Monday, July 13, 2009

Driving To Montana

This week I have been driving around Montana.  A lot.  Montana is an enormous state.  If you were to stand in the southeastern corner of Montana you would be closer to Texas than to the northwestern corner of Montana.  In the past few days I have driven 900 miles and not once left the state.  All of this driving has got me thinking back to that first time I drove into Montana in the summer of 1992.

In the summer of 1992 I was supposed to take a group of upper-middle class American teenagers to Kenya to do community service work in a Masai village not far from Masai Mara National Park.  I was thrilled at the idea.  I had only just recently returned from two years teaching in Yemen and I was itching to get back overseas. 

In the summers of 1990 and 1991 I had worked as a staff person for the same non-profit that was setting up the Kenya program.  It was called Visions, International and the people who ran the company were impressive in their sensitive approach to development work as well as their commitment to service learning.  When they called me early in 1992 about possibly leading a trip to Kenya I nearly jumped out of my skin.  I agreed in seconds and then spent the entire spring growing more and more excited.

But during the spring of 1992 Kenya was making a jarring and sometimes-violent switch from single-party rule to multi-party democracy.  When Kenya was in the news in the States it was always accompanied by pictures of sign-carrying, slogan-chanting crowds and soldiers dressed in riot gear.  As you might well imagine, these images were not a very effective recruiting tool for Visions-Kenya.  By the beginning of May it became clear that we would not have enough teenagers signed up to make a Kenya program viable.  The program was cancelled and I was deflated.

But then Joanne Pinaire, the director of Visions’ day-to-day operations and all-around amazing woman, called to offer that I direct a newly established program on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, instead.  It would entail living in a tiny village called Birney in a remote corner of the reservation.  I would take 16 teenagers from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (mostly) to a place with 25 houses, no store, and no television and together we would build a playground from scratch on a one-acre space in the middle of town.

I had no experience with construction, no knowledge of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and no previous experience directing programs, so I immediately said “yes” to Joanne’s offer and quickly switched the setting of my daydreams from Kenya to Montana.


To get to Montana I first went to Boston to collect the sixteen-passenger vans that we would use to get around the reservation all summer.  Then I helped collect the staffers who would be working with me on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, as well as those staffers who would be working on the other reservation programs in Montana.  In all, there were 24 of us driving in a caravan across the country.  It was my first cross-country drive and it was one heckuva good time.

Once we got to South Dakota the vastness of the West made itself clear to me.  It went on forever in rolling hills and rock outcroppings covered in grasses and sage.  But then we hit Montana and instead of one great undifferentiated expanse, elements of the landscape began to stand out.  The rocks grew red and the land began to speak to me.  It may have been the 70 hours spent in the van, but I don’t think so.  Something in the land of southeastern Montana touched something in me.  Though looking back, “touched” is the wrong word.  “Grabbed” is more accurate.  It somehow felt like I had come home to a place I had never been.

That summer went well, as did the following summers in Montana.  Each time the program ended, I would get back in the van and drive back to Boston.  And each time I did, Montana held onto more and more of what can only be called my soul.  Eventually I realized the stupidity of leaving Montana and when the Visions summer ended, I stayed.  I became a Montanan.

To make a long story short, a few years later I met my wife and our lives took us back to the Northeast—Ithaca and New Haven, specifically--where we have been for more than ten years.

This summer’s trip back to Montana to visit friends and family has made it clear to me that we need to move back here.  The land still talks to me like no other place has.  What brought me to Montana back in 1990s is still here and I am starting to worry that a very important part of who I am resides in Montana and stays here when I go back East.  I don’t want to end up like Lord Voldemort, with my soul split into pieces that live in far-flung places and leave me incomplete.

So, how to get back...?


  1. Chris Dawson!!!! I was just talking about you with Michael Morsches tonight. This is Kipp Cozad. We traveled many back roads together in Yemen. I decided to see if I could track you down. When you get a break from looking at Big Sky Country send me over an e-mail and we'll chat. Before then check out this site. You might find someone familiar in it:

    All the Best,


  2. What a pleasure to read...have you read Haviland's piece about her first summer and others on the Northern Cheyenne? I, too, feel the pull to return. Let's start a theatre? You've got a barn. Kevin's got costumes, funny hats and a cigar!
    oxoox Jo

  3. Pleased that I found your link in the NYT comments today. This is a lovely piece and I enjoyed it. I grew up in Eastern Montana - lived a few other places (including Syracuse), semi-retired, lived a couple of other places - and have returned to live in Montana. This land "talks" to me, too. I now live near West Glacier. Thank you again. I'm enjoying your blog.
    Patricia M.