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Cassidy Randall | Longreads | February 16, 2023 | 4,141 words (15 minutes)
Ben carries a Pulaski ax filched from the cabin’s woodshed as we walk the trail along the Canadian border. Half a mile back, we stepped over a mountain lion’s broad track imprinted fresh on the damp banks of the river, her cub’s pocket-sized paw laid just behind it. Claw marks score the aspens at heights above my head, tufts of fur from the enormous bears who left them snagged by the peeling bark. Yesterday we heard a wolf howl far off in the forest.
The ax is less for protection from these predators — Ben couldn’t bear to kill any of them, even hoping the cabin’s resident pack rat outsmarts the trap he half-heartedly set for it — and more to intimidate any poachers we might come across in this remote corner of Glacier National Park. He’s been coming to the old ranger station here every fall for 20 years in solitary soul-searching rituals, under the pretext of performing this antiquated patrol for illegal hunters. He’s never brought anyone else in for such a long stint. And never someone so important to him, he says. It makes him more fearful of everything that can go wrong in the deep wild out here. Another reason he carries the ax.
It still boggles my mind that I could be important like that to someone.
To the north of this border trail lies Revelstoke, British Columbia: the mountain mecca that’s now my home. To the east and south rises the jagged expanse of the rest of Glacier, where Ben and I first met so many years ago — back when I called Montana home, when I wrote him off as another failed relationship in a lifelong string of them. Back when I hitched my self-worth and happiness to being loved by a man.
To the west, my Montana-bought truck with its British Columbia license plates sits in the sagebrush waiting for our return. For me to decide which direction to drive it: Back to Canada, where I’ve chosen me, and the mountains, over men. Or south into Montana with Ben, and everything I’ve already left behind.
The truck didn’t come until later. The little sedan that carried me to Montana came first.
In 2005, I piloted that gold Ford Focus from Los Angeles up to Missoula one November, looking to spend the winter there during my off-season from teaching outdoor education in my native California. A child of salt water and dusty ponderosa forests, I’d never “spent a winter” anywhere with actual winter. I was looking for a novel three or four months before going back to teaching.
If I’m honest with myself, I was really looking for something else.
Inside my head then, I was still the awkward, nerdy girl of my youth. Growing up, I was unaware I was a nerd. I was proud of my intelligence. I rushed to shoot my hand up first in class. I thought it was cool to bury my nose in Lord of the Rings books during free time, and when someone interrupted me, cry out, “Hold on! I’m in the middle of a battle scene!” I was both chubby and the tallest girl in the class, looming in both directions over most of the boys. I had crooked teeth and bad eyes, necessitating glasses and braces, although not, thanks to my parents’ foresight on this, at the same time.
High school brought no transformative hero(ine)’s arc, the type in the ’90s movies of my youth where the mousy loner girl ends up being gorgeous under those glasses, saved from the hell of social rejection by the coolest, hottest guy on campus. I recall vividly when the neighbor boy called to tell me my friends, with whom I’d been inseparable for years, didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. The following day, I stood horrifically alone on the quad at lunch hour, everyone witness to my fresh status as a total loser. Only one or two boys asked me out over those years. I went to my senior prom stag, trailing a group of, by then, painstakingly won girlfriends and their dates.
So driving north to Missoula at 24, I couldn’t shake the idea that if I hadn’t had a real boyfriend by then, something was wrong with me. I know there were good times in high school, but we are so hardwired for negativity that underlined in bold in my mind was the conviction that I wasn’t attractive enough, fun enough, athletic enough, thin enough, good enough for a man to love me back.
But in Montana, virtually no one knew me. It would be a clean slate. When I drove my little sedan on the tail of a fierce wind into Missoula, what I was really looking for was salvation. In the form of a Prince Charming mountain man.
The little ski hill outside town, I heard, was the best place to meet guys. Plus, learning to ski would be something to do in the long, dark cold season. Despite the fact that I grew up at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, home to the gritty ski resorts of Snow Summit and Big Bear, winter was not in my family’s wheelhouse. In junior high, when I heard people start telling stories about learning to ski and snowboard, I cornered my father.
“Dad, why don’t we ever go skiing?”
A lifelong product of orange groves and waves himself, he replied, only half joking, “You can stand in a cold shower and rip up $20 bills for the same effect.”
I figured skiing, then, would be a trial, a task that must be accomplished toward an end goal. But, shockingly, I turned out to be good at it. Learning what my body could do in harmony with a certain angle of slope or a particular pattern of snow-robed pine trees made me forget for a while about that uncoordinated little girl. I’d been praying to winter to offer up a romance, was ready to make sacrifices to this new god if it asked for them. And perhaps it did, and I delivered unknowingly and without question, as snow edged out the desert heat from my bones. It fell in my dreams and in drifts behind my eyes. I didn’t find any princes there. But I did find my own power awakening.
Spring came, the outdoor education season started in California, and my little sedan stayed parked in Montana.
The landscape seeded in my skin. Creeks and rivers rearranged and settled into my blood vessels, trail dust tattooed my ankles. The landscape blurred something, too: the primary geographical feature of my college years. That three-story sorority house in West L.A., packed with 50 young women and full-length mirrors on every landing and at the end of every hallway, mercilessly insisted on what my body was supposed to look like, how the right clothes were supposed to hang on my breasts, which weren’t big enough, and my stomach, which wasn’t flat enough. Surely if I could fit the right mold then I would be worthy of love and the men would flock. I ran the perimeter of campus every other day. I counted calories. The energy it took exhausted me. And I wasn’t the only one in that house. All those bodies that held staggering intelligence and ambition and promise reduced to the pursuit of an unattainable image at the bid of West L.A.
But here. Here my body began to transmute into what it could do, not what it looked like, rinsing away what Los Angeles had taught me about image and self-worth and the dubious merit of a thin pair of thighs. It was in the midst of that transcendence that romance finally materialized.
At 25 years old, I was saved. For a few years, I was part of something. As in, partner. As in, love, reciprocal. As in, half of a whole. With him, I was whole. I don’t believe I ever told him he was my first boyfriend. I never wanted him to think of me as flawed, to be repulsed by my past incapacity for inspiring attraction. And I did love him, but perhaps it was secondary to finally achieving what so much of Western culture had taught my generation of girls, insidiously and thoroughly, about what “complete” means.
Then he left for me another woman. One “more capable outdoors,” “more spiritually connected to the woods,” more enough of basically everything that I wasn’t. I walked the trails and swam the rivers in an attempt to wash away the pronouncement of my lacking, asked the gilded sun that kaleidoscoped through the cottonwoods and larch to evaporate it from my skin into the wide Montana sky.
I never stopped to think whether he had ever been enough for me.
Some years after, I drove through the long light of a July night to West Glacier. Headed for a date. By then I’d been on many. Some stuck, and I’d be madly in love for a few months until my switch inexplicably flipped and I’d wonder what the hell I’d been thinking. But most hadn’t stuck, and second dates were a rarity. I always figured it was my fault.
This one was an epic blind date. A mutual friend had introduced me to a man named Ben, who was stationed in Glacier doing trail work. He invited me to summit a peak in the park, if I didn’t mind staying the night on his couch for an early start in the morning. It was a spectacular act of faith for a first date. But I knew about faith. It was one of the things my friends said they liked best about me: how I put my heart on the chopping block again and again.
I recall certain scenes, particular details, of those 24 hours. Him walking down the steps of his little cabin with a beer in each hand before I even turned off the ignition, a couple tattoos snaking up his arms to disappear under rolled-up sleeves. How I couldn’t decide if his eyes were hazel or green. Pulling a scratchy blanket up to my chin on the too-small couch. The dark before dawn when he made us gigantic sandwiches of bacon and runny eggs.
I remember, perhaps because it was embarrassing, that as we passed the long stretch of Lake McDonald on the way up Going-to-the-Sun Road, I said without thinking: “Do you know that one of my favorite things in the whole world is jumping naked into a lake after a long hike?”
I hadn’t meant it flirtatiously. It was just a fact about myself, like, “I am not a morning person,” or, “Actually, runny eggs really gross me out.”
He grinned knowingly. “Well then. We’ll have to see if we can find any spots for you later.”
I also recall that at the trailhead, he took off nearly at a sprint. I kicked into gear to keep up, my attempt to carry on a conversation punctuated by gasping even as he pulled farther ahead. I remember thinking he was just another mountain man like all the others who demonstrated clearly that I possessed neither the speed nor strength required for their adventure pursuits, which were more important than me, who was perhaps just a hindrance out here, on second thought, so why don’t we just meet up for a beer and a shag later?
“Is this a test?” I said to his back. If I wasn’t tough enough or whatever this guy was looking for, I wanted to know it now. If I’d learned anything over the years, it was that I could cut off the hoping and go straight to the rejection and save myself some torture.
“What?” He slowed, turning to look at me over his shoulder. “No! I’m just used to trail work, and the faster you hike, the faster you get things done and get back to camp for dinner. We can slow down, for sure. I’m sorry.”
I was unused to apologies or the outside-the-self awareness required to issue them. I don’t remember whether the conversation was awkward or easy after that. I know that the summit was windy and we took a single photo, his dimple showing through strands of my hurricane hair. And that he got us miserably lost on the return after claiming he knew the trails in the park like his own bones. I handled it badly, we drove past Lake McDonald in the late afternoon without a word, and I folded myself into my Focus after a curt goodbye. And I remember the thought, as I drove back south: Another one bites the dust.
I left Montana shortly after. I dreamed of bigger mountains, deeper forests, and people to explore them with, as all my friends got married, had children, and insulated themselves. But the biggest reason was that I dreamed of falling in love for good. Montana had delivered only drought and dust and failure in that department.
I sold the sedan. I bought the truck — which fit who I had become, and would fit this next leg of the journey so much better. I drove, trying on landscapes where it took me. East, south, west. Eventually I drove north, clear through the border, extending the route I’d began when I left Los Angeles all those years ago. I finally turned off the engine in a tiny mountain town in British Columbia.
Revelstoke’s bladed ridgelines repeated themselves to the Yukon. These mountains were religion with prophets and fanatics and martyrs. The light through thick stands of hemlock and behemoth ancient cedar was harder to obtain, more gratifying to subsume because of it. This landscape was sharp, nearly impenetrable, and it would never even fit inside my body.
I began, if not to turn away from the mythical notion of a man to “complete” me, to accept that there was no love out there for me. I chose mountains instead.
One late October afternoon, I knelt in front of my truck with a screwdriver to loosen my Montana license plates. I’d been here long enough that it was time. The Revelstoke air chilled with the sharp northern tilt of the earth and I thought, fleetingly, of math equation word problems about narrowing angles of light between the southern California desert and a Canadian ski town: “X equals how far she has come, measured in angles and distance.” Up here, I’d discovered the depth of my own capabilities. I’d expanded my limits in adventure sports, blossomed into a writer, surrounded myself with a community that lifted me up in those things. I’d traveled so far from that nerdy, chubby, awkward girl and her erroneous convictions. But internal growth is mostly unquantifiable with simple equations.
I twisted the tool on a corner of the Montana plate. The aluminum was bent from where I’d hit a deer some years before. She ran impossibly away and out of sight, trailing blood from wounds from which I knew she couldn’t recover. The blood was long gone from the plate, but her imprint remained. I pulled off the worn rectangle and affixed the shiny panel of my new British Columbia plate. It hung straight on my bent bumper. I ran my hand over its clean white slate, satisfied.
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A few months later, a notification popped up on Facebook. It was Ben’s birthday. On a trip back down to Montana some years back to grab my things from storage, I’d bumped into him in an old watering hole in Missoula where he had relocated for graduate school, and my brain did an about-face. It forgot about the bad parts of that first date and focused clearly, instead, on the topography of his body perfectly fitting mine when he stood to hug me. On a whim, I wrote Happy birthday on his profile. He replied immediately on Messenger.
I want to apologize, again, for getting us lost on our hike all those years ago. I’ve felt bad about it ever since.
The chat window held the archived thread of our first communication, timestamped five years ago. Scrolling back I saw the past iteration of myself: a girl less confident, still so careful to present herself so as to be liked. I saw him: striding assuredly into the wild whether or not he knew where he was going.
The following month, at Ben’s invitation, I stopped in Whitefish, just south of the Canadian border where he lived now, to see him on my way to Missoula. My stomach dropped as I pulled into town, waking up butterflies that tickled my insides. I couldn’t figure out why the butterflies were having a party in there. I already knew Ben.
He sat on the porch steps of an antique two-story house on the corner, sleeves rolled up to reveal those tattoos, elbows on his knees, scanning the street. He rose when he saw my car and smiled. The dimple.
“How was the drive?” he asked. So many ways to respond. Instructive, I could say. Delivering. Redeeming. But he, asking only about this short leg of my long road to discovery, would be confused. I replied simply, “Good.”
His tiny living room smelled of incense and woodsmoke and aging paper from the books overflowing a shelf. I turned to sit on an ugly plaid loveseat by the door, and stopped to examine an enormous map above it, with penned lines drawn all over it.
“Is this Glacier?” I asked him.
He’d shut the door behind him, and was trying to find an innocuous place to stand in the small room with me in it. He settled for leaning against the wall. “Yeah. Those are all the trails I’ve hiked.”
I leaned toward it, peering at an inked spider web in the northwest corner, right on the Canadian border. It was nowhere I’d ever heard of.
“That’s Kishenehn,” he said. “An old ranger station. I stay there every fall to patrol for poachers. It’s not on any maps anymore, but park officials still like to have a presence there during hunting season.” He paused. “It’s a pretty special place.”
That afternoon, something between us flicked on like a light. I could close my eyes and point to where he stood in a crowded room. As we hiked up a local mountain to ski down it, he looked at me and smiled with that dimple deepening and a premonition struck me to my core with a singular clarity: This will be big.
Some months later, we sat on my tailgate sipping my favorite Montana beer that Ben had brought up to Revelstoke, watching the August sun sink below the mountains across from where my truck sat on the river bank. A lovely moment.
We argued through it.
“I don’t want to keep going like this, with two weeks or more between seeing you,” he said. “It’s hard to be away from you so much. I can’t wait until we live in the same town.”
“But what will that even look like?” I downed the rest of my beer. “You’ve said you don’t want to move up here, which I get. It’s hard to get residency, or even a work permit. Trust me, I know, I’ve been through it.”
“It would be easier for you to move back down there. Don’t you want to be back in Montana eventually? With all your best friends? And me?”
I went to work peeling the label off the bottle in my hands to keep them busy while I figured out how to articulate what I needed to say. We’d met in his place, in mine. I fed him my northern landscape, the big newness of it all, the dark rainforest with ancient trees and the snowblind ridges unfurling to the Arctic. He fanned the dying embers of cottonwood light in me. But the drive back north after my visits to Montana always felt more … right.
“I don’t reach my full potential in Montana,” I said. “This is where I reach my full potential. It’s where I expand. And I’ve worked so hard to be here.”
I had finally become enough for myself — in fact, more than I ever thought I could be — and my hyper-independent, jaded heart was perhaps incapable of opening itself to the offer of big, complicated love. Real love, not that movie shit. And so then I said what I couldn’t take back: “I’m not ready to sacrifice everything for this.”
Hurt pooled in his eyes, reflecting a skyline so foreign to him where the sun had just been.
Later we lay wrapped around each other in my bed, surrendering to sleep in our last night together before we separated ourselves by hundreds of miles, again, when he whispered in my ear, “Will you come with me to Kishenehn this fall?”
His sacred place. He’d told me how that specific corner had mapped itself inside his young and unsure skin and grown into the man lying beside me. I knew about places like that.
At the center of a treed clearing, hidden from the wondrous skylines that defined Glacier, Kishenehn Ranger Station sat shrouded in seclusion. Elk and moose antlers hung over the cabin’s timber-frame porch. Ben toured me around the grounds, the few outbuildings that surrounded the cabin like satellites. At the old fire crew bunkhouse, Ben motioned me around a corner.
“See these depressions along the perimeter?” he said, pointing to the ground at a line of blurry craters the size of my head. “These are century tracks, where bears have walked in the same footsteps for generations. And these,” he gestured to a series of scores in the exterior log wall at chest height and higher, “are claw marks. We’ll probably find some fur around too — yep, here.” He picked a few light brown hairs off the wood and handed them to me. Then he adjusted the bear spray on the chest strap of his pack and led us toward the creek.
He pointed out every track, explained every sound, inhaled the sky, and breathed it into me. He was so in his element here that he appeared the most solid he’d ever looked. And I understood, as I followed him along these trails that had shaped him the way my long road north had shaped me, that he didn’t need me to complete him, either.
We woke the next morning to 10 degrees and frost on the grass. A good morning for lingering over coffee by the woodstove. We read by the windows to catch their light. Ben put down his book often to watch the fringe of trees outside, which is why he was the one who saw the doe as she edged into the clearing. He called me over softly. Two fawns emerged from the trees, keeping close to the doe as the little family made its way through the wide meadow and disappeared into the light on the other side.
Ben smiled and pulled me down into his lap to lay his head against my chest.
“What are we going to do?” I asked into the quiet.
“About us. Where are we going to live?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I thought you weren’t ready to have that conversation.”
Before I could think too much about it, I said:
“I think you’re the love of my life.”
His eyes were green, then. “I know you’re the love of mine.”
Days later, with the temperature plunging, we trekked back to my truck in the sagebrush. The journey to a more fully formed iteration of the self looks like lines on a road atlas — or, for some, a wilderness trail map. Sometimes we must continually move forward to arrive. Sometimes, having charted the edges of ourselves, we are drawn to loop back, changed, to places we’ve already passed through, carrying acquired knowledge that lights up the landscape from new angles.
I had made no decisions about which direction to drive. But I had arrived at this: My full potential did not lie in a particular place. My worth did not reside in another person. And I finally realized, then, that enough had never been the right concept to attach to love. Complement, growth, faith, and yes, even independence, so hard-won for me — these fit better, but were still too simplistic to encompass the reality of what this love could be in all its layered complications. If I were willing to let it.
I opened my tailgate and shrugged off my heavy pack. Ben set his down next to it and pulled me into the landscape of his body that fit mine so well. “Thank you for coming with me,” he said.
We got into my truck and drove.
Cassidy Randall is a freelance writer telling stories on adventure, environment, and people expanding human potential. Her work has appeared in TIME, The New York Times, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone, and her first book, The Hard Parts with Oksana Masters, is out February 2023.
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