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Summer in Northwest Montana goes by in a blur. One breezy, sparkling day, a season I call “late spring” emerges out of the weeks of rain, mud, fog, and false starts. I’m ogling the blossomy landscaping at our McDonald’s drive-through and thinking that this must be the prettiest corner of the prettiest region in the US. We’ve arrived, and I vow to hold on to each day so that the months don’t flip by quite so quickly. But then after just a couple family visits, an out-of-town trip, several smoky days we hope will go away, and some weeks of tourist-packed traffic, we’re suddenly back to new teacher training at my job. And then I see the back-to-school supplies at WalMart. And finally—the death knell for summer—come the first crimson leaves that signal we’re about to enter that other season, that one that is unpredictably glorious, and we hope long, but always the gateway into weeks of bleak indoor weather.
With a timeframe like this, those of us who have moved here because the lush woods and mountains drew us like powerful magnets have some things to get done in our spare time. We rebuke ourselves each sunny day that we’re indoors, especially when it’s not too hot (the sun out here is brutal) or threatening rain. I tend to have a mental summer checklist of things that need to happen by mid-September, because I’m lucky if October is hospitable enough for such things. I’d say I’ve done a fairly good job of covering the list this summer, with time to spare for more:
Walking: To those of you in milder climates, having walking on your bucket list sounds silly. Out here, getting out for walks in beautiful surroundings is a gift. I have so delighted in exploring the quiet neighborhood of this town via evening walks. In early spring this year, I was unimpressed with the icy puddles and frigid river flanked by brown vegetation. The lake was still iced over, and I was not going to be enchanted with this place.
Then late spring arrived, and I fell in love. I loved the bridge spanning the river, from which I could look down into water that was so clear and still that you had to see the clues to know which way the current flowed. I loved the paved walkways, with their graceful curves and picturesque bridges, so smooth that walking felt like no effort at all. With no uneven ground to trip over, I felt like I floated above the walk, powered along by the gracious sweep of the footpath, the open blue sky, grass and trees, blossoms everywhere, and green mountains looming just a few miles to the north. The birdsong was so clear and close, I started wondering whether there might be speakers hidden in the trees, like at the zoo.
And after all those years of walking out in the backcountry, I realized the residents contributed some of the best parts of the small town walking experience—their rows of charming houses, their cozy front porches with chairs arranged just to get one daydreaming about the ideal life, their love of floating down the river in kayaks, no life jackets necessary, in Montana’s late twilights. I loved their unruly gardens with giant peonies along the fence, the occasional red door, the shockingly not-up-to-code features one came across. When the weather became friendly, the whole neighborhood came gleefully outdoors. There were big gatherings and bonfires and smells of meat grilling. An ultralight ascended from around the lake a block away and circled the area, stalled and banked, and went on his way again. That’s when I knew the town was fully awake.
My daughter and I have taken to naming our walking routes—we have a number of them—but we almost always go by the lake. I will have to save that for next time.