My two lives collided this week. Well, actually there are three, but two of them just rammed up against each other like a semi and a Subaru.
I have never lived in Montana, but Flathead Lake, just south of the western portal of Glacier National Park, is a very special place for me. Summers spent at the cabin, sitting on the dock overlooking the glassy lake, diving into the icy blue water, hiking and camping, picking huckleberries, alert for the scent of grizzlies. Winters spent with grandparents and cousins for the holidays, downhill skiing at Blacktail or on Big Mountain, cross-country skiing in Glacier. The hot, dry breeze and the sere palette, the jagged peaks and Big Sky brought back all of these treasured memories and more.
So did seeing both of my children at the same time for the first time in way too long. More than a decade. To visit with them both in this cherished space was an amazing gift. And a collision of massive proportions.
I grew up in Buffalo, in the city, in the Parkside neighborhood, then near Delevan and Grider, then on Winspear in University Heights. I never hiked or biked or skied or fished or boated. I was the consummate city girl. When I left in 1974, I landed in a truly major metropolis – Bogotá, Colombia. Although my mother was convinced that I lived in a tree in the jungle, my first apartment was actually on the seventh floor of a 14-story high rise (overlooking the bull ring!). Yes, there was an elevator. I continued to know only city.
When I returned to the U.S., I met a man from Montana who would become the father of my children. After a few years in Atlanta (another very big city…there’s a pattern here…) we moved to Boulder, Colorado. I clearly remember my first pair of hiking boots. My first cross-country skis. In fact, my first time on those skis was catastrophic. In the beautiful, snowy Colorado backcountry, I was wearing a pair of unlined children’s mittens and a single pair of cotton socks. My feet were frozen, my fingers were nearly frostbitten, and I had to somehow get up all of these hills wearing skis. And then down them again without killing myself. At the end of the day, my Montana beau had the temerity to tell me that no ski trip would ever be harder. With a couple of minor exceptions, he was right. And I was hooked.
I ended up learning how to cut out blocks of snow and build an igloo, and did several multi-day winter backcountry igloo trips over the years, one when I was pregnant with my son, if memory serves. Summers introduced me to the tops of mountains. Arapahoe Peak was the very first, but many followed, including the Grand Teton to celebrate turning 30. Camping meant backpacking, hauling a tent and food and something to cook it in and on for miles on your back to a campground far away from cars and city lights, usually near a creek or a lake, waking up to birdsong and a bit sore from sleeping on a foam pad on the ground and from the trek the day before. That’s a good kind of sore. The kind of sore that tells you that you have accomplished something.
Lemon drops became the fuel of choice when the kids were tall enough to hike and carry their own backpacks. “Hello down there with the dirty underwear!” was the song they would call from the switchback above to the sibling below. Washing dishes with Dr. Bronner’s in the creek. The scent of pine cones and juniper and the duff on the forest floor.
You don’t take walks in Colorado. You hike, and it’s generally on a trail. The Mesa Trail was just down the rural road that we lived on. I could see the trail wend its way towards the jagged peaks of the Flatirons from the front window of the house. The Dowdy Draw trail was even closer and was bike-friendly. South Boulder Creek and irrigation ditches provided ample tubing options on hot summer days. Everything was outdoors all the time, all year round. For a quarter of a century.
Then I inadvertently moved back to Buffalo just a bit over a decade ago. The dense urban environment felt familiar, like a house I had once lived in but hadn’t re-visited in a long, long time. I quickly became a city girl again, walking on Ring Road in Delaware Park instead of hiking in the Rockies. I fell in love with the rich, residential architecture in Buffalo – stained glass windows, pocket doors, built in linen closets, wainscoting, butler pantries, front porches and the porch culture on tree-lined streets where parking is often a challenge. I became a masterful parallel parker. I came to treasure Buffalo’s rich history and huge potential, its remarkable architectural legacy, its rise, its fall, and its recent rebirth. Such solid foundations, so many ways to make a difference. I immersed myself in Buffalo like I immersed myself in Spanish in 1974 before departing for Colombia. I became fluent in Spanish then, and I feel fluent in Buffalo now.
But I lost track of my hiking boots and my skis. I forgot the sage and sandstone palette of the west, the feel of the sun baking my back and shoulders on a 10-mile hike, the splash of cool mountain creek water on my face. I forgot the language of out West and the outdoors.
It all came crashing back this week on Flathead Lake. An intense nostalgia overwhelmed me. I was reminded of that third life of mine, the one in South America. Although I was fluent in Spanish, I was always a foreigner. La Gringa, I called myself. Neither fish nor fowl. A native of nowhere.
In Montana I found I was a city slicker. Too well-dressed, too much make-up, without all the requisite gear. Not quite macho enough. But in Buffalo I realize I am constantly opening windows and doors, seeking the outdoors in all seasons. Impatient with those who drive two blocks to the store. A bit grubby around the edges.
I am going to endeavor to feel at home in all the worlds in which I have been fortunate enough to have lived. To feel fully at home in Buffalo, and at peace out West. And I need to get back to South America to reclaim that life, too.