Sometimes you leave a place, but the place doesn’t leave you. Like a burr that sticks to the cuff of your pants, you carry it around with you without even knowing.
Don Gayton, a writer from British Columbia, Canada, has coined the term “primal landscape.” It means the landscape a person most identifies with. At some point, ideally, in every person's life there’s a bonding that happens and the land becomes known, familiar and comforting. For my part, I’m newly back in the West after what I describe to friends as a two-year exile in New Jersey.
All joking aside, and with no disrespect to Gov. Christie, Bruce Springsteen or the Sandy-bashed coast, what I’m saying is that I have been away from my home, away from my primal landscape, and I felt it, nearly every day.
Another writer, Henry David Thoreau, a stay-at-home kind of guy if there ever was one, famously said, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” After my stint in The Garden State, I could say the same for enterprises that require a new landscape. You can’t change who you are.
The week I arrived back in Missoula, even before I could unpack my library or chainsaw, the local alternative newspaper, The Independent, ran a story about people who leave Missoula only to be drawn back, enacting what the paper called a kind of boomerang effect. I didn’t know it was such a common thing, or that I was so predictable, but this whipsaw version of return had a basis in fact, and I was living proof. At the same time and despite its premise, the story, full of hometown pride, made me think that the phenomenon wasn’t restricted to Missoula. Montana as a state has a magnetic pull on people. But when viewed through the lens of my East Coast maneuver, I saw something even larger: It’s the West as a whole that doesn’t let go. You just can’t buck it off.
When I was in my 20s, the idea of being a nomad appealed to me, and I take pride in having bumped around a bit, both here and abroad. Back then my idea of home was my backpack, and my idea of landscape so ill formed I didn’t have one. These days, gray hair an increasing reality in the mirror, the notion of settling down and sticking is ever more appealing. Granted, there’s something to be said for spontaneity and mobility, but there’s also something deep-seated and real about local knowledge and intimacy with a place.
There is an old phrase, adapted to nearly every state and situation, “You can take the boy (or girl) out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” In New Jersey, I wore my cowboy boots with what can only be described as smug pride, and for the longest time made sure they maintained a coat of honest-to-goodness Montana dust.
It was no secret I didn’t want to leave the West, and so wearing those boots on my trips to Manhattan was in part a matter of protest, as well as an exercise in denial. This isn’t to say I’m a cowboy, drugstore or otherwise, but after 20-plus years of living on the left side of the map, I’d come to identify myself as a Westerner, and in what is surely one of the greatest ironies of them all, I don’t even know what this means -- I just feel that way, see myself this way -- a Westerner.
In the end, for the two years I was away, I was never really that -- away. Most nights and even more so in my waking moments, I dreamed of the day I could return. Like colossal touchstones, bison moved across both the high and low plains of my dreams, while images of the Blackfoot River ribboned my thinking.
There were hours lost to longing for a view that didn’t stop. Days spent shrugging off that peculiar urban-based claustrophobia that shades up in the East. What I learned, through trial and error, is the West gets in under your skin, in deep down to your bones and your psyche. Because in the end you’re not just who you are, but where you are, and when you’re not there physically, you still are there at heart.
In my case, for better or worse, my primal landscape has become the West, and I’m the burr stuck on the hem of Montana, not the other way around.
Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes from Missoula, Montana.
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