Back to Bozeman

The text message blinked as I sent it: “drinking 40s on the lawn.” A decade ago, it would have sounded logical; now it just seemed like we were trying too hard. Yet there I sat. I might have been 20-something again, crossed-legged on a Bozeman lawn with my would-be hipster girlfriends and 40 ounces of dark Belgian beer. Except this time, my toddlers lay splayed out in sleeping bags on the living-room floor.

The Bozeman trip evolved from sheer determination and illogical nostalgia. We had friends in the Gallatin Valley. We had an immense grandmotherly sedan, gas money, and pre-kid memories of central Montana’s adult playland. And I knew the way.

Fifteen years ago I stumbled into Bozeman’s tree-line streets and cowboy-slash-hippie-ski-culture looking to grow up. Now I am a grownup, but I long for my days of carefree boozing and intellectual play-acting. They say you can’t go home again. Fair enough, but returning to my college stomping grounds seemed doable, if a bit misguided, when toting three children under the age of five.

After a 300-mile drive, we landed in my little brother’s apartment. It was perfect. When you're 21, you do laundry once a month and eat Ramen noodles straight from the package. We found the one-room loft ideal, mostly because it was free. If it was difficult to appreciate the proximity to the Barmuda Triangle and the SOB Barn while changing diapers, but my friend Jennie didn’t let on. We tried our best to live like college kids—duffle bags and laundry covered the carpet, bottles and road-trip food piled up on the counter. But Ramen doesn’t stave off rug-rat hunger for long.

Montana Ale Works can be loud. It’s an ideal place to tie one on with 40 of your closest friends or conceal small children under a corner booth. We followed the hostess through a maze of geared-out fisherman (who eats pasta in their waders?) to our window seat. The boys gobbled their four-cheese macaroni and took their toys under the table while Jennie and I enjoyed our first hot meal of the day. I sipped my beer and watched cars scream down Main Street. My college budget never afforded me tasty luxuries such as Ale Works, but even outside of this hip cocoon, Bozeman was different than I remembered.

Every corner was a momentary gotcha. Was Heeb's smaller, or did it just look tiny next to the impressive new buildings on E. Main? Is that a new and improved Joe’s Parkway? What really lies north of Oak Street? This was a place I both knew and hardly recognized. Was it me, or was the crazy suburban growth the new western norm? I was lost in the one place I thought would always be my comfort zone.

As we left the restaurant, Jennie’s son stopped to investigate baby noises coming from a nearby booth. I think my raucous boys unnerved the couple, but I’d been too busy reminiscing to notice the newborn propped up on the table next to us. As we chatted about what a great place Bozeman is, I began to notice tables full of families. Kids had taken over the joint. They were hanging off high chairs and stealing gourmet pizza off their parents' plates. These families weren’t obvious tourists, they were the other locals—a world apart from the unshowered undergrads clustered around the pool tables.

The next morning, we hit the Leaf and Bean. And I do mean hit. Plastic dinosaurs and blocks flew past the open-mic stage. I wiped dusty footprints off the couch and tossed goldfish at my boys. The kids hung tight while I told Jennie that this is where my love affair with coffee shops began. I wondered out loud if the toy boxes and story books were a new addition. Was there always string cheese in the front cooler? After lattés and sporadic conversation with a childless college chum, I drug everybody across the street to the Country Bookshelf and further down the block to look at the black hole left by the downtown explosion. I ticked off the missing businesses: Boodles, the Rocking R, the Legion. All places I thought I’d return to. Only later, when we looked for a children’s boutique, did I realize that it too was destroyed in the fire. There were holes in my Bozeman experience.

We trounced around town for the better part of two days. We went to see Jack Horner’s prehistoric beauties at the Museum of the Rockies. The boys played with metal detectors and wooden food in the discovery room. They posed for pictures beneath Big Mike and the shadows of the Tobacco Roots. Jennie went to the Co-op for lunchtime treats. We broke in the valley’s newest playground at the regional park. We discovered that tired kids can run in Santa Fe Red's immense outdoor courtyard while we sipped our margaritas. But it wasn’t until nap time that it hit me: I’d fallen for both Bozemans.

My kids are growing up in the mountains. They ski. They fish. They hike. It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis really. I either give up the things I love, or do them slower, with a kid strapped to my back. But as we drove south toward Hyalite Canyon, trying to get the boys to nap, it occurred to me that they—that we—can experience this place in the same way. The canyon road is busier, but unchanged.

I wove my way up the mountains in the late-evening sunlight and listened to the kids snoring in the back seat. I remembered hikes and campfires, hot springs, and snowshoeing through these hills as a student, but I’d been searching downtown for some sense of home. The Bozeman I’d grown up in was full of bars and late nights, but it was also crowded with the smell of pine trees and thunderstorms. I’d fostered a love for the outdoors here and taken it with me out into the world. This was the place I’d longed to come back to. Despite the new kid-spin on all of my favorite Bozone haunts, this new side of the valley was just as accessible. I could enjoy lattés and local brews with my kids. I could soak up mountain sunshine from playgrounds or the Garage (I still call it Fred’s). And most important, I could hike the kid-friendly Hyalite trails and fish the Madison with my boys. The magic of this place was not lost to toy boxes and kids playrooms—it just expanded.