Our pre-deployment family vacation to Montana is less than two weeks away and I, for one, am ready to go. It’s funny — when I’ve mentioned where we’re going, some people have given me a blank stare, as in “why would you want to go there?”
I don’t mind so much. The fewer people realize how amazing Montana is, the better. However, the Big Sky state wasn’t always a favorite place.
Back when I was a senior in high school and my family lived in Bellingham, Wash., my dad’s job at the university there was unexpectedly cut. He scrambled to find another position in the Pacific Northwest to support his wife and three daughters but instead landed a job in Butte, Mont. Frankly, I was horrified. I had my heart set on staying in Bellingham and attending Western Washington University as my older sister was doing. But I was a “young” 18-year-old and really wasn’t ready to cut the apron strings with my folks, plus I didn’t have much of a college plan in motion.
Thankfully, I was able to stay with family friends to finish out my senior year while my parents and little sister drove to Butte to find a house and get settled. Still, I went “kicking and screaming” with them after graduation, and remember thinking Butte was the ugliest city I had ever seen. That’s apparently not an unusual reaction.
Butte was a rough and tumble copper mining town in its heyday, filled with wild characters and represented by just about every ethnic group imaginable.
The copper “pit” is still there in all its scarred glory — a reminder of a different, rougher era. Downtown Butte feels like a city that time forgot. Buildings are mainly brick and often historical, though not necessarily pretty. There are an inordinate number of dark, smoky bars and 1950s-style restaurants that serve things like pork chop sandwiches and “pasties,” or very tasty meat pies.
We moved into a house “on the flats,” which is to say, down the hill from the city. I started college at Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology, otherwise known as “Tech,” and was lonely, but not for long. Within six months I had met a friend in aerobics class while sweating to “Oh Mickey” and she and I became inseparable.
Shortly after meeting Adele, I fell for a goofily handsome basketball player at a dance downtown. Suddenly, I had a steady boyfriend. Then I forgot about hating Butte and began to like it, and eventually love it.
Being a student there felt a little like attending a very large high school — I was a fairly big fish in a small pond. After two years at Tech, I transferred to Montana State University in Bozeman and enjoyed that, too.
Strangely, my older sister ended up transferring to Tech, graduating there and subsequently moving west to Missoula, where she spent 20 years building her career and making many close friendships.
Back in 1999, when my husband and I were planning our wedding, we initially had our honeymoon sights set on Hawaii, but soon realized it was a wee bit pricey for us. I suggested Montana instead and that’s where we went.
Rob soon fell in love with the place, too, as we explored Glacier National Park and enjoyed the comforts of quaint bed and breakfasts from Kalispell to Bozeman.
Of course, we stopped in Butte for a few hours and strangely, it looked much the same as it had in the early 1980s.
He liked Montana so much that we returned three months later to spend our first Christmas as a married couple there.
That was more than 14 years ago, so we figured it’s time to return.
Our boys have yet to experience the beauty and vastness that is Big Sky Country.
I want to take them on hikes in Yellowstone National Park, where I spent a summer working in a gift shop between my freshman and sophomore years of college. (I don’t think I’ll tell them that I got fired two days before my contract was up thanks to my roommate and I foolishly “grilling out” in our room.)
We are renting a small vacation home in a town called Big Timber and plan to alternate relaxing there with taking side trips to Yellowstone, Bozeman, Virginia City and possibly Butte.
I am also excited about seeing my friend Adele again who has lived in Missoula for many years. We will spend the Fourth of July with her and her family.
I acknowledge that the old saying “you can’t go home again” is true. Trying to replicate a time in your life as formative as the college years is like attempting to capture a hummingbird.
But my hope is that revisiting Montana with my husband and kids will be unique and special in its own way, and that the memories we make will help get us through the coming year of separation.
Gail Dillon, an Army spouse, journalist and Air Force veteran, lives at Fort Hood with her husband, two sons and a Goldendoodle. Check out her blog at kdhnews/opinion/blogs