Do you ever wonder if the story you remember actually belongs to you, or if you’ve taken someone else’s history and made it your own?
I’m not talking about déjà vu.
I’m talking about northeastern Montana.
My family homesteaded there. They’ve been populating those little towns for generations. Busily populating, mind you. They’re a prolific lot. It’s where my first father grew up and where we visited often, and where we still return. My youngest sister moved back there, I think to have that connection to our history and our family. Although things rarely turn out like we hope.
The annual excursions involved an uncle taking us to the badlands. They spread across Bureau of Land Management country, private rangeland, and the Sioux reservation. You can see amazing wind-sculpted sandstone, countryside cut deeply by weather, and wild, unforgiving places where you can easily disappear. You can find agates and fossilized wood, dinosaur bones and fossils. It’s in the same area as the famous archaeological digs around Fort Peck. It’s a land that bares its age to the elements.
On the way, we always stopped at this tiny store to stock up on water and soda for the uncle. Almost seventy years ago an eighteen-year-old boy died there, shot in a robbery. He was my uncle’s friend. Every time we walk in that store I wonder if my uncle sees the boy there.
Every time we walk in that store I look for the boy because the story has become mine. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. My uncle tells it every time we drive that highway. I’ve absorbed the words into the sense of place so that it is tied up with heat and dry washes and old bones.
Is the story true? Did it really happen? I have no idea. But it’s real.
Anyone who has spent time on this blog knows I’m a mountain and forest woman. I need rain and green and high mountains and the standing nation of tall trees.
But when I’m in that corner of Montana, it feels like home. It sinks into my much-younger bones. It feels like family and history, like my place in the universe. Even though I long for the whitewater rivers and high canyons when back there, the place still sings to my soul.
Is it because so many generations of place created my DNA? Is it because I’ve breathed in all those stories until I believe them? Is it simply the memories of many visits running together over years?
I don’t know. Maybe stories can’t be separated from your past, or the past of those who tell them.