Goodbye Paradise, Hello Missoula

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

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

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
High Country News in Paonia, Colorado
Reprinted from
Designer/builder (March/
April 2002). Subscriptions: $28/yr. (12 issues) from 2405 Maclovia
Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505.

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