on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community


Letter from Missoula

by Rick Stern

Four felines, relocated for the second time in four months, settle in for their second night in their new house. This is the first house in which we've lived without another human. It's also the first house I've owned.

I've lived in seven places and with 16 different housemates plus two other cats and a dog in the seven-and-a-half years I've resided in Missoula. All of my housemates were good people and all remain friends, albeit out-of-touch friends in more than one case. These have been good years, maybe especially because they haven't always been easy. Now, from the perspective of a few friends, the kitties and I are on easy street.

The house, I realize as I move in, is plenty big. I can put anything I want and can afford into it, like the $15 futon frame I just picked up from the Salvation Army. The cats have new tags with new addresses and phone numbers, but lie relaxed and happy on a familiar bed and rug, probably wondering why this familiar man does the crazy things he does.

The first time I laid eyes on this house, I couldn't get in. I walked around to the alley and took a peek into the backyard. The late-October branches bore no sign of blooms or even leaves, but that didn't stop the ring of lilacs from taking hold of my attention and my affection. The lilacs now wait patiently for May's thaw, unable to enjoy the pleasantly surprising late fall sunshine.

I wonder about living alone, although I think it will suit me. Who can complain about having his own space to arrange however he'd like, or however it ends up arranging itself? I don't even have to do the dishes if I don't want to. With one tiny bedroom, the house is just big enough for the kitties and me and no one else, except maybe an occasional overnight visitor—someone who can handle the close company of my cats and me.

Living alone, or at least without beings that talk back to me in a language that I mostly understand, might be more difficult if I were living anywhere else. Fortunately, loneliness is more of a choice than a condition in Missoula. This is a town in which I live by only one articulated and mostly adhered-to rule: Don't go to the Good Food Store, the local organic bulk-foods outlet, when you're in a hurry. When I disobey this rule, I run into someone I haven't seen for six months. Maybe it'll be Mark Coleman, who'll talk about his writing, how it's hard but therapeutic, and I'll have a long conversation I would want to have if I weren't distractedly reviewing my list of errands or worrying about being late for dinner.

My route to Missoula was a circuitous one. During my childhood I was pretty well sheltered from the forces of nature and community. Despite living seventeen years in the same house, I didn't much know my neighbors. I knew even less about the local ecological community that had been mostly paved over, built upon, and replaced by water-loving exotic species and pipelines pumping lakefuls of water into southern California's arid environment.

After five years in Berkeley and one year spent traveling and studying environmental issues in eight countries, I found myself deposited right here in the master's program in environmental studies at the University of Montana. Has the statute of limitations run out on my having to tell people that I'm one of those damn Californians? Living in the fourth-largest state, land-wise, with a population of less than a million people, many native Montanans can no longer vent their frustrations with immigrants by slapping on a "Don't Californiacate" bumper sticker. Around here, my confession of being from L.A. is usually met with a laugh. In a smaller town in Montana, that statement would likely be greeted in a less amiable fashion.

After graduation, I witnessed a wave of mass exodus when my fellow students, degrees in hand, departed in search of adventure or purpose, romance or sustenance. First came the departure of Elizabeth Tan, a partner of mine in an excellent friendship and a brief romance that included a mosquito-ridden, grueling, and absolutely gorgeous backpacking trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Then it was later, see ya to Marc Jones, with whom I hiked into the nearby Bitterroot Mountains to gather spring wildflowers for him to weave into an engagement bracelet with which he proposed to now-wife Lyn. Bigger blows came later. Jen, my partner of almost six years and absentee mother of three of my cats, skipped town for Seattle. At one point, my sister, brother-in-law, and two nephews, fed up with Orange County, California, moved to Missoula. Ten months later, feeling the economic insecurity that a single person can weather more easily than a young family, they returned to the City of Orange.

Yet every departure created a new opportunity to explore relationships with one or a few of Missoula's seemingly endless supply of straight-up, interesting, and forward-thinking folks. Fourteen percent of Missoulans voted for Nader, although Bush walked away with 58% of the vote statewide. In 1998, Bob Oaks, mayor of Northside, the section of town tucked between Interstate 90 and the rail yard, opened the North Missoula Tool library in his garage, creating both a neighborhood meeting place and a site to borrow those tools that you need but don't really need to own. About two years ago, 3,000 volunteers replaced the run-down play equipment and broken slide in Westside Park with the finest playground in the city, if not the state. And for seventeen years, the Northside Community Gardens have been providing plots of land for the residents, mostly renters, to grow vegetables and flowers.

For three years, I worked for the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, which ran the Community Gardens. The job didn't offer much in terms of salary, but what it did offer was more valuable: the chance to do creative work while living rent-free on a site where gardens, greenhouses, and fruit trees had been lovingly developed and improved by many sets of hands since the back-to-the-landers purchased the property about twenty years ago. Many of my more settled friends also paid their dues by scraping by for a few years. Now most of us have found a little more security trying to change the world from within our cubicles in the public sector or the impressively large number of Missoula-based environmental non-profits.

Many of us transplants rewarded the town's confidence and support by investing in mortgages of our own. In fact, among my friends, I'm a relative latecomer to homeownership. The act of taking on the project of living in my own house without other people for the first time ties me ever more deeply into this community.

Except for fairly regular visits from my compadres, my cats don't know about what makes Missoula feel like home to me and what it is that has kept me from relocating them several hundred, if not thousands, of miles away. My kitties have never been to the Good Food Store or to the Saturday Farmer's Market. The market from May through October serves as more of a community gathering place than anything else for folks like me who grow a fair amount of our lettuce, basil, tomatoes, flowers and lots more in our own little plots here in the Garden City.

When it warms up enough, the cats will experience a fair piece of life in the garden. But they will have no idea about life in the nearby woods or about what it's like to work in an office populated by people and computers. It's probably best that the cats know nothing about my drinking bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the smoky haze of Charlie B's, enjoying the company of the first-place trophy I helped procure for the bar softball team.

I haven't figured out what those cats are thinking, but I do know this: They know only about life within and near whatever place we call home at the time. Tonight, for the second time, we share in the life of the first house that is uniquely and exclusively ours.

Rick Stern is an environmentalist, freelance writer, softball player, bass guitarist, and now, homeowner, in Missoula.

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