The bittersweet comings and goings in a small town

  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.

But 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 frustration.

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.

Of 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 the bliss.)

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 have perspective.

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 something different?)

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 somewhere else."

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He continues to live and work in Red Lodge, Montana.