Maybe it looked at me.
On my last day in Montana, I drove out of Yellowstone by noon, my car loaded with all my possessions. I found rain in Yankee Jim Canyon, patchy clouds in the Paradise Valley. Accelerating to merge onto I-90 East in Livingston, I thought of what a friend was told when she decided to leave Montana: “Paradise is gonna be in the rear-view mirror.”
My sunglasses broke in Big Timber. I drove through Sweet Grass County and past the Crazy Mountain Range, relishing their stunning snowy stature and musing about which of us was crazier. I recalled what that rancher in the foothills of the Crazies once told me: “View soup is pretty thin stuff.” I coursed along the cut banks and scabby, piney cliffs of the Musselshell River.
On my last day in Montana, I reached a sheep ranch outside the town of Roundup. A friend–a Wisconsin native, Montana transplant like me–had been working and living there for the season. I played with Akbash puppies and entered the pen of orphan lambs, called bums. They suckled my fingers and chewed the belt loops on my jeans. I saw a horse named Boone buck a man off onto hard ground patched by greasewood and sage. The explanation was simple: “Some horses never buck. Some never quit.”
On my last day in Montana, my friend guided me up a dry ridge in search of a teepee ring the ranchers had once shown her. Never found it. We rummaged the dusty narrows of an arroyo, told we would certainly find some dinosaur bones. We picked at petrified wood, fossils, and a few shards of what we could only guess were bones—black bits against the white base of the wash. We walked the fence line and ran into a coyote strung upside-down by a snare trap. Strips of fur tugged against its body at right angles in the day’s steady-streaming wind.
On my last day in Montana, an octogenarian whose grandfather had staked a claim before the Homestead Act, who has lived on that sheep ranch since birth, offered me a Coors Lite and asked, “So you’re going to Washington, D.C.? Working for the government?”
“No,” I explained. I would be working for a non-profit helping with fundraising. I think he misheard me.
“So you’ll be collecting funds from people? Yes, the government does a good job at that. They always end up richer than the ranchers, I know that.”
I didn’t try to explain again.
By my last day in Montana, I knew a Wisconsin native who had spent two years in Missoula for graduate school couldn’t ever be as authentic as those ranchers were authentic. But on my last day in Montana, I wondered what I meant by authentic. Their family had built a homestead on this land. Before them, teepee rings. Before them, dinosaur bones.
What’s authentic, out here? Who’s authentic?
“You set those people in D.C. straight,” the grandson of the ranch told me over dinner. We discussed the disease brucellosis, which can spread from bison to cattle. I withheld how I’d started my day. If the bison calf I saw that morning leaves Yellowstone, it might be culled in the name of protecting cattle from brucellosis.
On my last day in Montana I wondered if I could ever be as authentic as my ranchers hosts were authentic. And then I realized that I might be interpreting authenticity for what was really something else: certainty.
Where do I belong? What place and who needs me? What place and whom do I need?
“Washington, D.C.?” the octogenarian questioned again when I said goodbye. “I don’t envy you.”
The ranchers know their answers to the questions I’m asking. Their answers free them; their answers limit them. I envy them. But I know my answers aren’t their answers. They can’t be.
On my last day in Montana I wondered who I was, and to what extent I was of Montana, if at all, and to what extent I was of the Midwest, and to what extent I could be of my new place: an urban hive, so antithetical to a five-generation-deep ranch rooted in Montana’s high sage country.
On my last day in Montana I decided I didn’t know what right was. I knew the ranchers were much closer to right than I. They had certainty about who they are and where they belong.
On my last night in Montana I drank the scent of sage and looked up at a velvet-black big sky, broader than my doubts and deeper than my knowledge. I wondered when I would be authentic, certain. I wondered who I would be on my next day in Montana.