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Opinion: Being Montanan

by AVERY HOWE
Photographer | March 6, 2024 2:00 AM

My title should have a question mark behind it, really, because I don’t know how to do that. 

It’s been a while now, but on New Year’s Day I went for a walk across a frozen Stanton Lake with a group of other 20-somethings. Out of six hikers, my dog was the only one of us born in Montana. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina and me, Wyoming. As we looked out over the snowy mountains, Dee, the Pennsylvanian, named their peaks.

I went to a talk at Flathead Valley Community College a week or so ago, and the speaker, Mark Hufstetler, shared excerpts from the journals of early fire lookouts. One of them wrote that he felt he was going crazy, as each night he looked across the mountain peaks and rolled over them in his mind like the beads on a rosary. I thought that was such a pretty thing.

A sense of place is something I haven’t had in a while. I lived in Rochester, New York on and off for college. They kept sending me home for COVID. Then I worked in Maine for a summer. Now I’m here. Every time I move, it’s relearning place names and people and the plants that grow there and the animals that travel through and the history and the weather. After about nine months here, I’m still learning.

My roommate, Jessi the cheesehead, studies maps of the National Forests and keeps a list of the mountains she wants to climb. Every time we pass a flower, she has to stop and take a photo of it and figure out what it is if she doesn’t already know, which is rare. Kate, the southerner, is having her first baby here in May. She and her husband named their new puppy, Bannack, after the Montana ghost town. 

Jessi asked me the other day if I felt like Montanans gatekeep their state. She sees a lot of negatives in online hiking groups, where people don’t want places shared. But when I say I’m not from here, people welcome me to town. 

I understand the worry of new people coming in. Wyoming has its own influx of newcomers buying houses for more than they’re worth, driving up market value. But I go to city council here, and I see people trying to make housing work. Whether that is looking at short-term rental laws, trying to build affordable housing, or working with landlords on utility billing. I think you all should be proud of that. The 20-somethings I’ve met here see potential in your cities. It’s something we didn’t find in our hometowns. There’s a reason we’re here, even though everything is so expensive. I remember the Economic Development Board asking me what they could do to keep young people in my hometown — other small towns can’t keep their kids. There’s no jobs, no one is making progress on affordable housing, minimum wage is crazy low. Obviously there are problems here, but I can see the community trying to solve them in ways I haven’t in other places I’ve lived. 

How long will it take to be Montanan? I’m not sure. In July I’m going to have to get a new license plate, maybe if that says Montana my residency will feel more official. And as for the out-of-staters, even though we may not know the names of every peak, we’re trying to learn. I just wanted to thank the community here for giving us room to do that.