Awesome Autumn — Let Us Count the Ways

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Reflections on Life

Fall in Montana is pure magic…probably because it comes and goes faster than you can say “abracadabra.”  But while it’s here, it frames everything in pure golden hues and pink-cheeked smiles.

Here are just a few of the many reasons I love this mountain-studded, river-dappled state in October.  Will you share your favorite thing about fall?

Little girls swimming in pink hats, like our neighbor Ella Chapin.
Even littler girls smiling in pink sweaters, like Sophia Switalski.
A cornucopia of delicious harvested goodness at downtown Farmers Markets.
Vibrant strips of yellow cottonwoods on sparkling clear creeks.
Floating over a colorful town like a blue-green bird.
Playing “fetch the ball” for hours with kiddos at Caras Park.
Random Missoula events, like this dunk tank on a near-freezing evening at the “Pray for Snow” party.
Roasting pigs over open fires…and then eating them. Yum…


Rain-bright streets framing turbulent skies.

The Meaning of Life from “EVST”

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Community and Culture, Reflections on Life

Tom Roy is the reason I moved to Missoula, Montana.  When I visited in 2002, he was the Director of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, which I was considering attending.  It was a big stretch for a California girl to even consider moving to winter-laced Montana, and I figured I better go visit in mid-January to see if I could handle all the white stuff.


Tom Roy was the Director of the UM EVST program for over three decades.


Tom started talking the minute I walked into his office, making jokes and waving his arms around.  He told me the history and purpose of the “the program”–or “EVST,” as students affectionately dub it–and took me upstairs to show me the landscape I’d be studying.  It was a whiteout.


All I could see was blowing snow on the UM Oval, no further than four feet from my nose.  Yet Tom kept talking and waving his arms, pointing out the Rattlesnake Mountains, Lolo Peak, Mount Sentinel, and the Bitterroot Valley.  I nodded along like I could see them.  And he kept telling stories.  Stories about students I’d never met, who wrote books, organized rallies, started new businesses, changed the world.  Stories about how EVST was my vehicle to change the world, too.


I walked outside that January day able to see through the clouds.  I saw unexplored peaks and uncharted river valleys.  I saw unbridled potential in myself and others.  I saw the kind of world I wanted to help create.  And I never looked back.


The people in the Environmental Studies program in Missoula helped me see through the clouds and find clear direction in my life.


Fast forward a decade later, where I just spent the weekend as an alumni “mentor” at an EVST graduate student retreat on Flathead Lake.  Tom was there, along with most of the other professors who helped me wind my way through graduate school goals: Neva, Phil, Len.  And I can safely say that I received more mentoring than I gave, from the fresh-faced, inspired students and from the motivated staff.


Tom reminded me why I moved here.  Why I do what I do every day for the Clark Fork Coalition, and for the rivers and lands in this wonderful state, even if it means I sometimes lose sight of the view through the clouds.


Here’s what Tom said on Sunday: “EVST has always had this edge to it…this  energy…coupled with moral imagination. This graduate program is not about making you the smartest person in one field.  You can go anywhere for that.  This program is about making you the smartest at what most interests you, and then asking you to act on your moral responsibility to be an agent of change.  Hope is not enough.  We want to give you the tools to actualize your hope.”


Later on, as the whole group struggled through an exercise focused on answering questions about our values, strengths, and life goals, Tom interjected: “You know, it’s not the answers that are the most interesting.  It’s the questions that are the whole point, and how you frame those questions.  Answers are just the end of a question.”


What a relief.  Thanks, EVST, for reminding me that my purpose in life is not simply to solve daily problems, but to continue searching for new questions–and new beginnings–instead of endings and answers.


Sailing back to the dock after the EVST Retreat on Flathead Lake this past weekend.


P.S. My friend and another EVST alum, Matt Frank, shared this poem with us at the end of the retreat, which sums up the meaning of life pretty nicely:

  The Way It Is 
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 
– William Stafford


The Breath and the Burn

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Outdoor Adventures


I clip in on my red Kona, and fly down our steep driveway, pedaling toward the fading sunlight blanketing Mount Jumbo across the creek.  The days are getting shorter.  I can’t leave for a mountain bike ride at 7pm anymore, unless it’s a short loop or I don’t mind riding in the cold, dark air.  But I do mind in the fall—it’s too easy to T-bone a black bear or big buck.  The fall in Montana is ripe with wild animals that mill around in lower elevation areas, foraging for food to store up winter fat.

I opt for a short loop on Jumbo, and climb up the steep road to the trailhead at its saddle.  Even though I’ve ridden this road hundreds of times, I’m still awed by the view of the valley floor surrounded on all sides by blue-green mountains.  The trail snakes north up the 4,700-foot “hill” to the forested ridgeline where it meets the Rattlesnake Mountains.

I see a huge hawk sitting on a small pine.  I see my long shadow rolling through the dry golden grass.  I look south to see if I can spot my husband’s white wing flying off Jumbo’s southern summit.  I feel at home.  I feel free.

What I love best about mountain biking is the climb.  I like feeling the breath rushing in and out, and feeling the burn in my thighs.  I like pushing past that breath and burn to see how high I can get.

I’m not as big a fan of the downhill.  Especially the steep shots.  I’ve never been a speed-demon, and this time of year the rutted-out dusty gravel feels precarious, making my belly drop as the rear tire skids out.  But I do love the feeling of leaning, turning, carving my bike around single track on the downhill, and those moments when you forget your body isn’t actually half wheels.

Those are the moments that keep me coming back for more, even on trails I’ve ridden a hundred times.


Solo Backpack from Our Home to My Headwaters

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Fishing, Hiking

Bear hangs in the wilderness are like anchors at sea — it’s what let’s me sleep comfortably in the middle of the woods.

I made this connection during a solo journey into the Rattlesnake Wilderness the first weekend in August.  Rob was busy driving a forklift and playing with power tools, helping our friends build a cabin in Southwestern Montana.  So, I seized the glorious summer weekend, threw some gear in a backpack, threw a trailer on my bike, and headed out the front door at 3pm after work.

I ride my mountain bike up 5 miles of pavement, and then 16 miles of bumpy trail along Rattlesnake Creek, towing my heavy pack.  Around 7pm, I reached the Wilderness boundary, locked the bike to fir tree, and strapped on my backpack.  I hiked up Wrangell Creek about 5 miles, and reached Little Lake, a gorgeous high mountain lake, just as night fell.  Which meant I had to HURRY to set up camp, make dinner, and then get dinner hung out of the reach of hungry bears and curious critters. 

For me, I have to hang a rope right away, so I know my food will be out of range of hungry bears.  That way I can sleep more soundly, especially when I’m all alone in the middle of the woods.  Plus, I suck at throwing, so I figure I should get the dreaded (but critical!) chore out of the way first.

I finally found a good snag halfway around Little Lake (high elevation areas = subalpine firs = tiny branches that don’t hold the weight of my hefty food bag).  Whew.  Food safe for the night.  I settled in my sleeping bag to read, and fell asleep as a lightening storm gave way to gentle rain in my cozy tent.

The next morning, after retrieving the food from it’s bear-proof spot, I decided to hike to the next lake, Glacier Lake.  The first day alone in the mountains I’m usually jumpy, clapping and singing to scare away lions, tigers, and bears (and moose).

But then I settle into the rhythm of silence. By day two and day three, I almost forget I’m not a part of the forest, and rarely make noise.  Maybe this is just because I feel slightly invincible by not getting killed on the way in.

On the second night, my comfort level was tested by 5 mountain goats that interrupted

the silence of sunset as the scrambled over a sheer cliff about 100 yards from my tent.  Awesome creatures.

On the hike out, I catalog what I forgot in my rush to leave my home for the headwaters of my backyard creek: a compass, a utensil (good thing twigs make good chopsticks), a bandana.  And what I was most glad to have with me: a fly rod, my bear hang rope, and a good book.

The reason I love backpacking–and sailing, for that matter–is that you must live in exactly that moment.  You’re only mission is to survive, to plan the next meal and find the next shelter.  There’s a beauty in that, a simplicity and a purpose that leaves me satisfied…and ready to do it all over again.



sunset at caras park in downtown missoula

My North Star = Missoula, Montana

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Community and Culture, Food and Drink

Tonight, I went to my 10th annual Farm Party.  It’s only one block from my house, and said to be the best party of the summer here in Missoula, Montana.  The sunflowers are reaching toward the creek, the acres of corn shelter giggling children, and the rows of shiny veggies gleam next to the wooden stage on the back of a red pickup.  Over 500 people show up, eating dinner, drinking local beer, and dancing to local bands under the late-night Rocky Mountain sunset.

I’ve been to just about every Farm Party since they started in 2002, the year I moved here.  The college kids look younger every year, and my friends seem to procreate exponentially (if the giggles from the corn rows are any indication).  But some things remain constant at the Farm Party: the number of bikes always dwarfs the cars; the beets are always plentiful; and you always see plenty of old and new friends.  As I walked up, with my beer-in-a-jar in one hand and my baseball hat in the other, I laughed at a dad riding a skateboard while pushing one kid in a stroller and yelling at his bike-bound toddler ahead of him.

It’s my last party for a while.

We’re leaving this spring, setting sail for adventures west of my mountains, and for unknown horizons.  I don’t know if we’ll be gone for one year, or two…or ten.  There’s joy in that unknown, and in the freedom of bursting from routine into an unplanned and unscheduled world.  But there’s also joy—and comfort—in knowing we’ll be back.

As I walked home in the mild summer air, the north horizon still reflecting the last rays of sunset at 10pm, I looked up.  Cassiopeia loomed above me, while tipsy bikers careened past my shoulder.  I found the Big Dipper, and gazed at the North Star.  She sits directly above the mountains I know intimately, the trails I’ve biked and the creek I’ve fished and swam in this past decade.

It was such a good decade.

It’s interesting to feel the pull of contradictory needs these last six months before we leave.  I want to cuddle with our dog, or stretch out on our wide, cozy couch before crunching my life into one backpack and one small sailboat.  But I also want to talk to everyone in this community, memorize the children’s faces and let them memorize mine–don’t forget me!–and revel in the sweet, short Montana summer. I want my hair to grow long and blanket me during the cold Montana winter, but I can’t want to crop it short, to keep me cool when I cross the Equator.

My friend Joellen pulled me into a hug the last time I left Missoula for a spell.  I still remember what she whispered in my ear, because I tell it to my friends who leave, too: “We love you.  We’ll miss you.  And we’ll be right here when you get back.”

When I look up at that North Star while I’m in Thailand or Alaska or Hawaii, I’ll picture my friends dancing at a flower-studded farm under an August sunset.   And though I will travel far and wide, in the end I know that the same star will guide me back home.



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