If I were to describe my recent trip to Montana in one word, it would most likely be SMOKEY.
But, that's just one word. The rest would be adventuresome, exciting, beautiful, educational, inspiring... and many more that I could go on and on with. This was the third time I've visited this state (other than driving through) and it always leaves me wanting to return. What took me to Montana this particular summer was a photography course. For four years I had been wanting to attend the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (aka RMSP) in Missoula. So this year I signed up for a week-long education in macro photography; something I have wanted to learn more about.
But, back to the smokey part. As the bottom half of British Columbia has pretty much been on fire all summer, apparently the western side of Montana has been about the same. Our usual blue summer skies have been replaced by a haze of smoke to varying degrees, creating an ever-present orange glow all around. When I crossed into the state of Montana from Idaho, and pretty much straight into an area with a wildfire, I realized I wasn't going to get any reprieve from the smoke I'd been inhaling in BC for weeks. This didn't stop my excitement, however, and despite being in near hazardous to hazardous air quality the whole time I was there, I had an expected amazing visit to one of my favourite US states.
After a quick overnight detour up to Seeley Lake to check in with my friend Tanya (where I was introduced to the Rice Ridge Fire threatening the town and surrounding areas... I'll get back to this later), I moved into my studio apartment for the week in downtown Missoula. Missoula is surrounded by a few wildfires itself, the largest and closest being the Lolo Peak Fire. It doesn't matter which way the wind blows, smoke is pretty much inevitable. Through the orange glow, I found myself in a town with an eclectic mix of artists, hippies, ranchers, professionals, hipsters, students, and outdoor enthusiasts. Everyone who lived there was enthusiastic about Missoula in a you-would-fit-in-why-don't-you-move-here kind of way. I coveted my apartment location on West Broadway and Higgins, within walking distance to restaurants, shopping, parks, outdoor concerts, the farmers market, a street fair, and RMSP. I wanted to live in Missoula for a week, and I got to do that.
RMSP did not disappoint. The four years was worth the wait, though what took me so long I don't know. People come from all over to attend this school and I now know why. After the first day of class and shooting I felt like I had already been there a week. Of course, by the last day it felt all too short a time. That's what happens when you are enjoying yourself and loving what you're doing. RMSP has a six week Summer Intensive program that solves that too-short problem though. Perhaps, someday. But for six days, my fellow photographer classmates and I learned everything we needed and wanted to know about photographing the world which is generally beyond our easy sight. Our fantastic instructor, Tony Rizzuto, challenged us with finding the tiny details at Fort Missoula, in a second-hand home building store (or "junk" store to my Chicago classmates), at Garnet Ghost Town, in a garden nursery (much more to the Chicago crew's liking), in our bathroom (beauty is everywhere!), on the streets of Missoula, and in the controlled environment of a studio. It was a whirlwind of lectures, shoots, critiques, and lots of laughs. We even managed most of this in the orange glow of the smoke-filled sky. I have always loved macro photography and am excited to see where this training and knowledge will now take me as a photographer. As for Missoula... I will definitely be back!
The next leg of my Montana trip took me back up to Seeley Lake. During my macro course, Tanya kept me updated on their local fire, which was continuing to grow toward them. It seemed that this wildfire was starting to, and was going to, get quite angry. I showed up at the same time Tanya's husband Alistair got there from Bismarck, where they also have a home and Alistair works for half the month. They had decided that because they have a place to be far from this wildfire mess, it would be a good idea to get themselves and their pets there. An evacuation "party" started, with friends driving out from North Dakota to pick up their Montana horses and help move vehicles to another location. Important things were packed up in another trailer that Tan and Alistair would drive back with. While this all happened, we continued to look at fire maps, get information from firefighters, and watch the fire crest over ridges and burn its way all too quickly down the mountain toward us and the meadow that Tan and Alistair live in and share with other ranches. Though they were lucky to have a place to evacuate to early, I know the worry and stress is still there. Since they left, the Rice Ridge Fire has continued to grow and is now at over 100,000 acres. Most of Seeley Lake is evacuated. The meadow has come close to evacuation, and the fire is threatening other populations. And if it isn't fire that people are dealing with, it's hazardous smoke. I read so many posts from Western Montana locals about their frustrations and the lack of concern and coverage this is getting on a national level. I think about my own province and the orange glow I wake up to every morning, with the constant threat we still face due to the severity of this dry spell. Winter is still too far away.
On my way home from Montana, I decided to take a side trip to the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee, not far out of Missoula and in the Flathead Reservation. This was a gem of a find, and a good way to end this trip with a little serenity. I also thought a chat with the Universe in such a sacred sanctuary on behalf of Seeley Lake and my friends wouldn't hurt either. Though I found this site in a Missoula guide book, it's not one of those pull-over touristy places. Which is nice, because those who want to find it will. I spent an hour or so peacefully strolling through the garden, spinning prayer wheels, and appreciating the tranquility, while still surrounded by a smokey haze. It was a calm spot in the chaos of fires. I left hoping that everyone everywhere can stay safe and be mindful of their actions out in the wilderness until the weather can turn in our favour.
Now that I'm home, I'm processing photos, catching up with work, and looking ahead at the cooler months that we all seem to be craving right now. I'm checking fire maps daily, both in BC and Montana. Tanya and Alistair still have a house to go back to. And hopefully it stays that way. In Missoula, I bought a t-shirt that inspired the title of this post. Seeing firsthand what the residents are dealing with and surviving gives it a whole new meaning. I think those of us in BC can adopt this sentiment as well.