Looking at sprawl in familiar faces

  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.

We kids 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?

In 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.

Robert Struckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer looking for a new home in Montana.