When I was twenty-three, I quit my job and moved to Montana for a month. My boyfriend Brad was living there, and it was the summer before we both started grad school back in Virginia.
It was one of those rare liminal periods in life, where you’re waiting, but you know exactly what you’re waiting for, and what will happen. It was a new state of mind.
Brad and I were living together for the first time in a small one-bedroom apartment, which he sublet from a friend who was camping alone in the backcountry for the summer to get over her fear of bears. The small gestures of creating a temporary home together, combined with the scale of Montana’s landscape, thrilled me.
For months I had been working a job I loved, but which took every ounce of energy I had—to have so much unscheduled time felt at best indulgent, at worst, excessive and wasteful. Either way, I felt like an unknown wilderness to myself.
When Brad was at work, I spent long mornings reading in the bright living room. After, I’d walk to a coffee shop—my favorite had goat cheese croissants. I went almost every morning for the view of the mountains out the window, which I stared at as if it were a painting. As if it were separate from me.
I was drawn, too, to the idea that bears roamed in those mountains. Grizzlies, in particular, seemed to be everywhere. Or at least the fear of grizzlies did.
That summer, a grizzly attacked and mauled a hiker to death in Yellowstone, only a weekend before our own trip there. Brad and I took bear spray with us whenever we camped. I lay awake in our tent at night, my body prickling, on high alert for any sound coming from outside—even though we were the ones on their turf, not the other way around.
And of course, in any interaction between bears and humans, usually humans do the most harm. (In 2015, a record number of bears—86—were killed by people in Yellowstone.)*
*Men’s Journal, “Grizzly Man’s Last Stand,” May 2017
Often it seems like every time we do more than just look at nature, we hurt it.
At night, just before dusk dropped its curtain, we’d drive out to the edge of Missoula, to Blue Mountain. That was our favorite place. Its trails wander through stands of trees and open meadows and wildflowers, offering up views of the city (“city”), with its dramatic background of mountains. At that time of evening, it wasn’t very populated. We’d occasionally come across someone walking their dog; once, a man on a horse. But for the most part, we were alone. We tried to go as often as possible.
We went when we had something to celebrate, we went without the excuse of a celebration. We went when we were in a good mood, and if we weren’t in a good mood, we went to make ourselves feel better.
Four years later, back in Montana for a visit, Brad and I stood on Blue Mountain as we called our friends back east to tell them we had gotten engaged. The grass breathed around our ankles like the sea. As Brad and I strolled into our shadows under the darkening sky, we kept saying, Imagine if we lived here for good. Imagine this being our real life.
Brad had proposed in Glacier National Park, where, that summer of 2015, a series of wildfires raged. Driving through parts of the park, the sky was engulfed in smoke. Other sections were closed to campers and hikers completely.
The sky looked like a premonition, though we did not really know then how bad the wildfires out west would prove to be in just a couple of years.
Being back on Blue Mountain, in a part of the earth that didn’t seem to be actively dying, was like walking through a dream. “Imagine if we lived in a world that was only beautiful,” we were really saying.
Of course, we do not live in that world. None of us do.
Ever since I’ve lived in Montana, I’ve looked for another Blue Mountain—a place I can go that feels uninhabited, even if it’s an illusion. But I’ve found that, more than a place, Blue Mountain is a feeling—you can find it anywhere.
It’s the white space between sentences. It’s the inside of your body when you’re waking up without an alarm. It’s awakened attention without arduous effort. It flattens the interior like a globe hammered down to a map, so you can see it all at once. It’s not knowing the source of “it.” It’s forgetting the alphabet, forgetting your body. It’s realizing, for the first time, that you don’t care that you’ll die.
“We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality,” wrote Lynda Barry. “We create it to be able to stay.”
This tree in the parking lot is Blue Mountain. The neighborhood pool is Blue Mountain. My orange chair is Blue Mountain. The field behind my childhood best friend’s house is Blue Mountain. The moon rising over the lake is Blue Mountain.
We moved to California recently—once again surrounded by the grandeur of the American West, I find myself thinking of Blue Mountain often. Once a week or so, we go somewhere to watch the sun set over the Pacific. A sun which, for several weeks this past fall, was blanketed in smoke from our own wildfires. I found myself thinking about the responsibilities of being a spectator to beauty.
To look hard—crawl inside. But with intent—to observe what is happening around me.
What happens when you live in a gorgeous place? I mean one that doesn’t become gorgeous through building a life, making memories. I mean one whose beauty if overt, and gigantic, and impossible to miss. I guess I’m afraid—what if I stop noticing? What if I start taking it for granted?
What makes something beautiful, and another thing “normal”—easily ignored?
I struggle to articulate this in the way I struggle to perceive nature as it changes. I’m afraid if I don’t try to describe everything, put it to paper, I won’t see it all: how young and naive I was, to think I knew my future; the hope; the big along with the small; the beautiful along with its destruction. The fact that beauty cannot always save us.
In a way, the reason I love Blue Mountain—the reason I love grandeur—is because my experience of it is entirely wordless. It’s always more powerful as a feeling, despite all these little words piling up like traffic. Sometimes a sight is true where a sentence is not. Sometimes a sight is not, cannot be, a story.
It’s so frustrating, it’s so thrilling, how much this gap enthralls.
Lena Moses-Schmitt’s work appears in Best New Poets, Cincinnati Review, The Normal School, Indiana Review, Devils Lake, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She lives in California, where she works in publishing.