what a long strange journey


Lincoln, Montana, home of Ted Kacsynski, the Unabomber.

In a few weeks, I will have been in Montana for exactly two years. And in those same few weeks I will be returning to London. On 23 June, the UK voted to leave Europe. How this will affect us all is still to be seen. So far, the mood seems to veer from hysterical to forlorn. A new word has been coined: Bregret. It means the sense of regret experienced by people who voted for Britain to leave Europe, only to immediately regret it. I can’t think of a word in the English language that contains more inane stupidity than Bregret.


Great Falls, Montana.

And in these two years my mother died, followed eleven months later by my father. The house I grew up in is being put on the market and my past in Canada feels as though, through the combined forces of time and circumstance, it is being slowly erased. I learned to drive in Montana. My daughter has become more confident, more independent, and doesn’t think she is rubbish at Math. And I have had the fortune of working with some really wonderful editors here in the US. My writing has expanded. But why all the looking back? All of those changes are not isolated happenings that will suddenly stop. They are part of the past twenty-five years spent in London and are part of my present and will influence my future. I am seeing life as more of a continuum and less of a series of marked periods.


Missoula County Fairgrounds.

I remember when I was planning my move from Toronto to London at the age of 23. A man I worked with, a lovely man, a Quaker called Neil who did phone sales for the magazine I was art directing, said to me, “Every young woman needs to live a chapter of her life in London.” A chapter. It always stayed with me. I suppose with the longer view that comes with age, a chapter feels inaccurate. Life is more of a novel, or script, or mini-series. Of course it will end: I will die. But in the meantime the connections are surfacing with more force and power than ever. There is sense, a logic or purpose perhaps, created simply through the passing of time to all the moves and decisions I have made in life. It is a sense that has emerged with sharper outlines by throwing all my cards in the air and saying, “Hey, let’s try Montana for a while!” The cards landed in a random order, but I can now clearly see the beauty of the pattern they made when they fell.


Atomic City, Idaho.

Because of the self-imposed instability that J, E and I ventured into by leaving a very stable life in London, a new trajectory has been uncovered. Like the morning after a snowfall, those first footprints you make stand out in a very marked way. Moving here was the snowfall and every piece of writing to have come out of it, every milestone experienced by E and every frame in J’s film is a footprint. The first blackened shape against that crystalline whiteness.


Finisia Medrano tending her wild garden.

I am beginning to do things here for the last time, see friends for the last time, experience views for the last time. This morning cycling back from dropping E downtown, I stopped on the pedestrian bridge over the Clark Fork river and wondered if this might be the last time I will see this particular view. It might be.


Crane Hot Springs, Oregon.

For the past month or so, I have been feeling bereft about leaving here, but I no longer am. I see this period as one of huge change, of lives passing and a reminder of my own impermanence. I also feel a little bit how I felt after giving birth: “Sheesh, if I can do that, then anything is possible.” If I can move to Montana and make it work for all three of us in this tiny little constellation of what people here in the US call my ‘family’, then I can make other changes in my life.


Lolo, Montana.

We are talking of returning here to the US once we have regrouped in London for a time and had a think about how best to make the work we want to make and to live our lives in the best possible way. I am not too happy with England being simply England now that it is no longer part of Europe. I live there on an Irish passport. I am a European and when I moved to London, it was partly because of its ties to Europe. I am hearing some pretty sad stories from ‘back home’. The latest from an ex-student of mine who saw a bunch of white guys chanting ‘baa baa black sheep’ to a black kid on the tube. I know racism exists everywhere. It is pernicious. But now that people feel they have earned the right to display their racism unfettered, I feel perhaps things have moved to another, scarier level. Or perhaps in order to slay the beast, it first has to come out of its lair. I’d like to think so. But I have always been told I am ‘politically naive’.


Lolo, Montana.

So, the packing has started. The pruning of E’s drawings and paintings and lumps of clay molded into cats or coiled pots. What to throw away, what to sell at a garage sale, what to give to charity, what to pack and lug across the ocean back to England. We are all three of us in transition again. As long as we can time our transitions to be in synch, we’ll be fine. I say this tonight. With transition comes sadness, a feeling of loss, but also excitement at all the things you haven’t seen or felt or even imagined. Just around the corner.


The Murray Hotel, Livingston, Montana.

Some Pure Escapism


For some pure escapism from Trump and Brexit, here is a small piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Times about Montana’s ghost towns.

Montana’s ghost towns a mother lode for nuggets of Western history

Bannack State Park Ghost Town, Dillon, Montana. (Richard Cummins / Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image)
Bannack State Park Ghost Town, Dillon, Montana.  (Richard Cummins / Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image) 

Montana ghost towns 

The route:  Start at  Butte, heading southeast on Interstate 90, then head  to Virginia and Nevada cities by way of Norris on U.S. and Montana 287. At Twin Bridges, take Montana 41 to Dillon, then take  Montana 278 to Bannack and then to Wisdom, where you take Montana 43 back to Butte .

Miles:  210, round trip

Best times:  Mid-May to mid-September. You may want to avoid forest-fire season in August.

Why:  The story of the West is partly the story of precious metals — gold, silver and copper – and their booms and busts, and you can follow the history of Montana   by ghost-town hopping. (Kids, by the way,  like hearing about the hardships endured by their counterparts in the 1800s. “You would  have been down a mine 150 years ago!” is a great way to get them to hurry up for school.)

Wandering through  Bannack Ghost Town  ’s 60 structures is like being an extra in an old western. (Bannack was the state’s first capital before gold was discovered; then Virginia City became the capital.)  .

Highlights:  Tours of Butte’s historic uptown and the must-see Berkeley Pit. Panning for gold and watching for ghosts in  Virginia City . Bannack Days (the third weekend in July), which includes activities as diverse as hat making and quilting, shoot-outs and wagon rides. Intimate  Norris Hot Springs  has  live music and cold craft beer.

Memorable stay:  A Victorian Suite in the  Nevada City Hotel and Cabins  .  In Butte, the historic  Hodgens Ryan Mansion  carries on the Victorian theme. Or you can choose Butte’s  Hotel Finlen  , where both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy stayed before they were president.

Memorable meal:  The Fiesta Mexicana food truck in Dillon where Austin, Texas-style food meets small-town Montana. The buttermilk pie at the  Crossing Bar & Grill  at Fetty’s in Wisdom is well worth a stop.

Tourist trap:  Elkhorn Hot Spring. Don’t bother.

Plan to spend:  12 hours for Virginia and Nevada cities and Bannack. But if you want to soak in a hot spring, explore the thrift stores of Butte and catch a show in Virginia City, then two days is best.

— Joanna  Pocock