It’s over. I should have written this letter years ago, but things happen, and I’ve held on to that memory of your summer nights even as we’ve done nothing but grow apart. Life gets hectic, right? Oil changes, recycling, job interviews, chiropractor visits, school conferences. Other things have changed, too. I went from listening to a band covering .38 Special at a high school dance to attending Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows.
Sure, we’ll always have July Fourth at Georgetown Lake, but I was 13, and the joy associated with fireworks over that lake had an expiration date. True, I was probably never more in love with life than that summer, toting an old Boy Scout backpack which earned me the nickname Lewis and Clark. The cruelties and vagaries of time incessantly blot out memories of simple pleasures. I want to go back, I can’t go back.
“You used to be such a nice kid. What happened?” Paulette asked, smiling her crooked smile below a dirty blonde perm in the doorway of a modest house at the south end of the Bitterroot Valley. It was the summer of grunge and I’d taken a break from rock and roll to drive across the country. It hadn’t occurred to me that everything would be so different between us after seven years. Were we so changed?
Paulette and her husband had run a summer camp I’d attended for four years, and she’d been a second mom to me during my teenage years. By the time I was fifteen, I’d spent four summers in that mountain paradise, much of it hiking, riding, and rafting in wilderness. My love affair with the area was not over. I visited one summer when I borrowed my Dad’s car for a week. I even lived with them for a couple months after high school, after Dad died, working for them on their ranch. I’d grown close to two of Paulette’s kids, and yet now, seven years later, I was the other.
In fairness, a lot had changed. They had a new address. I had tattoos. I was a city boy in appearances. In small town USA, my opinions were probably in the minority. I had long hair and a “shit happens” bumper sticker featuring Reagan’s face on the back of my ‘67 VW bus. I was no longer a naive straight arrow. But Paulette’s look suggested that I’d sprouted horns from the top of my noggin and started eating babies in my spare time, rather than being in a rock and roll band and being a little too irreverent.
I tried not to stereotype based on religion, region, or career preference. I respect my elders, put my hand over my heart for the pledge of allegiance, I even attended church on occasion, and I didn’t care which side of the tracks my friends were from. I tried to avoid labeling. That said, as an adult, I knew who I wanted to hang out with, and I have surely made snap judgments along those lines. Turnabout is to be expected.
I learned to drive a manual transmission on a John Deere tractor in that mountain valley. The family trusted me enough to drive the tractor a few miles along US 93 headed to a field that needed some haying. I spent frigid days setting up hunting camp tents deep in mountain canyons. I fed chickens, split wood, moved irrigation pipe. Ultimately, I was bored and lonely, and I decided to hitchhiked home across a time zone. Perhaps that seemed a betrayal.
Four years in the Marine Corps would change anyone. I followed orders, but I didn’t go along just to get along, and I became more of an individual because of my experience. I grew cynical about politics. A late bloomer in every season, I grew up immensely in my rough tours of California and Hawaii. I stopped drinking. I began exploring punk rock and more alternative music. I read a lot. I wrote a lot. I questioned a lot, but I always hoped I could return to the Rockies, climbing granite peaks, swimming in icy lakes, camping in green canyons, seeing bear, mountain goats, mule deer. I thought that was enough of a bond.
But with family and old friends, it’s different. You tolerate quirks and know not to bring up certain issues: the latest Middle East debacle, the war on drugs, homelessness, Uncle John’s overly long hugs. Don’t get her going on the quality of schools in the city.
Lately I have had a couple arguments revolving around one person judging another, and I’ve gone back to that moment when I was 25 and felt judged by someone I’d loved like family who suddenly saw me as an outsider. It was a disorienting experience.
Judgment means making choices, drawing lines, affixing labels. This is good, this is bad. We must do that to survive in life, on scales small and large, but judgment is often imperfect or incomplete. It was strange to see perception shift. Years later, I looked up Paulette’s kids on social media. Some I can’t find. Some I found. The son who was a year older than me is a Rush Limbaugh fan. His profile pic shows many miles and years creased into his cheeks. The man I knew as a happy teen looks bitter now, but maybe I’m reading into a professional look. . Perhaps I am the one being judgmental now, or I simply don’t want to waste my time.
In the fall of 2016, an aspiring Montana politician assaulted a reporter who was doing his job asking questions. The candidate won the election, too. Good job, Montana. Greg Gianforte is a Congressman who, like the president, disrespects a free press. He has apologized but has not followed through on his promise to sit down for an interview with the reporter. That’s not the state I love, I think.
Montana, it’s over. You win. You can remain a red state. Naturally, there are things I don’t understand about living in your small cities and tiny towns, about your rural economy and populist politics. That’s okay. I know Jeff Bridges and Ted Turner love you. We are just different and there is enough world for us to exist in our own comfort zone. I may never again drive across your vast beautiful expanses smoking Marlboros at midnight, listening to Lee Ranaldo as I pass mountain silhouettes. I can’t say anything bad about you. I’d still be happy to see you for a reunion, but what would we talk about?
I once had dreams of moving into Big Sky Country. It used to seem like such a great fit for me. Not anymore. Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s me.
Joshua Baker lives with his wife and pets in Oregon, where he works for the U.S. Postal Service. His writing has appeared in Cirque, The Opiate, Plazm, and Sky Island Journal. In his spare time he likes to take photographs.