Montana is a tough state. It’s 147,000 square miles of rugged landscape dotted by a population of hardly a million hardy people. Montana’s high peaks will stare you down and not-so-gently remind you that "the mountains giveth and the mountains taketh away." Montana’s grandeur will taunt you with its beauty while beckoning your sense of adventure; you’ll be hard pressed to sit idly by and do nothing. There is far too much open space to let you get away easily. The tight peaks and empty prairies will confront every level of your being, bringing you to the lowest lows and the highest highs you’ve ever experienced.
The thing about Montana is, it makes you face your biggest fears. Too many freezing rivers to sweep you away, and raging wildfires to burn down the forest and choke you out. If that’s not enough there’s the herds of ungulates, creatures with sharp teeth, ripping winds, steep slopes, crumbling rocks, precarious snow packs and too many cowboys with drinking problems trying to pick a fight or pick you up. You can’t live in Big Sky Country and expect to have an easy life. Montana exposes your weaknesses like a wound and then rubs salt in that wound until you learn how to embrace the pain. It won’t let you sit and feel sorry for yourself. It will push you until you can’t be pushed anymore and then push you one step further. At that point, it's up to you to decide if you give up or buck up. You have you learn to move and think with the landscape, not fight against it.
You will watch the landscape swallow up people you know and love. Maybe you’ll find yourself nose to nose with a grizzly bear, or frostbitten in the backcountry, or caught in an avalanche, or floating down a river away from your boat. Not everyone can live in Montana. Not everyone can face the realities of living a life in a place where Mother Nature truly rules and you’re just a pawn in her court. Not everyone is equipped to face the realities of themselves and their own fragile existence.
You learn the hard way, often quickly, that there is a constant battle between mind and mountains. If you can embrace the hardships, embrace the experiences and embrace the lessons, you’ll be built up by those rugged peaks. You’ll come out the other side a little battered, but for the better.
If you can make it through all that, it’s worth the fight. It’s worth it when you land that big brown trout and release it back into the stream, watching its spotted body camouflage back into the riverbed. It’s worth it when you down that bull elk and stand before its still-warm body and thank it for sustaining you and others for another year. It’s worth it when you ski that line you’ve been staring at, having spent days or weeks or months planning the ascent and route for a five-minute run. You’ll know it’s worth it when you fall asleep under all those stars, an empty bottle of bourbon on one side of you, and a kindred soul on the other. When you stand tall on the summit of those sky-high peaks and gaze at the expanse of the world below you, you’ll get it.
The Montana landscape defines us. And there isn’t much we can do about it. If we chose the lifestyle, the landscape will do the rest. If we let it, the landscape will fill our lives with scenes you thought could only exist in fiction.