When I got in the car to leave Montana on July 12, 2010, it felt like a breakup. It was a goodbye I did not want. And as the car moved further east, into the Dakotas and Minnesota and Wisconsin, I kept hoping that somehow, I’d be able to get back to this place that had carved its way so deeply into my heart.
I did. In late April, my boyfriend and I flew out to Bozeman. We saw the mountains from the plane window, their tops dusted in thick snow. We had reached a different latitude, and a different season altogether. One night dumped 6″, which we scraped from the rental car and I was grateful for. If I could love Montana even when it didn’t cooperate, then it must be true love.
Walking around Bozeman felt familiar enough, and in a town that size, it was easy to revisit the bookstores, coffeeshops, and restaurants that had been part of my sightseeing last summer. But what I really wanted to get back to lay outside of the city.
Lava Lake trail. In my mind, it beckons in perpetual summer, the slopes of the mountain covered in lush green and the stream trickling trailside. In late April, freak snowfalls cast the mountain in a wintry shroud. We layered up, pulled yaktraks onto our boots, and headed onto the trail.
As we hiked, my mind kept flickering between what I remembered and what I was seeing. There were no wild roses, just conifers still drenched in snow. The stream was still flowing, but its waters were frigid, its banks crusted in ice. Piles of elk droppings peppered the trail. And the woods were very quiet. We hiked alone.
Would I feel anything when we reached the top? This placed pulled me. In absence, perhaps it had grown bigger and deeper in my mind. It was my totem, as surely as any shrine that ever served as a point of pilgrimage.
Walking out of the trees to the lakeshore took my breath away. It was not the breathlessness of surprise that I’d felt when I first caught sight of the top. But I was breathless with recognition, breathless with gratitude that this place had waited. Some places we only visit once, and that is enough. Others, we find our way back to.