I was a young and naïve adventurer when I first left Montana for the Big City years ago. I was afraid but I was much more curious, and it didn’t take much encouragement for one summer internship at San Francisco Magazine to turn into a professional life spending more than two decades away. During those years, I lived in two major cities (San Francisco, San Diego), a few storied towns/suburbs (Tiburon, Sausalito, Los Gatos, La Jolla), one house, many apartments and a cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains. I had a few roommates, male and female, and I finally found happiness living alone with cats. (Lots of city people find happiness living alone with cats: epic and/or epidemic, you be the judge.)
Through it all, I missed my Rocky Mountain people.
It was an undercurrent, and the missing of them took many guises (denial among them), but the truth is that I always felt a little bit way down deep that I had run away from home. To some wonderful places, places with some wonderful people, no question about that, but it was always quite clear to me that I was not at home. While I was happy to tell people that I mostly lived in San Francisco, because it truly is a fantastic place to live, I always added a note: But I am originally from Montana.
When I first identified as a Montanan out there in the big world, I was surprised to find that Montana and the West have a certain cachet, a mystique and a romance that has caught fashion. Or perhaps it was always fashionable, but life in the West currently holds allure for a curiously wide variety of people. If they have visited, they have stories. If they have not, they have illusions.
Over the years, I realized that people really love the West because of the kind of crazy characters who choose to live here. You have to be strong, stubborn, smart and courageous to make a good life in a rugged and mostly rural landscape. In the six states New West covers, the census says there are only 9 million adults, aged 18-plus. The geography is massive, but the population is small. While that makes things really interesting, it also often makes life a little harder. Adversity breeds character and voila! There you have it. It is a recipe for the development of really interesting, gutsy and character-filled folks.
They are everywhere.
Recently I had dinner at a 100-year-old schoolhouse-turned-restaurant in the small mountain lake town where I live. Though drop-ins are welcome, there is a local email invitation list that details the (always two) entrées with a request for a response with your choice and your RSVP. You can also call, but RSVPs are requested, given the restaurant is small and its suppliers are some miles away. There is a long communal table in the middle room, where you can choose to sit with friends and strangers, and there is a small room set with individual tables as well. The third room opens at 4:30 and diners (who will be served promptly at 7) are encouraged to come early to sit on the comfy sofa to enjoy wine and conversation prior to the feast.
The tables were adorned with fresh bouquets of luscious-smelling short-lived lilacs from the bush on an abandoned lot across the way. I was encouraged to snip a few of my own to take home, since I couldn’t keep my nose out of the heavenly lavender blossoms, and I have them sitting next to me as I write, perfuming the air with that Montana-in-spring scent I have loved since childhood. In San Francisco, I coaxed lilacs into puny little offerings after years of pampering, but here the lilacs grow wildly and everywhere, and friends drive with shears to take home armloads from hillsides and abandoned lots.
But I digress.
The Friday night dinner included a wonderful and quite representative gathering of people, from a 10-day-old baby to an amazingly modern and charismatic couple in their early 80s. The owner’s son, who just graduated from high school, brought his guitar, which he strummed as he sang during dinner. He also walked down to the ice cream stand to get a 6-year-old named Tia her favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream to eat while the restaurant sang a resounding “Happy Birthday,” Tia hoisted atop an adjoining table for the serenade. (A “friend” of the owner, Tia also helped to clear the table between courses, solemnly gathering all the used knives and forks in a basket to bring back to the kitchen to be washed.) With Tia was her family, who happened to consist of my landscape-helper and his wife, their twin boys, 18-month terrors on wheels, and their newest son, a 10-day-old beauty who quietly snoozed through the entire evening.
I chose (I always choose) the big communal table in the middle room for my dinner, and I luckily drew the couple in their 80s, who had been happily married for more than 50 years. Had they not told me their ages, I’d not have guessed, as the husband still plays (and wins) competitive tennis matches throughout the state. The wife had been a University of Montana School of Business graduate in the 1950’s (think of it, a Montana woman in the School of Business in the mid-century, a pioneering action). She was also a proud Kappa Kappa Gamma, but she didn’t seem to hold it against me that I’d been an unenthusiastic and short-lived Alpha Phi. I heard the story of how they’d met so many years ago, and I was most struck by how happy they were in the telling. They had absolutely chosen one another, and they were still happy about it. They were funny and charming and interesting, and they made me laugh and think and ramble on about my own life experience, in which they seemed genuinely interested. I was, for one dinner, their adopted daughter — that is how acceptance works up here — and we parted new friends.
When I lived in San Francisco, I remember being at a holiday party, and while I was having a wonderful time, a thought kept nagging at me that something was missing. It finally dawned on me that I had grown up in a place where parties and celebrations included 10-day-old babies and 80-year-old couples. In the city, the parties were more sophisticated but in an odd way less diverse. I looked around that gorgeous San Francisco room and realized I was missing the folks on the edges, both edges, of life and it was a loss that I’d never have realized would seem so significant.
The other thing I had forgotten about my Montana, Rocky Mountain folks, was how incredibly talented and well-educated so many of them are. On my New West team, I have worked with two dual-degreed (not dual-majored, but dual-degreed) team members, published novelist(s), working musicians, talented artists, scholars and avid outdoorsmen/women. It did not surprise me to learn that MSN had named Missoula one of eight towns with an “authentic college vibe” in an online news story titled: “College Towns: An Honor Roll.” I was most struck by the description of the active residents “who tend to fish, bike, ski or hike before most of us have stumbled into our first cup of tea.” The article was also proof of the digital connectedness of this region as well, since the author had originally reached out via social media to find the original list. That this is an amazing place to live (with “colorful history, an array of cultural festivals and residential experiences that score plenty of lifestyle points”) is not a surprise to me.
When you combine the inspiration rooted in living on breathtaking land and the indomitable courage and fortitude it takes to make a life here, you find very special people.
Lynn Ingham is publisher and CEO of New West.