There was no way I was going to figure out when I was little how I would ever trick the American government to make me an American citizen. And so, my dream was that one day, I will find a way to “swim” across that Big Pond, and make it to the Promise Land, and once here I will just hitch a ride to Montana, work on a farm as a hired hand, and no one will ever, ever find me or worry that I am staying here illegally. No one will ever check papers there. No one will ever care. To me, Montana was like the last shore. End of the world. Not in a punishing sense, but in a “go no longer” kind of a sense. The shore of freedom and of no authority.
Well, many moons later, and 7 years after I earned my citizenship, I made it to Montana. This was my second visit, but, in a sense, it was my first one, as this one targeted the heart of the state, instead of its outskirts bordering Wyoming and Idaho, as before.
And what I found is that although pretty scarce in population, Montana is not totally void of people. I am pretty sure one could still live incognito in that state, but I am also pretty sure that one or two neighbors would notice, too!
We were headed to White Sulphur Springs, for the annual Red Ants Pants Bluegrass Festival (I know: isn’t the name great?!), but we ended up staying 70+ miles out, in Helena, as there was no place at the inn anywhere closer. The drive between the capital city and White Sulphur Springs is a wild one. Literally. You cross through Helena National Forest and there is nothing there, for many, many miles. The Montana (and Idaho, and Wyoming) staples of farmland are nowhere to be seen. Nothing but woods and streams. And mountains, of course. Just the epitome of peaceful, wild country.
Another “dream” I was chasing was the band Donna the Buffalo. Originally from Upstate New York, they don’t come out West often, so when they make it to … Montana, at said festival, one must drive to share the oxygen with them for a bit. It was probably the quietest festival I have ever partaken in. Montana people are ever so happy, quiet and respectful, really. Just the most organized and subdued crowd.
Happy crowds under Big Skies - Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs, MT
Helena is actually a pretty urban spot, as small cities go. We walked about the streets, had some Greek food, some local beer, visited The Capitol, which is gorgeous for its scarcity of official business (only two legislature meetings a term, one, every 2 years), and we tried to find some trout! We saw fly fishers everywhere in the state. They even built statues for them, to celebrate the … Montana sport of choice, I suspect! But no trout on any menus. Anywhere we looked. I have officially decided people can’t fish in these parts, or trout is smarter than fishermen.
The roof of The Rotunda, inside The Montana Capitol building
For all its mountainous, lush green beauty and fresh air, Helena failed to feel like home, for some reason. Now, notice that I didn’t say “Montana”, but just … Helena. It did feel cozy when the bells at Cathedral of Saint Helena started tolling for the wedding and the whole city echoed with peace and good news. But there was something amiss on this trip. Something I wished I found but was elusive.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" - Cathedral of Saint Helena - Helena, MT
With its “last chance” culture all around (the Last Chance Gulch is going like a main artery right through the heart of the city), Helena does have sort of the “end of the world” kind of nostalgia I was picturing when thinking about Montana. There is a feeling that once you get here, you’re pretty much reached the end of the road: you have what you need or you’re going to have the resoluteness to find it within you to survive! There are no resources, other than human brains. You’ve got them, or you turn around and go back. This survivalist call spoke to me.
Back in the more earthy, superfluous realm of my travels, yet another dream I have chased for years, and still am, are mailbox shots. You think I am crazy, but I love to shoot (as in Canon, not Smith & Wesson) mailboxes lined up in the middle of nowhere. Equal only to the middle of the Nevada Desert, Montana offers great opps for this! We tried finding Spring Meadow Lake State Park (which we never did), and en route there, we drove through this suburban area which in Montana means farm after farm after farm, or one 10 acre lot after another. We never did see a cookie cutter kind of neighborhood, where houses are clustered together in this uncreative, lets-cut-all-the-trees, the-only-way-the-builder-could-afford-to-make-a-profit, with-total-disrespect-for-human-privacy kind of way… It was refreshing to not see the natural beauty of the state poisoned by such sights.
And when you have large lots+scarce houses+middle of nowehere+dirt roads, you have a recipe for incredible mailbox shots! I feel like each box says a story about each proprietor. Each one, as unique as its people, waiting for news, any news, from the wide world, to reach these lonely and scant parts. They are a testimony of patience to me. Mailboxes are. All of them. Just waiting, together.
I’m still looking for my getaway, end of the world spot, here in America. And for my home, really. The Helena area of Montana was not it. But the beauty is in the journey, and I’ll keep looking, chasing one mailbox after another, or one bluegrass band after another, whichever comes first. One of these days, the eyes of the soul will see and the ears will hear …
Click on the picture to browse the complete album of this trip.