Pocket Change

I am passionately attracted to the state of Montana: Chico Hot Springs, the Crazies, Livingston, the truly amazing Corral Burger. All are powerful individually; collectively, though, they fuel an overwhelming desire to move to Montana. Move myself, move my wife, Michele, move our young son, Holden. Someday, move to Montana.

Nothing in my life has ever held such absolute power over me. Sure, it’s the beauty and the Montana lifestyle and the mountains. But most of all it’s that no other place has ever cast such an undeniably distinct impression on me. This amazing place, “The Last Best Place,” as William Kittredge would say, is always at the forefront of my mind. And as I stood under its vast umbrella of sky and flickering stars for the first time a few Octobers ago, free from commitment and restraint, one prevailing thought overpowered all others: I was finally in Montana, and at every point of the compass were the greatest trout rivers a man need ever know. 

Driving to the Madison that first day, Route 191 a blur beneath the hulking ‘92 Chevrolet Suburban in which I was a passenger, falling in love with the mountainscape streaming through the cracked windshield was inevitable. Each set of pinnacles and peaks was more beautiful than the next. And the cloud-flecked sky—well, it simply stopped time.

This love affair with Montana began by chance. As a naturally inquisitive and precocious boy, I took it upon myself to explore as much of my grandfather’s ramshackle country store as my time allowed. The store, complete with two Arco gas pumps, an impressive range of chewing tobacco, and a meat slicer, was situated on a lonely curved road called Breakneck in a small corner of rural western Pennsylvania. And the object that sparked my love affair was found stuffed between the cushions of the dustiest couch in all of Bullskin Township.

That navy blue velvet couch sat on an unswept concrete floor in the front window of the store. I remember the morning sun pouring through the window like an endless mountain stream; through that window, my grandfather and I could see his farmhouse and fields, his dog, Laddie, and a fine red Jeep pickup parked just across the road. 

While my grandfather’s massive hands clutched the local paper, hands that swung a hammer for more than 40 summers, I dug my much smaller ones deeply between the couch cushions hoping to find some change.

And I did find some change—of a different sort. 

Running to the oak counter my grandfather built in the ‘40s—the wood hand-cut from an old tree felled by a lightning strike on the farm—I unfolded a ripped and yellowed road map (courtesy of the Frontier Refining Company of Cheyenne, Wyoming) that read “Idaho,” “Montana,” “Wyoming.” I kept unfolding the map until I could see it all, including Frontier’s catchy slogan, “Frontier Gas, Rarin’ to Go.” Coincidentally, I now suspect that the state of Montana was what faced me first.

With the map touching the massive and exceedingly ornate cash register on one side and a tall glass candy display on the other, I focused much of my attention on the scores of jagged blue lines that crisscrossed the map: those blue lines read “Yellowstone,” “Madison,” “Gallatin,” “Big Horn,” “Missouri,” “Beaverhead.” And as my grandfather, a fly fisherman who knew the treasures of Montana, made his way to the counter to cash out some country folks for a carton of milk and a pack of Lucky Strikes, he too was charmed by the find.

As our customers left the store, I continued to study the map with unnatural delight. Having little idea of time and distance, I sheepishly asked my grandfather, “Do you think maybe we could go to Montana?” Tapping his right forefinger on an area that seemed to be around Belgrade, he replied and then repeated just above a breath, “Sure, someday we’ll just go.” 

With the map folded again and resting comfortably in the hip pocket of my overalls, I asked my grandfather how it was that it ended up in our store. Through an ever-present mouthful of Levi Garrett, my grandfather said he remembered drinking black coffee and talking fish with a trucker driving through Breakneck years before. The trucker wore western-style boots and a sweat-soaked white straw cowboy hat. Grandpap reasoned, “Maybe the map belonged to him.”

As an adult now, my beloved grandfather long since gone, those remarkable blue lines that once captivated me as a boy represent a passion that has taken over the majority of my thoughts. And while I’m happy to have walked and floated many of those crisscrossing blue lines, I yearn for the day when Montana is our home, and Holden, Michele, and I can point to a blue line, jump in our truck and go. We’ll just go.