For the first time in 13 years, I was watching Florida hurricane reports at a far remove. Just the way I used to watch the reports of Montana wildfires: Tough luck, I’d think, but what are you gonna do? No matter where you live, it’s always something.
I’m a Montana resident again, once more fully tuned in to the whole wildfire thing. The wife and I have our new driver’s licenses and license plates and we’re registered to vote in Missoula County. We’ll be voting straight blue, needless to say. All we need now is a Golden retriever and a Subaru Outback.
We left Montana in 1997, moving first to Kansas City, then to Philadelphia, then to Wichita, then to Jacksonville. We had good reasons for each move, most related to money and our newspaper careers. But I always missed the homeland. No matter where one lives, I think, one’s birthplace exerts some considerable tug on the psyche.
So here we are. Things have changed some. Not Rip-Van-Winkle-level changes, exactly, since we’ve visited a lot over the years. We’ve not been shocked by the infestation of bland million-dollar condos, the gigantic Trumpster pickups, the painfully-punned pot dispensaries, the strange dudes in cryptic t-shirts reeling down the bike paths on one-wheel scooters. We were prepared to wait through multiple changes of each stoplight on Reserve Street. The various homeless encampments are numerous and depressing, but they’ve got nothing on Jacksonville.
It’s not the last best place anymore. But it never was, really. Like the Rockin’ Rudy’s t-shirt used to say: It’s just a place, sort of. A place with dry air that feels like silk on the skin after 13 years of oppressive humidity. A place where crime exists, but doesn’t yet flourish. It’s a place where trash doesn’t blow down the street before a thunderstorm. Because there isn’t a lot of trash. Not a lot of thunderstorms either, and they are the kind that come and go with great speed and drama, imbued with the scent of ozone and old dreams. It’s a place where late autumn means snow in the mountains and leaves in the wind.
I’m a big fan of mountains. In Florida and Missouri and Kansas, I used to feel a pang when I’d see cloud formations in the distance and think, for just a split second, that they were mountains. The ones here are genuine. Those two to the east still have their consecutive letters, which used to fascinate me as a kid. I’d think: there are enough mountains here that you could do the whole alphabet.
Easy to see why people want to live here. I can’t blame them, whether they’re crusty-punk nomads or wealthy “Yellowstone” posers or somewhere in the vast canyon in between. I guess we’ll all make the best of it, everyone secretly hoping that the downsides, the long seasons of wildfire and winter, might eventually weed out the insincere.
Not me though. I’m here for the duration. Having moved away once, I have learned my lesson.