The Practice of Home

When my dad moved to Montana in 1969, he was returning to the state where his mother’s parents homesteaded. He studied wildlife biology at MSU while pursuing his passion for hunting in the surrounding mountains.

My mom moved to Bozeman nine years after my dad. They wed and bought a house south of town. The home was affordable for two young professionals taking root; a dirt road brought them home each day. A dozen other houses populated the neighborhood, as well as a farm and a horse pasture.

The neighborhood is a square, four roads connecting. The southern road borders the Gallatin Mountain foothills; Leverich Canyon begins where the neighborhood ends. A field extends beyond my parents’ backyard, and snowmelt from the Hyalite Peaks flows as a creek along the field’s eastern edge.

I was born at Bozeman Deaconess and raised in this neighborhood. My childhood straddled an old way and a new way. As a child I wasn’t aware of this, of course, but I can see clearly now the liminal space I ripened within. On sunny days I was shooed outdoors. The neighbor kids and I chased mule deer with cap guns and erected forts with stones and branches. 

When it rained I watched television or played Mario on the first ever Nintendo. I knew both the call of a kingfisher and the opening lyrics to Full House. I could beat Donkey Kong in an afternoon and tell the difference between moose and elk scat.

I was an admittedly feral child, tooth and claw when it came time to brush my hair. Rules proved easily broken, especially the one where I wasn’t supposed to go into the forest. I followed game trails behind the Johnson’s house to an abandoned cabin and a field of bluebell flowers. In retrospect, this rule shouldn’t have been broken; mountain lions and bears frequent the area.

Yet I knew, even then, magic lives where ponderosa pines make mosaics of the sky. Something drew me into the folds of evergreen and wildflowers: an affinity beyond rules. An affinity I now know we all have, as human-animals.

I didn’t know the privilege I enjoyed with each glass of clean water, each inhale of fresh air. I didn’t know how many children lived without either. I didn’t know how many people lived deep within cities, where sleepless lights hide the stars.

I didn’t know what I had was something to be sought. It just was. 

I would realize my privilege after childhood, as many of us do. In college I learned the Gallatin Mountains are part of the Greater Yellowstone—the planet’s largest intact temperate ecosystem. Between my studies and increasing exposure to the world, I began to internalize the extent of my luck in life.

I moved back to Bozeman after graduate school. In the eight years I had been gone the town nearly doubled in size—from 35 thousand to sixty. My husband and I managed to buy a house minutes before the market skyrocketed.  

The house my parents bought in the ‘80s has quadrupled in value. Quadrupled.

New subdivisions spread across fields I remembered foxes raising kits within. The meadow I discovered as a child holds a cluster of human homes. The neighborhood I live in now was once a meadow as well.

I have felt Bozeman’s growth most at trailheads. As a teenager exploring the mountains, I was often one car of two or three at the parking lot for Hyalite Peak or even Sypes Canyon. Now finding a parking spot can prove difficult.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t grieve the changes. Nostalgia blurs with idealism and I sometimes entertain my human desire to resist change, to loathe it.

I moved back to Bozeman for the same reasons many of us move here: to be close to wilderness. Time in the mountains connects me to my true self. It helps me remember we’re part of something bigger, something complete.

It’s challenging sometimes not to feel the changes as a compromise of the wilderness we love and need. Foxholes become foundation holes; ungulate pastures turn into roads with ironic names like Elk Way and Deer Street.

Yet when I feel panic and dread stir after yet another subdivision paves over wild grasses, I imagine my great grandparents hammering nails into their homestead fence. I think of all the people who watched the bison dwindle and with it a way of life. I think of what it means to call a place home when someone else does the same.

People lived in my house before me. People lived in Bozeman before my parents. People lived in Montana before my grandmother’s parents.

They say change is the only constant. I disagree. Sharing is a constant as well. The practice of home in our world is one subject to both change and sharing.

The practice of home—this is how I relate to Bozeman and its neighboring mountains now. Home is sometimes thought of as a fixed concept, but it may be the most active gauge of change we have. When we dwell somewhere, we are able to observe the many ways change manifests in both its nuances and its extremes.

Homing is a verb: it relates to an animal’s ability to return to a place or territory after traveling a distance away from it. I imagine I returned to Bozeman based on my own homing instinct after nearly a decade away.

Though the town had expanded, the coordinates remained the same. The Hyalite Peaks still serrate the southern horizon. Leverich Canyon still begins where South Third ends. Elk still winter in the field behind my parents’ house. And black bears maintain their attempts to pilfer my dad’s raspberry bushes.

Shortly after moving back, I ventured up to Blackmore Peak with my friend, Leslie. She had moved here via North Carolina and Missoula. As a young professional seeking a balance of work and play, Bozeman offered a home to enjoy the outdoors and make a living. Her story, though radically different from my dad’s in many ways, parallels his in their shared desire to be close to mountains. This desire, I imagine, knits many of us together.   

We hiked up to the top of the peak and looked out on the entirety of the Gallatin Range. The Madison Range continued the contours of staggered earth to the west, while the Absaroka Range rose beyond the Gallatin’s eastern peaks. To our north, the Gallatin Valley spread out as a patchwork of fields, buildings, and roads. From this vantage point, the town looked insignificant.

Mountains put humans and their developments in relief. Yet I know that’s only half the story. We have razed mountaintops. We dam rivers, changing landscapes. We can and do fundamentally alter entire ecosystems.

Indeed, we are both powerful and tiny animals. We embody paradox. As creatures calling this blue planet home, we’re ask to acknowledge both the humility of being human, and the power.

Home is a practice. It’s a practice in embracing the inevitability of change while working to preserve what we love. My hope is the wilderness will continue to teach us what it means to be a human animal, belonging to this earth and integral to the places we call home. 

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