A Sense of Place

Ten years at O/B.

Place is everything. In life and in writing, a sense of place is what fills the soul and enlivens the page. Bozeman is a place like no other, and because of this—or perhaps in spite of it—it has changed who I am becoming.

Like so many others, I arrived in Bozeman a college freshman. The expectation I had of this place was a shallow pipe-dream of images and clichés taken from every magazine and movie heralding the “Big Sky,” mountains, and outdoor recreation. While not altogether untrue, this vision of Bozeman is a fraction of the whole. I came with shoulder-length hair and a beard, living out a sort of Jeremiah Johnson fantasy in the mountains. This is not to say long hair or facial accoutrements are inappropriate, but rather that my reasons for having them were misguided. I went to class part-time and skied seven days a week. I associated with others like myself, mostly from places outside Montana. We smoked and drank and skied and talked about absolutely nothing. I loved every minute and couldn’t believe where I was or the life I was living. School was an afterthought, an attitude I justified by the easy rationalization, “I’m collecting experiences about which to write.” But near the end of the ski season, several of my friends had dropped out or flunked out, and although my legs were strong, my mind was foggy with a year’s worth of abuse and disuse.

On the last big powder day of the year, I rode the first chair of the morning with an old Ridge Hippie wearing shoulder-length hair and a beard like my own. He pulled out a weathered, leather medicine bag he carried on a beaded string around his neck. As he prepared a smoke he talked about the snow, the season, and when the Ridge would open that day. It was the same conversation I’d been having for 100 days straight, and I suddenly wanted there to be more than this routine, this ritual of recreation. I didn’t want to be this old guy. When he passed the smoke, I declined. I skied that day until the last chair turned the bullwheel, and I have skied countless days since, but that morning changed me 

I cut my hair and shaved my beard. They weren’t me, they were a character I played to justify my lifestyle. That first summer was a difficult one, a transition between the life I thought I wanted, and the more fulfilling one I knew I needed. Some of my previous friendships faded as new ones grew stronger. My life was like the two banks of the Gallatin, with me wading between. By the next fall I knew what I needed to do.

Outside Bozeman Magazine, Bozeman Montana, Drew Pogge

I took challenging classes, and actually attended them. It was difficult navigating the narrow arête between responsibility and recreation, but I had plenty of both. The winter arrived and I began the balancing act so common to Bozemanites. No longer could I ski every day. I was forced to pick and choose, to sacrifice a six-inch day for the promise of a foot-deep day. I believe this is commonly referred to as “adulthood,” and it sucked. That season I began backcountry skiing, where I learned even more about this place and met new like-minded ski partners. We were all young people seeking a balance between the realities of life and the fantasy of Montana. We studied, worked, skied, and lived a life I now see for what it is. It is a Bozeman life. Sometime during that second year, Bozeman became my home. It was no longer a place I was visiting, or a place I was attending school; it got under my skin and changed me.

The last two years have only cemented my relationship with Bozeman and its relationship with me. Drinking beer on the Crystal rooftop and singing along with the Clintons at Music on Main, skiing ridiculous powder from the top of Blackmore and climbing along the Madison, laughing with the people who share these things with me: these things so typical in Bozeman and so very rare anywhere else. I write this from an office in Vermont where I am working for a backcountry skiing magazine during the summer, and even from here Bozeman is changing me. Bozeman makes other places, interesting as they may be, seem somehow “less.”

I will return home soon for my fifth year of college, and then I will be faced with the prospect of leaving. Should I leave, this place will always be where I became an adult, where I learned what it is to be home, and where I cultivated my love of the outdoors and the written word. Bozeman is my immediate past and infinite future.

What a place.

2016 Note from the Author: 

It’s interesting to read something written by the person you used to be. It’s a kind of time travel; a single thought preserved in amber. This was the first story I wrote for Outside Bozeman, 10 years ago. Since then, much has changed—I have changed. But Bozeman remains my home. It’s still under my skin, and other places still seem somehow “less.” Fifteen years after rolling into town, it continues to challenge and shape who I am, and who I want to be. And I still have much to learn.

This is not the same town it was in 2006. In my mind, it’s like an image exposed over itself again and again: the core elements remain, but the detail is blurred. And perhaps this is the most valuable lesson Bozeman has taught me: everything changes, even the best things. Especially the best things.

I just hope we can run this story again in another 10 years, and it will continue to resonate as a love-letter to this place, and to the way of life we all cherish: the Bozeman life.

Contributing editor Drew Pogge’s writing has appeared in every issue of Outside Bozeman since this ran in 2006. He is currently also an editor for Skiing Magazine, former editor-in-chief of Backcountry Magazine, and owner / lead ski guide at Montana Alpine Adventures and the Bell Lake Yurt.