I woke up at four o’clock this morning with a cramp in my left calf. As cramps go it was a pretty good one—excellent timing, good form, real staying power. It forced me out of bed and vertical in about two seconds flat. Once I was upright and put my full weight on my left foot, the cramp went away. And I realized I needed to pee. Once I took care of that, I quietly crawled back into bed so as not to wake Erica.
As I lay in bed I realized that beneath the cramp and the full bladder there was another feeling. In the dark at four a.m. I couldn’t identify what it was. I tried for a while, but then the sound of the river flowing by the cabin and down to the Yellowstone and into the Missouri and then on into the Mississippi caught me up in its music and its flow and I fell back into sleep before I could name what I was feeling.
This practice of naming my feelings is a new thing to me. Heck, for many years I hardly even recognized that I HAD feelings, let alone spent time trying to identify them. As a result, the names don’t always come quickly and last night the river music and sleep came first.
Then this morning I went for a run on the unpaved road that follows the Stillwater River wiggle-for-wiggle through this beautiful valley. And as I was running I was able to name the feeling. It was “homesickness.”
I was born in Delaware and lived there into sixth grade. Then we moved to Long Island, where I lived for eight years. I went to college in Pennsylvania, lived for two years in Yemen, and then spent some time in Massachusetts, Delaware again, and Maine. And none of those places ever felt like home—none of them ever touched something inside me directly the way Montana did the first time I saw it.
I spent three summers working on various Indian reservations in Montana before I finally got my act together and moved there for good. At the time everything I owned fit in the back seat and trunk of my 1970 Plymouth Valiant named Fuad and I vowed to just drive on Interstate 90 in Montana until I got tired. Wherever that was, I would stop and start a life.
It was Billings. On my first morning there I found a job and an apartment. In my third year there I met a woman and, within three months of meeting, we knew we would spend our lives together.
But then our lives took us away from Montana in 1997 and since then we have only been able to return for visits a few times a year.
During my run it hit me full-on that no other place in the world feels the way Montana does to me. Montana fits in a way Delaware and New York and Connecticut never have. As a child I drew mountains everywhere, even though I had never seen real mountains. (The highest point in Delaware doesn’t even crack 500 feet above sea level.) The mountains I drew were rocky and jagged and had evergreen trees on the flanks only so high. Often they were snow-capped.
The first time I went to Montana it was to direct a community service project on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the southeast corner of the state. I flew into Billings and when I exited the airport I had to stop in my tracks, drop my bag, and stare with my mouth open. There, off to the southwest, were the mountains I had been drawing my whole life. They talked to me in a language I could understand because I had seen them before. The feeling I had on my run this morning was my reminder that I need to find a way back here. I need to come home before my connection to Montana has been stretched too far and too thin to hold.