Saturday, June 15, 2013

What's there to do in Montana?

"I gotta be where I can see those Rocky Mountains, ride my horse, and watch an eagle fly." Chris Ledoux
It's the kind of question I've been asked many, many times in my young life. It's the question I both welcome and dread when someone finds out where I'm from. It's what makes this state "The Last Best Place." It's what most East Coast and Midwest folks seem to have a hard time understanding, what Southern Hospitality comes very close to, and where many Californians like to come to get away. 

It's why I keep coming back here.

THE QUESTION: "What's there to do in Montana?"

Depending on how much sarcasm is expressed in the face-to-face asking, I'm always tempted to reply with, "Well, with that kind of attitude... not much."

But to those genuine-seekers who love learning about other places, I invite you to peek into the doings of my home state. So with one word, what's there to do in Montana? Plenty.

At first glance, it may seem that Montana doesn't offer much for the city-dweller. As it is, Billings is the largest city in Montana, and it boasts of only 105,636 people over 41.6 square miles (Census 2011). The city I grew up near, Missoula (the second-largest city in the state), encompasses only 67,290 people in an area of 23.9 square miles (Census 2011). Numbers-wise... not terribly impressive.

That's the beauty of it! There's plenty of wide open space to do almost anything you want.

Go hiking up a mountain trail and see the vast city and country unfold before your eyes. 

City and Mountains
Missoula, Montana - March, 2013
Discover the lakes and rivers in the area, inside or far from the city. (See the Clark Fork River winding through the right side of the photo above? Missoulians and visitors alike enjoy walking, running, rafting, or biking along this river inside the city.) The mountains are filled with easy-access points for even novice hikers to go exploring, yet Montana holds many of the few wilderness areas left in the contiguous United States that are practically untouched by human hands.

Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved horseback riding - especially when the opportunity arose to take the basics I learned in the riding arena and head straight out into the open fields or up a mountain trail. Sure, you can horseback ride in many parts of the world, but there's nothing quite like experiencing firsthand what it could be like to live as a true cowboy or cowgirl - with the picturesque Rocky Mountains on the horizon or their foothills dictating the design of the very trail you're riding on. Maybe you'd even follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark from their 1802-1804 exploration.

Montana also boasts a number of skiing/snowboarding resorts (approx. 18) all across the state: I live only 45 minutes away from one Montana ski resort. It's a sweet experience knowing you can learn to ski or snowboard at a very young age, and it's a recreational activity the whole family can enjoy. I went skiing one winter at the Porcupine Mountains Ski Area in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, and let's just say that it's fine and dandy for the Midwest, beautiful in its own way with Lake Superior nearby - but I'll still never think of the Porcupines as real mountains since every difficult ski run there was equivalent to an easy/moderate run in the Rockies.

Another unique aspect of Montana mountain life is going wild huckleberry picking in the summer. Huckleberries look a little like blueberries, except they're smaller and slightly more tart. Most of the bushes they grow from reach about knee-high. The berries grow at higher elevations and typically ripen in mid- to late summer. In western Montana, a good rule of thumb is to check the huckleberry patches during the last week of July and first week of August; too early and the berries will still be green, too late and they'll be all gone. Be sure to wear close-toe shoes and an old pair of jeans - ones you don't mind getting purple stains all over. Huckleberry picking takes a good dose of patience to collect a lot of berries, so don't lose heart if your first 3 hours on the mountain only yield 2-3 cups of berries. It'll be worth it.

The skepticism that comes with asking about Montana is usually rooted in what people perceive to be a lack of city activity. Sure, Montana can't boast of any national sports teams, can't portray itself as a multicultural hub of international influence, can't claim to be the hot spot of music and entertainment. Yet we love our university sports, our strong Native American heritage, our weekend farmers' markets and community activities. You can't go anywhere in Montana without seeing some type of University of Montana (U of M) Griz or Montana State University (MSU) Bobcat decals. You can't travel the land without seeing remnants of Native American history in the names, historical sites, and distinctive landmarks. And you can't cross this vast state without noticing family-oriented small town events with parades, rodeos, county fairs, concerts, triathlons/marathons, and many other weekly community events.

All this and more is my testament to the variety of doings that Montana offers. I'm sure I've left out a number of exciting, uniquely-Montanan activities - but there's one special ingredient that truly makes Montana "The Last Best Place," and that is the people who call it home. 

We are frank, bluntly honest people who aren't afraid to tell it like it is. We are diverse in ideas and opinions and aren't afraid to express ourselves. Yet overall, we are engaging and wonderfully friendly people, especially to visitors and new residents. We are just as likely to say hello or wave in passing as we are to ask for your life's story while standing in a checkout line. Depending on where you're from, it might seem like we come off too strong at first, or pry where it's not our business. But we honestly care, and we make a point to show genuine interest in others. Thankfully, we don't plan on changing our approach anytime soon. It's what makes Montanans... well, Montanans. For that, I will always love the people here.

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds." Edward Abbey

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My Best Friend's Wedding

"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one." C.S. Lewis 
Wedding Party
Back Row (Left to Right): Joanna, Lauren, Stephen, Anna, Nick, Elizabeth, Joe, and Mary
Front Row (Left to Right): Jordan, Alyssa, and John

It's official. I'm at "that age." The age where, if you aren't in a relationship/engagement yourself, you're bound to have at least three or more friends, and at least a relative or two, who are.

I must say, this is certainly the wedding season for me. I've been invited to three weddings for 2013... one that was back in April (a best friend), one coming up in August (a cousin), and another at the very end of December (a best friend). I'm closest to the three brides. And all three brides are marrying (or are now married to) a John.

Bride and Groom
Mr. and Mrs.

To kick off the wedding season, my dear friend Alyssa (that is, "Ah-li-sha") got herself hitched this last April. I had been looking forward to flying out to Wisconsin for so long, especially since I hadn't been able to see her since 11 months earlier at our college graduation.

I also happen to love movies, and I still remember the first time I saw "My Best Friend's Wedding." I can't that I have anything close to a similar relationship with Alyssa that Julianne Potter and Michael O'Neil shared... for obvious reasons... but I do understand how friendships change when significant others come into our lives.

Alyssa's one of those friends where she enters your life totally unexpected, yet once she's there you can hardly picture your life without her. We stumbled across each other (well, I was the one doing the stumbling more likely) during training for a campus job. Then we found out that I was on the floor just below hers. She told me once that her first impression of me was, "Hey! She looks like someone fun to hang out with!" My first impression of her was, "Wow! That gal's so comfortable in her own skin. I've got to get to know her." It didn't take long: a few adventures in her white creeper-van we affectionately called "THE BEAST" and a number of silly conversations later, and you'd see us hanging out at her roommate Mary's soccer games with our friend, Elizabeth, or watching movies on Friday nights with my roommate, Vivienne.

Soccer games at WLC - September, 2008
Since that first impression our freshman year, Alyssa's been my go-to gal whenever all the truly bad, difficult, and downright crappy situations have hit the fan in my life. She's been the one to think of me when I needed to get out and have some fun, and I'd always go looking for her whenever I wanted to try out a somewhat-crazy, whimsical idea. Freshman year was filled with walks to nearby parks to go swinging, navigating to and from Target (or CVS or Pick'n Save) for Res Hall "necessities," and going to as many WLC student programming events as possible.

Downtown Milwaukee - March, 2010
Life certainly seemed crazy when we transitioned into sophomore year. By random, we were next door neighbors for campus housing in some apartments close to the library. We also got to know a group of guys who lived directly above Alyssa's place... and in Alyssa's case, it was the beginning. Not only was this the year to try and figure out exactly who we were and who we wanted to be, but I was also dealing with being far from home when a medical illness descended on an immediate member of my family. Being from the West Coast herself, Alyssa was the one gal who understood my pain and frustration at being so far away from home. In all this, she was also dealing with her own personal situations while being far from home. We had tests in our friendship, but we came out stronger for it.

Junior year was filled with excitement as we went through (more) training, this time to become Resident Assistants, something we had been looking forward to for a long time. We were mixed together with some friends we already kind of knew, and it gave all of us the opportunity to develop closer friendships. In Alyssa's case, it would be getting to know someone better who would become very special to her over a year later, though no one but God could've guessed at any of this at the time. Still, junior year was a blast, Alyssa with a group of fun freshmen girls, and me with a group of sophomore thru senior gals on the B-Building top floor... which just so happened to be haunted. (But that's a story for another time.)

Friends on a Road Trip
ROAD TRIP!! Mount Rushmore - August, 2011
August of 2011 saw us getting ready for our senior year and making the journey back to Wisconsin. What was even better was that Alyssa and I decided to take a road trip together when I got my first car! She'd never been to Mount Rushmore, and that became the foundation for the route we took back. From her crazy journey from Oregon to Montana on a Greyhound Bus to a week of horseback riding, cherry picking, and bonding with my family in Montana, we were on our way to South Dakota. I don't think I'll ever forget that trip or the fun memories we made when we walked the trails around the mountains and explored the Crazy Horse Museum. It was fun(ny) getting waved to by motorcyclists and a few college guys also making the trip across the country... it was not so fun dodging giant bugs that attacked the car at a gas station in Mitchell, South Dakota or listening to my car temporarily squeal when we turned to the right. All in all, we made it to my grandmother's house in Wisconsin and got set to move into our apartments for our second year as RA's.

Senior year was intense, busy, and rewarding on many levels. I tackled two thesis papers for English and philosophy in one fall semester. Alyssa took on a major lab experiment for the duration of the entire year. We lived only a block away from each other, but we didn't get to see each other very often. 

Then I realized that this John person was becoming much more significant in Alyssa's life.

Don't get me wrong, I was thrilled for her! John's one of those incredible, laid back kind of guys who doesn't take life too seriously but genuinely cares about all the people in his life. When he asked Alyssa to become a much greater part of his life, I could see a slow, beautiful change happening in them both. 

Final coffee date before college graduation - May, 2012
It's a rare event when you see two people really click together in personality and values. This is John and Alyssa.

At the same time, as I knew would happen, I saw less and less of my friend. Most people assume that when a significant other enters the picture of a friend, your time spend with that person is halved. I'd say that, instead, you only get an eighth or sixteenth of that original time. Why? Because half of your friend's time is spent with her special someone, and the other half is divided between the rest of her other friends. Still, it took until March (2 months before graduation) for it to really hit me that I really missed having this particular gal in my life. She would be going back to Oregon after graduation, and I was likely to come back to Montana.

So we made a pact: once a week on Sunday afternoons, we'd go out for coffee or go for a walk and spend a couple of hours together. I'm so glad we did!

Hours before Alyssa's wedding - April 27, 2013
Graduation came on May 18th, 2012, and that was the last day I saw Alyssa until her wedding. Our friendship has naturally changed since she got engaged and moved back to Wisconsin. Much of that is because we're now 1,575 miles away from each other... much of it is also because she's now married to her very best friend. I know our friendship has changed, but it's also a necessary change. It makes you slightly sad for things that no longer are, but happy that a great joy is now in your friend's life. And I'm so thankful that, even in these life changes, we're still close. I miss you, Alyssa, but I know you're still there for me no matter what.

Thank you, John, for being the wonderful, steady man in Alyssa's life. Thank you, Alyssa, my heart-sister, for letting me be part of your special day as your attendant. I love you both!

"I think if I've learned anything about friendship, it's to hang in, stay connected, fight for them, and let them fight for you. Don't walk away, don't be distracted, don't be too busy or too tired, don't take them for granted. Friends are part of the glue that holds life and faith together. Powerful stuff." Jon Katz