By Kaitlin Murphy Explorebigsky.com Contributor
My friend warned me. We were driving through Gallatin Canyon in the middle of the night, on the way from the airport to her family’s new home in Big Sky. Recently when they’d hosted friends here, it wasn’t just the kids who cried at the airport the day they left.
“I know it’s too dark to see anything right now, but just wait ‘til daylight,” she said. You’ll see why.”
Ok, I thought, that’s a little dramatic. I’m an adult. I get that vacations end. I’d been fortunate to travel to many places with natural beauty so sudden it could bring even the most cynical souls to their grateful knees. I had hiked the red-orange clay of Utah’s Bryce Canyon, driven along the cliffs of Route 1 to Carmel, Calif., and eaten breakfast on a ranch with the snow-peaked Grand Tetons as a backdrop. I had stopped on the cool dirt trails of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in fall, astonished at the capabilities of mere puddles to capture whole forests of red and yellow in their surfaces. In fact, I had just moved to a vacation destination in Tampa, Fla. So, while I was looking forward to spending time with my friend and her family in a beautiful place, I was confident I could handle it.
You can see where I’m going with this. You don’t “handle” Big Sky. As a writer I should be able to describe what would disrupt the calm in my chest on the day I left a week later—a calm that had eased its way in on the crisp morning I awoke in my friend’s guest room at 7,000 feet, “Bear Poop” chocolates from the Hungry Moose on my bedside welcome tray, an elk eating grass outside my window, and far from the Florida heat.
If I fail at description, at least I know I am not alone—because if leaving Big Sky doesn’t break your heart in the big dramatic way of a high school break-up, it will send fissures across it in little cracks, spreading like the sudden work of spring on river ice.
It didn’t take a week of meditating on nature for this to happen to me. My friends are the most adventurous people I know—whether chasing them on a hike, running hills, or wakesurfing across Hebgen Lake, this was not the calm of a leisurely beach vacation or an easy mountain retreat.
They also introduced me to many of the warm people they’d met since moving there—at a wedding reception and concert to which the entire town was invited, and over dinner at Ousel & Spur, where I had my first potato skin pizza while our small picnic table dinner grew into a cloud of children covering the lawn, and the owner, then neighbor after neighbor, stopped by for a beer and a chat.
“This happens every time,” my friend said. “It turns into a party.”
One night we pulled into the driveway, looked up at the town’s namesake, and couldn’t stop looking. We grabbed our jackets and moved to the back porch, straining to remember what we’d learned in school about the constellations that now sent clear stories across the sky. I remembered the dippers, which are visible in the ambient light of home, but here the stories were novels, bookshelves full of them in a sky moving with falling stars and awash in Milky Way dust.
All too soon, it was time to leave. This time we drove Gallatin Canyon in daylight, and I watched fly fishermen cast between walls of mountain rock that doled sunshine in moving mazes on the river.
There is something silent about stone that moves from mountains into the passing heart. It pushes past the soft surfaces of skin and thought, furrowing into the places where noise tangles us up inside. The stars and trees carry it too.
I thought of a line from Rainer Maria Rilke: “One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.” In the mountains of Big Sky, both happen at once.
And I knew it would not stay. This kind of silence needs repeating. It’s a silence that bears conversation and activity, and it’s enough to make people pick up and move somewhere nobody understands until they see it themselves. At the thought of leaving it behind, tears are not childish, sentimental or even remarkable.
If my words are inadequate, pass through the canyon in daylight. Eat potato skin pizza while happy children run around you, then go home and follow the stars on a cool summer night. The next morning, drink your coffee before trees that stand still in the mountain air. Then, try to write it. Maybe it can keep our silence going.
Kaitlin Murphy is a writer, editorial consultant and writing coach. She teaches college writing in Tampa, Florida. She can be reached at kaitlinmurphy.org.