I like living in town, the old part, right where everything started. The homes have character, though usually they’re short on bathrooms.
I followed a common path for those who abandon the cities of the west coast for Montana. My first place was a good 15 miles out of town. I lived in a small cabin behind the bunker of a friendly school teacher who had carved her shelter out of a hillside. She designed it to withstand whatever calamity the coming apocalypse would bring. This was where she would make her last stand.
The school teacher had dug a pond on the place and stocked it with cutthroat trout, so that made me happy. There was a young stand of dog-hair ponderosa behind the cabin, and I was allowed to cut a winter’s worth of firewood as my thinning work made the place incrementally safer in case a fire ever roared over the ridge.
That first winter in the early 90s was a doozy. It snowed a lot and got cold in November and stayed that way. The snowpack built up, allowing me to carve a cross country skiing course around the perimeter of the compound. I’d go out at night — I worked as a sportswriter at the local paper — and ski until I’d burnt off whatever anxiety a day at the newsroom had built up.
I skied well into the morning on more than one occasion.
I was in Whitefish covering a divisional basketball tournament when the cold finally broke. I had headed uptown to meet friends, and when I stepped out of the Great Northern a light rain was falling. It was the first liquid precipitation since fall. That winter is the only one I recall where we went that long without one of those “irregularities,” the warm spells that temporarily break winter’s hold on the Northern Rockies. Normally, even in the worst of winters, we get one or two “heat waves.”
It was fun living in the woods, but that 15-mile drive got to me after a while. Eventually the charm wore off and by my second Montana winter I’d found a place in town.
There’s another complication related to living out of town. Invariably, your piece of paradise measures five or 10 acres, and in some ways it takes about as much time to care for 10 acres as it does 100. You need to control weeds, tend pasture, fiddle with your irrigation — while at the same time keeping an eye on neighbors who also like to fiddle with your irrigation, but lack the legal water right to do so.
In these moments you’re reminded that the first murder in Montana is rumored to have been over a water dispute.
Then there’s the whole business of access. If you own a slice of heaven, eventually you have to make a choice: to paint fence posts orange, or not to paint.
At one point I settled into a nice place right on the edge of town, and thought I’d found the perfect compromise. One way I could walk to work, the other to the river. A grocery store open 24 hours was closer still. Yet we could watch moose, deer and bald eagles from our front porch.
It was ideal until the city bought the piece of land out front and turned it into a park. That was a good thing, mind you. I’m happy it worked out that the place is open to the public as dedicated open space. But folks in town suddenly viewed our driveway as park access, and we found ourselves directing traffic all weekend long, showing folks where the park boundaries ended, and our property began.
Things finally got so tense I started turning folks away. I still kick myself when I think of the time I sent a young man and his Lab back to town instead of allowing them to cross our place to go muck around along the river.
That was it for me as a man of property. I’ve been in town ever since. Give me one-tenth of an acre to hold dominion over and I’m happy, so long as the neighbors don’t let their dogs poop in my yard.
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