Goodbye Paradise, Hello Missoula

A reformed adventurer makes his stand


| September/October 2002


I've been moving for most of my adult life: I've lived in five states, six mountain ranges, two countries, and too many houses and cars to count. I'm from the adventure set. You've seen us, driving the western highways with our cool sunglasses and our outdoor gear piled three feet high atop our four-wheel drives. Going to places like Moab, Boulder, Telluride.

Now, I don't want to go anywhere. Nine years ago I settled here-in Missoula, Montana-beneath these gentle weedy hills and the crushing gray of winter six months a year. I've vilified the pulp mill for our eggy air. I've cursed the noisy neighbors. I loathe the unmuffled pickup trucks and the beer bottles thrown at me from passing cars. The place ain't perfect.

But that's been my problem: perfection. I grew up in what my father called paradise: Lake Tahoe before the dawn of computer chips, weekend mansions, Mercedes SUVs. We had solitude, sugar pine trees, pinecones as tall as my knees. Bears raided our trash cans on Monday mornings, and no one seemed to care. A creek meandered through a long, green meadow, where my friends and I played in the willows and pretended to be wild.

Years later, when the meadow was plowed under for a golf course, I knew I'd never return. My father's Eden was gone. I set out to find my own, believing that another utopia lay just beyond the mountains, and not understanding that my desire was the very thing that had made nature a commodity. I couldn't see that my father, who had stumbled across that valley 40 years before, was only the first of many who would come.

I traveled for years in search of such a place, all around the West and even across the sea. Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, the mountains of Slovenia. I've found beauty, but nothing like my dream. I'm one of thousands. We travel over vast tracks of land believing-or wanting to believe-that somewhere out there lies that special place meant only for us.
Wilderness. The promised land. Home.

So how is it that I've come to love this town with its Wal-Mart and pulp mill and fast-food strips? I live two blocks from a Dairy Queen, crammed between dilapidated apartments and a street as wide and stark as an airport runway. It's not quiet, it's not pretty, it's definitely not paradise.

But it's home. It's home because I make it so. Because I ignore the next magazine article announcing the 10 best places to live. I rise in the morning shadow of the unmajestic mountains and I turn the earth and plant until my fingers are sore and my nails packed with dirt.

Gradually I get to know this stamp-sized patch of yard, this verdant island in an asphalt sea. I have loved many places, but I have never known a place like I know this one. I know the ants that live along the fence, the wasps' nests in the eaves, and the squirrels that raid the bird feeder. I know the brief lives of honey locust blooms and the sweet scent of honeysuckle.

But what of wilderness? A friend once spoke to me about the human need for wilderness. 'Wild to the bone,' he called it, explaining that each of us is inherently a wild creature, drawn back to our elemental roots.

I don't dispute this, yet I wonder what wild means. Somehow my need to go in search of wilderness is partially satisfied by this tiny rectangle of land. When I feel restless I lie under the branches of the honey locust. I stare up through the umbrella of leaves and the bees circling the pink flowers, and I feel my back sinking into the earth.

There are no grizzlies on this land, no wolves, no eagles, no elk; the wildest life we encounter are a few deer traipsing through the garden eating tulip leaves. But we have earthworms and bugs and butterflies. I can't name most of what's in the garden, let alone the whole mysterious world that lives within the soil. If I were one inch tall, surely I'd call it wilderness.

But I'm six foot three and it's my garden. The Toyota sits out front, waiting, with its promise of wilder places just beyond the horizon. Friends call, inviting me to snow-capped peaks half a world away. I can't say I'm not tempted.

I still dream of paradise, but I don't need to live there. I've learned to say no to the road. To going. All the time. Everywhere. I don't want to go everywhere. I want to stay here and learn the names of the flowers just beneath my window. I want to nourish the soil so that the raspberries will grow healthy again, and so the hummingbirds will return. Paradise beckons, but I stand still, lost in the wilderness of home.

Colin Chisholm is the author of Through Yup'ik Eyes: An Adopted Son Explores the Landscape of Family (Alaska Northwest Books, 2000).He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). Reprinted from Designer/builder (March/
April 2002). Subscriptions: $28/yr. (12 issues) from 2405 Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505.