Most schools have a Homecoming weekend. Red Lodge, Mont., celebrates a different kind of coming home, on Memorial Day.
On the last weekend in May, snowplows
finish clearing the 10,000-foot Beartooth Pass between Red Lodge
and Cooke City. And unless blizzards close it right back up again,
which happens with some regularity, people like to take leisurely
drives through the snowdrifts still piled high beside the road.
Many of the visitors are former residents. Last year I
saw Gary, who left for Australia five years ago; Pat, who left a
few times but most recently for a firefighting job about seven
years ago; and Cindy, who left the previous year for a
better-paying teaching position in a bigger town where her husband
can run a catering business.
As I watched them, I was
reminded of my alumni visits to college: catching up with old
friends, reinvigorating old memories, reinhabiting a space that
used to be quite special. The more time that elapses, the fewer
personal connections you have. Pat admitted to knowing very few
people any more, though he said the new faces struck him as still
belonging to the same types of people he had known.
such returnees are not alumni. They did not "graduate" in the sense
of departing after a ceremony that acknowledged all they'd learned
here. They left under a cloud, or perhaps thunderstorm of
Mostly they couldn't make a living in a town
of just 2,000 residents. So their return is a bit more bittersweet
than a school Homecoming. Because you always expect you'll leave
school. But many people who live in small mountain towns have vague
plans to stay forever.
When they return, then, it must be
to a sense of failure as much as accomplishment. It's not to a
hometown they once fled, but to the place they fled to, the place
they hoped would embody their dreams. They have trouble completely
disengaging. For example, Cindy, whose teaching year ended in a
couple of weeks, told me she hoped to spend much of the summer back
here. Likewise, Gary acknowledged that he'd come back in an instant
if only he could figure out how to make a living.
course, who wouldn't like to travel back to a more innocent time?
Rather than college Homecoming, maybe it's more like returning to
an elementary school: memories of a time in your life when you
thought you didn't have to worry about money. (You were wrong, of
course. But how much fun to recall blissful ignorance and focus on
Like an elementary school, a small town
thrives on stability. Timelessness is part of the draw. You return
to a rural haven and you marvel at its removal from the wider
world. You also marvel at how tiny everything seems, now that you
At a homecoming, everyone has moved on.
But with Gary and Pat and Cindy, I had stayed put. And ironically,
their returns placed doubts in my mind, too. When Pat talked about
living in Alaska, Texas, and California, I envied his travels. When
Gary described the remote ranch in the Sierras that he now
caretakes, I envied his job. In past years, too, I've heard the
returnees summarize loves lost and gained, career milestones
achieved and places explored. And I've felt some jealousy for those
who engage that wider world.
Sure enough, when asked,
"What's new?" I was at a loss for words. I had the same job.
(Thanks to the Internet, I can make a living in a small town. But I
thought: Should I give it up for something more challenging?) I
wasn't married. (I thought: Should I have pursued one of those
relationships that would have meant moving?) Town hadn't changed
much. (I thought: Should I try living somewhere else, just for
I began to think of myself as stuck
in elementary school, continually being held back. Should I have
ventured out of this rural haven? Or even if staying was what I
wanted, was it worth the price of watching so many of my friends
suffer and leave?
I said something like this to Gary --
that it was painful to live in a community where so many people
failed to achieve their dreams. His response warmed me with a
broader perspective a small town sometimes lacks. Other places
offer possibilities in the world, he suggested. Other
accomplishments do bring satisfaction. Other lives can lead to
fulfillment. We can learn from all our experiences; we always gain
the wisdom of the returning graduate.
"It wasn't a
failure of a dream," he said. "This was just the wrong place for me
to achieve it. I needed to leave, so my dreams could succeed