Westward Ho(me)

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The moment I exited the jetway and turned around to see the Bridger mountains rising above the valley, I felt it again. As always. I was home.

It was June in Montana, but there was still snow on some of the peaks. The grass was so green–I’d never seen it so green before. I started through the small terminal, laughing, excited as I hustled down to baggage claim, feeling as though a family member would be there to greet me with open arms.

Nobody would be greeting me–but I still felt welcomed. Bozeman, Montana was not where I lived. But I was home. Home where I belonged to the land, to the generous, empty spaces that opened to a sky bigger than any sky I had ever known. I felt like I had a straight jacket taken off me, that I could breathe deeply. My feet felt as though they connected with magnetic energy to the ground. Montana… Montana.

“Some of us have homes. And some of us have a spiritual home. A place where the soul soars, a deep and calm presence is surrendered to, and fear no longer exists. Some of us are blessed to return.”Rebecca Ashton

What makes someone feel like they have a spiritual home, a home different than where they came from or where they live? I can’t answer for everyone, but for me, the ingredients are:
–Quick onset of a sense of peace and safety
–A vague feeling of deja-vu, of having been there, and been happy there, before
–An increase in the flow of ideas, of projects you want to take on
–Nostalgia for the place when you do finally have to go back to where you are currently living.

I think I’m not alone in feeling connected to a place I’ve never lived. A place I can’t claim as home. In fact, there is a Welsh name for this concept of “spiritual home”: “Hiraeth (pronounced [hiraɪ̯θ][1]) is a Welsh concept of longing for home. ‘Hiraeth’ is a word which cannot be completely translated, meaning more than solely “missing something” or “missing home.” It implies the meaning of missing a time, an era, or a person – including homesickness for what may not exist any longer. It is associated with the bittersweet memory of missing something or someone, while being grateful of that/ their existence. It can also be used to describe a longing for a homeland, potentially of your ancestors, where you may have never been.”

I have been to Montana before. Many times. And I did feel, from the first visit, that it was a spiritual home for me. As an adult, I found a place and a person in Montana who helped me deepen my connection to the land.

Back in the 1980s, I started making yearly visits to a small cattle ranch north of Bozeman, Montana in the Bridger Mountains. The ranch was a low-key kind of place that took in guests over the summers. Or they were talked into taking me–just me–as a guest in September when it was snowing, because I was desperate to get out of DC.

In the summers the rancher and his sons would pretend guests were actually helping them by riding horses near grazing cattle, in a slow-motion, low-key facimile of a round-up”. Guests slept in rooms in the main log house, or in small log cabins out back beside a stream. Communal meals were served in the kitchen of that main house, the food cooked by the rancher’s elderly mother in a wood-burning stove with no temperature gauges–but the mother would put her wrist near it and know the temperatures.

Over the years, the rancher guided me on horseback through the mountains, into high meadows and along streams. He taught me the names and uses of plants, made me wise to the behavior of cattle (particularly of the Black Angus bulls who were so agile and wiley that they changed my thinking about cattle). He showed me where to fish for native cut-throat trout in the little creek by the ranch. It was obvious how much he knew and loved every plant, animal, bird, and rock formation of the land, and with his guidance, I, too, began to love the area, the creek, the mountains, the animals, the flowers, the sky so vast and busy at night.

“We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.” —Chief Seattle

As the land and all on it became more familiar and populated my dreams, I grew to feel like the ranch was a sort of home for me. Back East, I painted it–an approaching thunderstorm, the road up from Livingston, horses running. Just thinking about the ranch, my thoughts like hands running across the blowing grasses, over the rumps of the horses eating oats in the barn, or skimming across the cool, effervescent surface of the creek, my breathing slowed, my heart opened up, and I would feel at peace.

IMG_4115In those days when I’d arrive at the Bozeman airport–which was tiny and not busy in the 1980s–I would hurry down to find the rancher’s familiar cowboy hat waiting for me in the lobby. I had such joy seeing his battered old hat and sun-wizened face each year. And I’d feel excited and happy like a kid returning from summer camp.

The rancher and I rarely drove straight to the ranch from the airport, but usually set off on errands “in town” like getting a tractor tire repaired, or buying food for a large party of guests. Or stopping for a piece of pie at a cafe in Livingston, a smaller town about 26 miles to the east, a closer town to the ranch than Bozeman. We’d talk about what had been going on in our lives, about religion and spirituality, about our families, and about the ranch, horses, and his business. I was at peace, comfortable, familiar. At home.

Eventually I met and married an Easterner and although he came only once to the ranch with me, my husband’s existence–our relationship–abruptly ended my connection with the rancher, and then with the ranch itself. I mourned the loss of both the man and my “home” for a long time.

A decade later, I learned through others of the rancher’s dire health crisis which stole from him his ability to ride, to walk, and eventually to talk. The evening he passed away, he instructed his wife to call me “to send his apologies.” She would not speak to me again and I never fully understood what he had to apologize for. Was it his decision to keep me at a distance after I married, never engaging in meaningful conversation again? Was it that he recognized what the loss of connection with the ranch would mean to me?

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I wish I could have let him know that he needn’t have worried that I’d lose my connection to the big skies, the cold rivers, the mountains and animals of Montana. I had already been joined to the state; it was in my blood. I went out there many times after losing the ranch “home, a few times with my then-husband, several times with my sister, and other times with friends. The moment I step off the plane in Bozeman, I’m home. I sing out loud in my rental car, pulling off roads to photograph a cloud or a river. I always go to the Tastee-Freeze in Big Timber. I stop in Livingston for lunch alone and wander over to the Dan Bailey Flyshop to look at flies (no longer tied by local women, but now shipped in from China) and talk with fly-fishers about how fishing is.

I go to Chico Hot Springs and float in the hot pool, looking up at the sky. I grab a giant cookie or two from the bakery in Emigrant. I don’t feel alone–although I am mostly always alone–when I go back to my favorite fishing spots and remember a beautiful cast of line, or the time a moose and her two calves came down to drink at the river as I stood waist-deep in the Yellowstone River, watching them in awe.

I’m home, home in Montana.

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