By Antonia Malchik
Great Northern Bar in Whitefish, Montana, had once been a real local hangout until it got into all the guidebooks described as “a real local hangout.” Now, the round, garrulous bartender serves too-clean tourists alongside locals with greasy baseball caps and drooping, walrus-sized mustaches.
Over pints of Moose Drool we’ve been chewing over local development, which has been moving at an accelerated rate since the Aspen Corporation bought Big Mountain, the ski hill under which Whitefish is clumped.
The brown ale’s malty flavor makes me wonder what took me so long to come back home. When I left my hometown first for college and then to live overseas, I didn’t know if I would permanently return. As a travel writer, I lived happily in Europe, Russia, and Australia, keeping the static image of my perfect home with its clear mountain air as an assuring beacon. Montana, I assured myself during my twenties, was my last best place. It would always be there.
That was until I took my English-born husband Ian to Whitefish and reality socked me. We’re looking to move back here, Ian and I told the bartender, but the property prices are staggering. “Where are all the young families goin’?”
“Eh, C-Falls, Kal’spell,” he figures, wiping down the counter. Columbia Falls and Kalispell, Whitefish’s neighbors, have always been more blue-collar than my hometown, where former hippies nurtured a nature-loving tourist industry.
“You don’t sound like you’re from here.”
“I’m from Tennessee.”
“Yup.” A slosh of the rag sends my empty glass skittering and he gets me a refill. “This is a better place though. Or useda be. I bin here twenty-five years. It’s not the same.”
“You think the town’s dying?” He puts cash in the register and shouts at a white-haired tourist who’s brought his loafers and khaki shorts too far behind the bar.
“It’s already dead.”
At our bed-and-breakfast’s rustic log tables, Ian and I fall into chatting over huckleberry waffles with a couple from Texas. Our first morning, we got talking real estate, where I voiced shock at the rise in property prices (more than double since my mother sold her house five years before) and our worry that we wouldn’t be able to afford moving back. Now, in some sort of self-flagellation, I can’t stop talking with them about their plans to buy a vacation home here.
The man has a slightly chagrined look as, with defensive smugness softened by a Texas drawl, he says, “I guess we’re part of the problem.” This friendly, tidy, golf-playing guy and his wife then relate their previous day’s real estate search, touring the premises of an Iron Horse golf club.
“They’ve got them all over the country,” says his wife, “and you have to own property on it to play the course.” My next question feels stupid, but then, I figure, so is their need to play golf on an exclusive course up a mountainside.
“Couldn’t you just play on the public course downtown? I mean, if you’re only going to be here a couple months a year …” And that’s where my charitable view of this couple hits a pothole. Because there I am, wanting to move back to a home I love fiercely, yet facing the incomprehensible prospect of not being able to afford Montana. And there they are, willing to drop over half a million dollars to buy an empty quarter-acre lot so they can golf a particular eighteen holes once a year. How can my meager income compete with that? How can anyone’s?
I am reminded of this couple when having lunch with one of my former high school teachers the next day. “I don’t understand these people,” his wife says. “There’s this woman I know having trouble selling her 4300-square-foot house. She’s got a driveway almost a mile long. Who in their right mind would want to plow that in winter?” The acquaintance, like many snowbirds, only lives in Whitefish in the summer. “What did she come here for in the first place?”
What do people come for? Some Montana mystique? The last best place? The lure of Western individualism? You might as well ask why people go anywhere at all.
The question is, what do I come for? What is this place I am hoping to return to, after years of living abroad and then on the East Coast with my English husband and our kids? How is my dream of Montana any different from theirs? The frontier is gone. The wilderness is sometimes preserved, sometimes not. The town is like towns all over the world—people pushing and pulling and rubbing along together, trying to build good lives for themselves and their children. Do I deserve the Big Sky more because they love it less? What do I think I’ll find here, if I move back? What sort of magic could keep Montana secure from the rapacious spread of humanity?
“I need to get out of here,” I say to Ian after three days. We’ve hiked up Big Mountain once, stuffing ourselves with this year’s bumper wild huckleberry crop along the way. The rest of the time we drove around the countryside, as all the other tourists do, “looking at real estate,” and I can’t take anymore. The sight of log McMansion developments carving their way up once-empty mountainsides and gargantuan, hotel-sized homes on what were once the sites of human-sized farmhouses left me reeling. A speck of land on the lake, a place once perfect for communal high school bonfires, costs over a million dollars. I try to imagine my kids growing up here, whether they would have the slightest chance of absorbing the wilderness in their blood, something that I took for granted until coming back, and I feel as if I’ve been shot in the gut.
We drive out toward East Glacier, where my mother and I used to escape Whitefish’s abnormally gray winters. The road winds along the bottom of Glacier National Park’s big-shouldered mountains and shoots out onto the prairie like it’s been loaded with gunpowder.
Here, on the Blackfeet reservation, little has changed. For how long, I wonder? The clouds brushstroke across the sky and the prairie warps into the mangled toes of the Rocky Mountains. Behind us, unfarmed hills hold yellowbell, pasqueflower, bitterroot: indigenous prairie flowers that were rare even before the specters of housing developments and oil drilling encroached on their remaining landscape. Just to the north is the Two Medicine formation, where I first fell in love with geology and dinosaurs, history learned from stone rather than books. To the east rolls the land where generations of my grandfathers scraped out boundaries of their wheat ranches.
It brings no relief to acknowledge that my great-great-grandparents inflicted a similar kind of harm on the Native American tribes and their landscape that I wail about in Whitefish: carving up grasslands and enclosing the prairie to plow it under for wheat and cattle. I might feel some tenuous connection to the people whose teepee rings still mark my second cousin’s cattle fields, but I wouldn’t know this landscape, wouldn’t love it, if those whose home it was for centuries hadn’t been pushed out to make room for people like my ancestors. In the end, the losers always seem to be those who love the land and their relationship with it the most, those who have little desire for more.
We drive along the craze-lined hills where few tourists penetrate and the wind talks only to cattle and horses and trees. We pass a sign for neglected road repairs. “Rough Break,” it says in orange. No kidding.
In a life driven by a craving for culture shock, I never thought that the most difficult integration would be back into my own hometown. Years of living abroad, plus several more feeling like an alien on the U.S.’s East Coast, and now I don’t know if I have the courage to return. I love Montana more than I ever have another person, and its alteration has hit me harder than the betrayal of any person could. It seems easier, now, to escape overseas, to learn a new language and culture anywhere else, than it does to come back and face the reality of fighting for a home whose spirit is dying.
Seeing the effects of wealthy influxes on my community, where prices are driving young people out, I am torn between a desire to move back right now, immediately, to throw myself into the yanking between hyper-development and preservation; and running away, somewhere overseas where I can just be an observer and chronicler in the trials of some other community. It’s easier to be the invader than the mourner, to take on the role of the couple from Texas somewhere else, with less money, perhaps, but not with any more right to belong. It’s easier to move to a place that can’t hurt me.
But to renounce Montana entirely is unthinkable—I wish it could remain protected, so that I can wander, knowing home will always be there. For those of the pioneer spirit, there is nowhere left to run.
The day before we leave, Ian and I get up early, intent on one last hike and handfuls of huckleberries.
Partway up Big Mountain’s hairpin turns (which are being widened and softened) is a lookout maintained by the forest service. Its loop road is almost unnoticeable and leads only to one picnic table set near a rock ledge. I used to come to this place in high school, early in the morning, latte in hand, to watch the sun lighten the valley and sip coffee in the near-silence of pine whispers.
The lookout is still there. But I stop, stunned, at the evidence of a new development being cut in right above it. The little loop is ripped up, the road mashed out for access to what will be more multi-million dollar homes, more evidence that even Big Sky country’s open views are only for the wealthy.
I turn my back to it, gulping back sobs, craving this one small piece of my life to be left alone. My heart scrabbles to voice a cry of injustice: Shouldn’t this beauty belong to everyone? We sit on the picnic table and Ian puts his arm around me. Lodgepole pines stand sentry over a plunging view that I wish desperately had no monetary value. Do I fight or run?
I think of other places I’ve lived in and fallen for, of Scotland’s Outer Hebridean islands, of Moscow and Vienna, and the Australian Outback. Maybe I’ve carried my Montana dream to all of them, infused them with a love of my home that runs so deep it’s almost like DNA. I’m scared to return, scared of the changes, scared of the pain. But home, for me, doesn’t actually exist anywhere else.
On that cool August morning, the refrain of a song my mother once wrote comes back to me. In all the wide world, none of those other places have the pull of her simple words: “I’d rather give up heaven than Montana.”
ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and literary journals, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. She can be reached through her website, antoniamalchik.com.