I’ve been waiting a full year to do something I know I’m good at: a road trip with my son. Our time together is shorter this summer, and since we’ve driven (and often camped) across nearly every inch of the American West, we decided fly to northwestern Montana and hit the dirt from there. My version of heaven is gravel roads, sun roof, and my favorite 10-year-old sidekick as we share lessons on conservation, resilience, and joy.
Sometimes, I am so certain about my purpose on this planet I’m hard to contain. I’m giddy and giggly. I crank up the music and I dance. There’s a giant, nerdy side to my personality that shines. Mountains do this to me. Oceans do this to me. Muddy country roads get me every time. Sagebrush, marshes, caliche, mudflats, driftwood, and pine.
I know why I’m called to a career in conservation, and it’s not the same as my day job.
I’m not here to reimagine environmental markets, or build corporate sustainability strategies. I’m not here for donor tours in the redwoods, or airboat alligator surveys in the bottomland swamps of Louisiana. I’m not here to coach or mentor or even to serve. I love these things.
But they aren’t my purpose.
My purpose is to teach my son what it feels like to catch hail with his hands when the storm thunders in across the mountains. I'm here so he knows what it sounds like when silence is broken only by bird calls and quaking aspens. When the sound of his own breath gets in the way of really, truly listening. I’m here to make just enough noise that we don’t surprise a bear. To bring the Oreos and brush off the front seat crumbs. I’m here to model for once in my dang life what it looks like to choose wonder over worry. To lead with curiosity. To practice driving over and around potholes, even when you can barely see through the bug-splattered windshield. I’m here to show him how to clean the windshield so he can see again (ugh, it was a spider, not a tiny windshield pinecone, after all). I’m here to drive him far off the beaten path, and to teach him how to find his own. I’m here to talk about how fire burns across a landscape so hot and so wild sometimes it jumps where you don’t expect it, and breaks your heart.
I’m here to learn from him, too.
K: “Mom, name five things humans have done to make it better for another species, and not just because they had to do it because they messed it up the first time.”
Me: “Ummm…Man. That’s tough. Five things? How about one thing? Music.”
K: “You said that last time. Is music really benefiting another species? I don’t think it is.”
Me: “Well, it’s a hard question, Bud. I’m not sure we have done such great things right off the bat. But we’re trying now, and I do think that matters. What do you think?”
K: “Nah. It’s my job to ask the hard questions of you. Not to answer them.”
We’d been walking on a bike path along a creek from town to our AirBnB, where a magpie was crowing from a low-hanging branch. Probably looking for a baby bird to pilfer from its nest.
A few weeks ago, a pair of house finches nested on our back patio, nestled in the insulation of a porch light. The mama finch laid five eggs, which hatched into five ravenous finch babies whom I desperately wanted to survive. Nervous they weren’t going to, I called my resident backyard bird expert, my mom. Finches are seed eaters. Get some seed (not the kind with sunflowers) and spread it out. Set out fresh water (but not too deep). I’d outlawed all backyard activities. No workouts. No wallball. No tennis against the garage door until the babies could fly.
One morning, I could hear they were out of the nest. No peeping. No mama or daddy bird standing guard. Hurray! I shimmied up the ladder to inspect, and there was one bird remaining. He wasn’t moving. I got on a pair of gloves (some things from the pandemic really do come in handy) and gently pulled him from the nest. Kai and I buried him along the fence, under the bougainvillea. A few hours later, I found one more, dead on the concrete. I bawled. Full-on breakdown cry.
K: “It’s okay, Mom. It’s the circle of life.”
Me: “I know. I know. And they wouldn’t have made it out in the world. They would have suffered. I never want anything to suffer. I just really wanted these little guys to live. To make it. To have a chance. Their parents worked so hard, and they were so tiny.”
We buried the second bird next to the first and covered her with a conch shell. Several hours later, our pup Lacey gently plopped a third bird at my feet. One finch feather stuck to her lips. She has an underbite, so the feather looked like a miniature cigar.
“Nooo!” I yelped, and then laughed. Lacey cocked her head. Proud. Look at what I brought for you!
I could hear my Great Grandma Allie’s voice in my own, “Damned dog digging up my damned birds.” Riding horses in Big Timber, Montana. 97 years of “You’ve got this.”
Grief is bitter and jack-knifed with humor. It has to be so we can thrive.
And while I may be here to show K what it’s like for wildlife, wild landscapes, and even people to recover, I understand now I am also here to show him what it looks like to be truly, unapologetically happy. To have the confidence to find his own gravel roads, his own sidekick, and his own version of heaven.
If you’re going to visit Montana’s Glacier National Park, I highly recommend hooking up with a fantastic source for how to navigate without the crowds. Ole Amundsen, who quite literally writes and teaches about how to balance nature and business in communities adjacent to parks and wilderness areas, shared his highlights with me from when he worked in the park years ago. Boy are we grateful.
We looked for goats along the salty mountain sides on the park’s eastern flank, near Essex, along the Middle Fork of the Flathead. Lunched and skipped rocks at Fish Creek Picnic Area.
From the Apgar entrance, we spent several hours along the Flathead River on the old North Fork Road where we saw maybe five other vehicles, two sandhill crane, and one Northern goshawk. We tried to drive to Bowman Lake, but the road was closed about 6.5 miles in. We might have gone around, but the park has a new reservation system for vehicles, and I didn’t score reservations for the North Fork entrance to Bowman at Polebridge.
I wasn't deterred.
We did secure vehicle reservations for the Going to the Sun Road (recreation.gov), and spent four hours (twice) skipping more rocks, hiking cedars, climbing pine trails, and debating different words to describe breathtakingly beautiful shades of blue.
Next stop: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Road miles: 400+