Last Wednesday, around the ninth switchback in the M Trail at the University of Montana, my legs and lungs screamed at me to stop, or at least walk instead of run. I wheezed, my chest heaved, but I kept running. Mostly I was trying to get to the top of the trail, but part of me was trying to run back in time.
I moved to Missoula almost 16 years ago, and in a little less than two years, the town gently grabbed the proverbial steering wheel of my life and turned it down a completely different road. So now, every time I’ve visited, it fucks me up just being there. Maybe you have a place like this, too.
The spring after my 23rd birthday, my dad and I flew from Iowa to Missoula for a visit to check out the journalism school at the University of Montana. Dad hadn’t been in the mountains for about a decade and his face lit up as we flew in over the mountains on the southeast side of the valley. One of our afternoons there, we heard about the M Trail, the steep path that climbs to the big white “M” on the side of Mt. Sentinel above campus.
If you hike the M Trail, you might find it a stout exercise, and you might be thankful that there are benches at a couple of the switchbacks. Sixty-five stories up from where you started, you arrive at the bottom of the M, and the view of campus and the town below either makes you fall in love with the whole place, or … well, I don’t know what happens if you don’t fall in love with it, because I did.
When I first moved to Missoula to start classes the following fall, I was scared shitless for a number of reasons: I was far from anyone I knew, I was newly sober, and I had no idea who I was, as I later wrote in a book. My first year in Montana was probably one of the toughest years of my life, and definitely one of the loneliest and saddest. I spent almost every weekend night smoking cigarettes on the front porch of my apartment, watching as my neighbors came and went from parties and bars. But I discovered mountains, gradually hiking deeper and higher into them, and I absorbed all I could about writing, lit with a dim hope that I had it in me—whatever it was that it took to be a writer.
In 2004, I shot out of Montana in a crappy car on my way to Phoenix for a lady and hopefully a job, not particularly sad to be leaving Missoula behind. Most people who have lived there will tell you that this isn’t a common sentiment. Like my friend Alex, who said his first time in town, he knew that if he ever moved away, he’d always be thinking about it. But I was done with school, and I figured it was time to move on.
I didn’t go back for almost eight years. And when I did in 2011, I had changed. I had gotten some writing published in magazines, learned to climb, learned to ski in the backcountry, and was on the cusp of being able to go full-time as a freelance writer. Missoula had changed a bit too, but not as much. A couple coffee shops had closed, some businesses had moved, and the journalism school had gotten a new building, giving my old haunt to the forestry school. But the town felt the same to me: a meeting point of the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, mountain-town but cosmopolitan, isolated but cultured and academic. I walked around campus, trying to remember what it felt like in 2002, trying to recreate some of the feelings I had back then—because they were big, dense feelings. Compared to other chunks of my life after I left UM, like my first newspaper job in Arizona and my second newspaper job in Denver, my time in Missoula just felt so important, like something was happening. And of course, something was happening.
When they say you can’t go back, I think they mean because you can go back to a place, but you can’t go back to a feeling, or back to the person you were. Which is maybe why nostalgia is such a strange, heavy, sad and happy feeling—sad that something is gone, happy that it happened, and sad you can’t manage to get there again, no matter how hard you try.
When I visited UM back in 2011, I decided to run to the top of the M Trail for no real reason. I made it, barely, sure I was going to throw up at the top—but throw up out of my lungs, not my stomach. Maybe I was trying to prove that I was an improved version of the person who went to grad school in Missoula a few years ago. After all, I had never run up the M Trail when I lived there—I was still smoking a pack a day back then.
Last week in Missoula, I had just turned 39 1/2. I’m not feeling that young, noticing wrinkles, gray hairs, and definitely taking note that my hairline is no longer at high tide. I’ve been a full-time writer and filmmaker for six years, and gotten to spend way more time in the outdoors than I ever dreamed would be possible. Since I graduated from UM, I’ve spent less than two weeks total in Missoula, or under one day per year.
But when I roll back into town and see Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel from the Higgins Street Bridge, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like home. I joked to my friend Forest that Missoula is like Boulder but for more normal people, or in my case, Chamonix for Iowans. I walked across campus and texted my girlfriend that an older happy man was trying to reconnect with a younger, sad man.
Grad school, for me, was a place full of possibility and promise at a time when the world hadn’t kicked my ass too much yet. Going back to visit—and maybe we all feel this in the places where we really grew up—makes me wonder if I actually want to live there, or if I just want to be young again. It’s like seeing an old flame after 10 years and irrationally thinking, “I wonder if we could make it work this time.”
In the hot mid-July sun, almost-40-year-old me kept “running” to the top of the M Trail, gulping air, ignoring the screams of my quads, and not wanting to admit that I took off a little fast at the start. If I hadn’t proved I was still young, at least I was still dumb. Forest and I posed for a quick photo at the top, and I didn’t even vomit. I looked down at Missoula, and my heart didn’t explode, but I wondered if I actually left a big chunk of it down there in 2004.