Ode To Montana 

We all need a place to dream of running off to.

You know how, wherever you go, you're always sizing it up as a potential place to live? It's an inherently flawed proposition, because you're usually visiting a place in the best time of year to be there: New York in the fall, Alaska in the summer, Florida in the winter. Besides, vacationing in a place is different from living there. How often do you eat in Memphis' finest restaurants, for example? Or spend days on end relaxing and hanging out with your friends instead of working?

That last remark was directed at you non-writers.

I'm as guilty of this as anybody, and in fact years ago I actually moved to a place, Oregon, I had visited several times. I still haven't gotten over the fact that from a home in Portland you can drive 90 minutes east and go snow-skiing or 90 minutes west and hit the beach.

Inevitably, though, the search for the Next Place goes on. I think I got an extra wandering gene instead of the settle-and-work gene, because whenever things get bad or boring, my instinct is to look for some place to go. Sometimes I just hit the road for a while, but sometimes I think I need to move someplace else.

And of all the places I've been, no place compares, as a potential home, with Montana. I've only been there as a vacationer, but I've seen it in all its moods and seasons, from blowing snow to scorching sun, from out-of-the-way villages to (relatively) large cities, and I think I could handle most of it, most of the time. Does any home surpass that standard?

Years ago I decided it was time to move to the northern Rockies. I had been a newspaper guy in Dallas and Memphis, so I packed up a coat, tie, and stack of résumés and hit the road. I visited every daily paper in Montana -- all 11 of them. In Missoula, I was told they just hired somebody a few months ago, so I went on to Bozeman, where they said much the same thing. Oddly, the papers in Billings, Livingston, and Helena all said the same thing: They had just hired somebody a few months before.

Finally, in Butte, the sports editor took me out for a beer and explained what had happened: Somebody in Missoula got a job in California, so Missoula hired somebody from Great Falls, who hired somebody from Helena, who hired somebody from Bozeman, and so on, leading to one graduate of "the university" getting a job in Butte. I found this unutterably charming: a whole state as a small town. This guy could even name every person involved!

He said the thing to do, if you really want to be a newspaper guy in Montana, is to take a job in some nowhere place like Anaconda, working at a weekly paper, and the next time somebody leaves the state, you get caught up in the ensuing surge of hirings. I was never ready to move to such a small place, but then recently I went back to Whitefish.

Whitefish, Montana, is now No. 1 on my list of places I could live. Certainly, it's high on my list of places to get back to for a visit. It's got about 5,000 people but, thanks to its emerging status as a tourist spot, plenty of good restaurants ranging from Cajun to Italian to sushi to down-home. It's got a locally owned ski hill, a championship-level public golf course to go along with lots of killer private courses, and it sits on the edge of a seven-mile-long lake.

But because I have the wandering gene, I always look at a place for what's within a day's drive. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I left Memphis; I need more hilly nature around me. And the nature around Whitefish is just plain ridiculous. Glacier National Park is about 25 miles away and is the most stupendously beautiful place in the continental U.S. -- if you're into big mountains, steep valleys, wildlife, and empty spaces. Glacier has more than a million acres, 650 lakes, 50 glaciers, and 700 miles of trails.

The outdoor options in western Montana are like the restaurants in New York: maddening, because in three lifetimes you couldn't visit them all. The weather, of course, would be the big obstacle, but the average winter temperature in Whitefish (actually taken at 7 a.m. up on the ski mountain) is 26 degrees. In town, it would be warmer. I think I can handle that.

Or at least I think I can. Maybe this is all silly conjecture, an escape from my perceived troubles or limitations at home. But don't we all need a place that, one day, we plan on running off to? Don't we all need to tell ourselves, "Life would be better if I was in " I think life would be better if only I had a place on Whitefish Lake, near the golf course and in sight of the ski resort, where I could paddle my canoe to the Italian place for dinner or drive my truck for a weekend backpack in Glacier Park.

Yeah, that's it. I'd hike so far back in there my troubles wouldn't even know where to find me.

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