Reporter's Notebook

Wide Open Spaces 

As I turn in my last Beacon stories (for now), new “wide open spaces” lay ahead

By Denali Sagner

I believe I owe my summer at the Flathead Beacon to one country-pop female soloist and two plastic karaoke microphones from Amazon. 

I almost didn’t make it to Kalispell this summer. I accepted my internship with the Beacon in February, giving me ample time before graduation to develop extreme anxiety over my decision to take a job near no familiar faces, 2,400 miles from home. More than a few times, I proclaimed to my college roommates that I just couldn’t go. 

Luckily, my best friend quickly realized that rather than trying to talk any sense into me, the easiest remedy to quell my fears would be a mandatory karaoke rendition of the 1998 chart-topping country song “Wide Open Spaces” by The Chicks. 

“Wide Open Spaces” is about a young woman leaving home in search of a great unknown, one made up of “new faces” and “room to make her big mistakes.” 

Each time I threatened to pull the plug on my summer plans, a microphone would magically appear in my hands, those first few familiar chords reverberating through the apartment.  

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about…

“Wide Open Spaces,” though easily their biggest hit, did not actually originate with The Chicks. The country anthem was written by University of Montana alumnus and singer-songwriter Susan Gibson, who penned the lyrics while reminiscing about her childhood visits to her father’s hometown of Missoula and her grandparents’ cabin on Flathead Lake. 

In a 2008 interview with UM’s Montanan magazine, Gibson described Missoula and the Flathead Valley as her “spiritual home.”  

Gibson composed “Wide Open Spaces” as a UM student, where the song became her go-to at Missoula open mic nights. Years later, the lyrics would fall into the lap of Chicks lead vocalist Natalie Maines who, with Gibson’s consent, turned it into a hit. 

And, unbeknownst to Gibson or The Chicks, those same lyrics would blare through the headphones of one Beacon intern back in early June as she, embarrassingly crying beside the passenger next to her, watched New York’s LaGuardia Airport fade into the distance. 

It takes the shape of a place out West

But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed

I only learned about the song’s connection to the Flathead as I was writing this column, a prophetic-seeming closure to my internship. As I soak in the late-summer air on my drives home from work, the lyrics are no longer an indication of what could be, but are a testament to what has made saying goodbye so hard — deadline day beers at the Beacon, treks down to Stanton Lake and up to Logan Pass, evening floats on the Middle Fork, and, most notably, the six-person newsroom that has made a once-strange place feel very much like home. 

It’s poignant that Gibson’s song — which could describe any striking Western landscape — is actually an ode to the Flathead Valley. Even more poignant is that I didn’t know, performing the song in my college apartment, that I was singing about a place that I would come to love so dearly. 

As I turn in my last Beacon stories (for now), new “wide open spaces” lay ahead, these ones even more ambiguous than the last. Amidst the unknowns, one prophecy from Gibson’s song certainly came true: what it held for her was more than she ever could have guessed. 

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