“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time” -T.S. Elliot, The Four Quartets
I could not have asked for a more beautiful backdrop to marvel at as I bumped along a gravel road heading into the Bridger Mountains for an afternoon jaunt in the woods. It’s one of those days when it feels like Montana is purposely putting on a show for us, the citizens of Bozeman, in all it’s Rocky Mountain glory. The sun beams down forever over the landscape- so puzzlingly dry and verdant at the same time- creating it’s own unique color pallet of dusty yellows, lilacs, sages, and, of course, the admirable blue atmosphere above it all that gave Big Sky country it’s name.
I remember a time when the world felt so wide-open and endless underneath this enormous sky, but I haven’t seen it that way in quite some time. So much has happened here over the last twelve years, and now it’s time to say goodbye. Stepping out of my car and into the mountains the way we are so easily able to do here, I wonder: Bozeman, what happened to us?
I recall those first impressions. How otherworldly it felt to inhabit a place cradled by majestic mountain ranges in every direction as far as the eye could see. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I spent the first 18 years of my little life confined to the monotonous and suffocating urban sprawl of the American Midwest. Montana, with all it’s rugged, outdoor allure, was a freedom that I had never known before. Paths ran along rivers with water so clean and clear it was as if they were brimming with a billion crystal prisms, shooting light on pristine wilderness in a every direction, illuminating the world around me. Was there anything more perfect on Earth than this place, so untouched and undiscovered? I thought it would be my little secret forever.
Montana is a special place. It is the fourth biggest state in the USA, with a population smaller than Chicago by a long shot, having just passed the 1 million mark this year. It’s always had it’s share of tourism, being located just an hour outside the nation’s first and possibly most famous National Park, Yellowstone. But in recent years, the word has really gotten out about Montana. I knew that when I was standing in Ogilvie Transportation Center in Downtown Chicago and saw several electronic billboards with those mountains I knew so well, inviting stressed-out and overworked city folks to come unwind in “Montana: The Last Best Place”.
In 2005, when I was 18 and getting ready to go off to college in Bozeman, friends and family would ask me “Where’s Montana?” Back then, Bozeman was primarily a University town where cowboys were still walking around, and mostly only local businesses operated. I was young and it was a new, enchanted world to me. Everything that happened to me here was profoundly meaningful, infused with the magic of this new place.
I’ve watched that quaint, little, off-the-grid, Western town grow into a legit city before my eyes. Since I first arrived, the population has increased by over 10,000 people, with most of that growth happening in just the last few years. Now when I say that I live in Montana, people want to come and visit me. They know exactly where I am talking about. Perhaps they saw it on a big billboard in a big city, calling out to them as they shuffled through their crowded urban lives, prompting them to start thinking that maybe it was time for a big change of their own, under a big sky, with big opportunities to match.
Now Bozeman is the fastest growing community in our country, and it won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Lately, it’s the rows and rows of new, cookie-cutter, developments- taking over what were once pristine fields dotted with deer and elk- that have grabbed my attention. The mountains try to stay stoic, looking on from a distance. Those luminescent rivers lost their luster and the trails where I found solitude in nature are now crowded with people. The construction and wave of growth have created jobs, and Bozeman, in true American spirit, has become a real land of opportunity. Everyone wants their piece of the idyllic paradise that is the West, where there is plenty of space to grow. It’s been in our blood since the pioneers.
What is it about having to share that diminishes the appeal of a place? I’m an outsider here myself; I don’t really have room to complain. Many locals and “lifers” I have talked to about this seem adjusted and even excited about the growth. “This valley could fit at least a million more people in it so, why not?” one friend who grew up here postulated. He sees the change as a good thing. I’ve never done very well with change myself so, maybe it’s my problem.
Maybe it’s me, Bozeman. I’ve reached the top of the trail I was hiking, which terminates at an open, mountain meadow showcasing views over our new metropolis below. Of course, Bozeman has grown. I have grown, too. That is as natural as the scenery before me that I was so captured by all those years ago. Now, as I prepare to leave, I am finally able to see it again in all it’s glory. The rivers sparkle. The valley is wide with possibilities. This could be the most beautiful place on Earth. I recall some lines from a T.S. Eliot poem I read in one of those college courses years ago that inspired me so, lines I didn’t even know that I remembered. Something about how at the end, we will return to the beginning and know the place for the first time. There are always flashes of the beginning at the end.
So things have come full circle, they way they tend to do. An end gives way to a new beginning, and so on and so on. Our past is present in our future. Bozeman will always be a part of who I am. I will leave this place trusting that one day it will be for some new pioneer what it once was for me. I will leave this place with new eyes; eyes that can discern that life itself is change, and see that in every change is opportunity.