Montana: A Grand Homecoming

By Jack Steward

If you have ever moved away from somewhere special, you know how hard a  transition it is to make. Luckily, as humans we are made to adapt to different situations as they come our way. When I first moved from Montana to Los Angeles, California, it was a very tough transition. All of a sudden I was in this massive city trying to make sense of the freeways and buildings that seemed to stretch into infinity. As time went on I became very much accustomed to life in LA. I now know my way around the city and actually feel at home. 

Two of my good friends from college were getting married in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and I just had to be there. It is an incredible experience to see two people you love making such an amazing commitment to each other. I was looking forward to the wedding but I knew that I also needed to take a detour through Missoula, Montana. Little did I know how much this trip would impact me. 

As the plane made its approach into Missoula, I began to smile from ear to ear. I spotted Lolo Peak, Mount Sentinel, and the enormous Mission Mountains in the distance. The weekend would be jam packed with wedding festivities but I was determined to make time for a couple of my favorite places. 

I knew that I wanted to go back to Nine Mile Road; a quaint gravel road that acts as a gateway to a remarkable section of the Lolo National Forest. The area has a historic ranger station that offers ideas for how to navigate the maze of fire roads that branch out into the mountains.

On our way back from Coeur d'Alene, Colton and I got off the highway at Nine Mile Road. We proceeded to make our way through the valley; looking at the towering mountains and the homes that sit below them. This place is a slice of heaven. The sun was shining and little spots of clouds filled the sky. Places like this really demonstrate why Montana is called Big Sky Country. 

In the old days we would have taken our car deep into the mountains. This was always an adventure; the roads are so rocky and narrow that you are on your toes the entire time. Today, we didn't want to risk having the rental car break down or getting a flat tire so we decided to just drive through the valley and soak it all in. 

As we drove, we listened to some of the old songs that we would play on repeat during past adventures. I was immediately brought me back to the feelings I had on a daily basis in college. There is something special about Montana. The beauty and tranquility permeate your mind and, if you allow this feeling to take hold of you, you become a much happier person. 

Colton and I stopped to look at some horses that were grazing in a field. Some were roaming around while others were on the ground basking in the sun's warmth. We had nothing but time so we stayed there for a bit taking in the moment. After a little while, it was time to make our way back to Missoula.

The next morning, (and I use the word loosely - it was 3:45 AM) I got up to drive Colton to the airport. I wasn't flying out until later that afternoon so I knew this was my chance to really dive into nature on my last day here. One of the unique things about Missoula is that there is a hiking trail that takes you from the city all the way into the Lolo National Forest. This was my old daily hiking trail in college and I absolutely loved it. I told my buddy Tim who lives in town that I wanted to tackle this at sunrise. Even though he had work later that day, he decided to head up there with me!

It was a beautiful morning. The sun hadn't come up yet so it was the perfect temperature for hiking. We made our way towards the mountain with his dog Sadie smelling everything she could along the way. Dogs are great hiking companions - their excitement is contagious. 

Finally we reached the trail and started making our way up the mountain. This trail is great because it starts off with a pretty steep incline. The first section gives you a good cardiovascular workout as you head straight up the mountain. As we made our way upward, I spotted Lolo Peak out in the distance. The sun illuminated the snow capped peak in an intense shade of orange. It was an encouraging sight to see as we pushed ourselves on the steep incline. 

Eventually we arrived at the border of the Lolo National Forest. I always loved this section of the trail because it begins to level off and the city disappears behind the mountain side. When I looked out at the scene in front of us I was in awe. The trail ahead revealed lush green mountains with blooming wildflowers. This is the peace that I find in nature. The distractions of the city were behind us and the beauty of the landscape enveloped our senses. 

Tim let Sadie off her leash so she could run around a bit. We enjoyed watching her tear up the mountain side; only stopping to smell some flowers or chase a moth. As we continued on the trail, the forest was getting closer and closer. We had made a ton of progress and it was only 6 AM.

Inside the forest there is a small spring. This was an excellent spot for Sadie to drink some water and cool off. I used to sit here with Swisher and watch him swim in the spring while I took a much needed break. Sadie was having the time of her life splashing around and getting us wet in the process. 

After some breakfast on the trail, we made our way through the forest. There was so much to see here! We spotted wildflowers of all different colors. I was instantly taken back by the smell of the pines in conjunction with scent of dew on the grass. This is my favorite smell in the world. 

We made our way through the woods for another mile and then decided it was time to turn back. This hike reminded me why I love Montana so much. I started off the day thinking that it would be nice to explore one of my old spots. I had no idea that the sights and scents would bring me so much joy. Even though I was running on a few hours of sleep, I felt rejuvenated by nature. This trip to Montana broke me out of my current mind state. I hadn't been overwhelmed by beauty like this in a long time. Los Angeles is my home and I will always feel like a part of the city, but being in Montana reminded me that I am also still very much connected to Big Sky Country. I plan to come back again soon with more time but for now, this short trip was enough to replenish my spirit.