Soon, it will be goodbye to the Colorado Front Range. The moving van is reserved, and Heather and our 4-year-old son, Josiah, will soon aim north and west from Boulder to the Missoula area in western Montana. It will be an adventure. We don't know where we will live, maybe in a condo or a farmhouse. Josiah says, "If we live in a far house, we'll be farmers!"
When I was
four, in 1976, our family rolled out of a driveway in southern
California for a new life in Missoula. (Our California house is now
the parking lot of a Kinko's store.) From the mid-1970s to the
mid-'80s my father, fresh from the Marine Corps, earned a couple of
degrees from the University of Montana. Winters, we lived in family
housing at the base of Mount Sentinel. Summers, my father worked
for the Forest Service, and the five of us packed ourselves snug in
a lookout tower in northern Idaho in the Kaniksu National Forest,
where we searched the wilderness for lightning strikes.
The mornings up there have stayed with me, when the mountaintops
around us stood like islands in a sea of shifting and rolling white
clouds. The radio from the Ranger Station would report the weather
-- overcast, raining and 42 degrees. We'd laugh at the blue sky and
bright sunshine blazing through our window walls.
stuck our sleeping bags in converted shelf space to sleep. In the
stillness of those mornings I listened -- and mimicked in the back
of my throat -- the faraway drone of chainsaws. Always trees were
coming down. Sometimes, if the loggers were close, you could hear
the cry "Timber!" and see a treetop quiver, shake and fall. During
the afternoons I stalked the lookout's catwalk, searching the
ridges and valleys around us with binoculars, hoping for a blaze
I'd be the first to spot. In my childhood fantasy, I was a hero,
stopping fire, the villain.
Never mind that to do laundry
and shop in Priest Lake, we hiked to our van, the trail ending at a
new Forest Service road built for the loggers. The bumpy ride to
town traversed hills where clearcuts spread like mange.
It wasn't until high school that I learned to question the Forest
Service I had served so seriously as a child. The logging companies
became the criminals, the agency their dupe. My brother, sister and
I mocked a sign up Patty Canyon at the eastern edge of Missoula: "A
Healthy Forest is No Accident." We joked about it for years. We'd
say, "This forest is a damn mess," and we'd push rocks around and
shake bushes to parody a nation that seemed to think nature, on its
own, simply couldn't be trusted to make decent woods. It was our
first critique of federal forest policy.
Later, coming to
appreciate fire as a healing, cleansing scourge, I found a new
favorite line. It's how some news reporters describe a burned area
as "destroyed" or "obliterated," as in, "Thousands of acres
destroyed by the Hayman Fire." Are the acres gone?
college in New York, and then in my travels around the nation, from
Boston and Hawaii to the Bay Area in California, I saw cities and
even tiny towns growing through valleys and along highways in fat
tentacles of winding streets and identical homes. Lately, driving
Highway 36 from Boulder to Denver, it feels as if I am watching
time compressed, like in those grade-school nature movies. Out the
window, bulldozed fields give way to rows of framed-up rooms, then
half-built houses, and finally the finished product, with a car in
the driveway, bright green sod and curtains in the windows.
The move to Montana has tangled up my criticism of
suburban sprawl, forced me to confront the fact that I'm part of
this ugly trend. Usually, I've been lucky enough to live in town,
in homes so old I can ignore that only a few decades ago, even a
developed downtown once was grassland. But this move is different.
With a job 30 miles from Missoula, toward Flathead Lake, we want a
home near there. We don't know where exactly, but the home has got
to be on open land that probably not too long ago was countryside.
A house starts with a wood frame, with a chainsaw in a
forest. I hear the western end of Missoula has pushed almost to the
turn-off to Evaro and Flathead. Here we come.