A few minutes before midnight, four days after the Fourth of July, I exit the sole terminal of the Missoula airport with a black backpack full of books, a blue plastic trunk, duct-taped shut to protect my worldly possessions, and the last decent bagels I'll see for six months. I know no one in Montana and nearly nothing about the state itself -- only on the flight out, reading the map in the in-flight magazine, for example, did I learn that it bordered Canada. I'm 24 years old, and I want to live somewhere I can see the stars.
I meet Nick and Crow my first Saturday in town at a fairgrounds demolition derby. In this setting, Nick comes across as reserved, apologizing for bumping shoulders as everyone around us stomps and hollers. Crow, the untamed spirit, has packed his own air horn. Nick majored in classical guitar at Northwestern University; Crow taught snowboarding in Jackson Hole, Wyo. They're both home bottlers, but Crow brews beer while Nick makes a mean Kahlua. Both are also, like me, Midwesterners, born on the former flat tallgrass expanses the French explorers, lacking a word for such stuff, called prairies, or "large meadows," now long since shorn, filled, raised and paved. They both crossed the Continental Divide to become wildlife biologists. Nick studies bighorn sheep. Crow, appropriately enough, researches ravens.
A friendship forms. In the company of my fellow immigrants, I can confess how stupid I feel about what everyone else here takes as common knowledge. In my hometown, Chicago, I once looped three of the world's 10 largest buildings on a single bike ride. Yet it takes me more than a month in Montana before I realize I should change gears to go uphill. Eating out, I can order eggplant in Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Hindi, but I can't tell carrots from potatoes in the rows of a farm, much less identify the needles of a ponderosa pine, the call of the common snipe, or a single constellation save the Big Dipper. Hours I should spend working or finding work, I waste watching clouds more decorated than Wrigley Field float past my window in battalions of 10 and 20 dozen. When deer muddy my lawn at night, I'm not even experienced enough to be annoyed. There's a sense of place here, I say, but I still sense more than I can place.
In response, Nick and Crow tell me where to hike and where to hunt, how to identify birds and how to avoid bears, when the water will be warm enough to swim and when the snow will be solid enough to ski. Following their example, I purchase wool socks and work pants, hiking boots and binoculars. They will make me a Montanan yet, they promise. Even as they say it, though, I realize that what I cherish most about them is the degree to which they are Midwesterners still.
* * *
In the summer and fall of 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, a French-born missionary, and Louis Jolliet, a Canadian mapmaker, traversed Illinois Indian territory near the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Swarms of mosquitoes attacked them in the "unbearable" heat. Abundant bison herds, whose flesh and fat comprised "the best dish at (their) feasts," pushed through grass five or six feet high to nearby riverbanks. After the Revolutionary War, the United States erected Fort Dearborn to guard the strategic portage the Frenchmen called Chicagoua, an Indian name meaning "the place of the wild onion." "The village," a traveler wrote in 1823, "consists of but few huts, inhabited by a miserable race of men. … Their log or bark houses are low, filthy, and disgusting." The most prominent hotel keeper was a Creole fiddler and father of 23 children, Mark Beaubien. He often gave land away to people he liked, but admitted he "didn't expect no town."
* * *
No winter colder than winter in Chicago; no winter sooner than winter in Montana. Summer fire warnings barely end before I see the first new snow. White, wafer-thin, the flakes float as they fall in the lazy manner of light objects. As soon as they touch the grass, they melt. I hug my hands under my armpits for warmth and think: Now I don't have to water the lawn.
In late October, I come down with the flu. For three days, I mope around the house in my pajamas, a box of tissues and a stack of library books from the "detective and adventure" shelves my constant companions. Walking to the bathroom, I trip on the phone book, and, for the first time, notice the alphabetical list of area communities on its cover: Alberton, Bonner, Clinton; Greenough, Huson, Iris; Lolo, Missoula, New Chicago.
Like Chicago? I think. But new?
* * *
In the summer of 1805, two Virginians, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, led their 45-person exploratory party through present-day western Montana. The abundance of grizzly bears impressed Lewis, who called them "a most tremendous animal" in a journal entry. "It seems that the hand of providence has been most wonderfully in our favor with rispict to them," he wrote, "or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity." Instead, along the banks of the Missouri River, 10 grizzlies fell to the muskets of the expedition.