The Great Surrender
A writer’s eventual embrace of the overwhelming power of the natural world
One sunny, temperate late-April afternoon five years ago, I make the 26-mile drive from Livingston, Montana, the small town of 7,000 where I live, to the nearest city of Bozeman to get a bikini wax. When I leave the appointment an hour later, the air is heavy, the sky darkening to the color of dishwater, and all signs point to rain. But my then-boyfriend, now-husband, is returning from a trip that evening, so I ignore the weather, because I want to buy some candles before he arrives. By the time I emerge from the store, snow is beginning to fall. Now I know that when the sky starts glowering like this, it’s safest to prepare for the worst, but at the time I anticipate a light dusting. It’s spring, after all. Unconcerned, I get into my car.
My route home will take me over the Bozeman Pass, a winding mountain passage on Interstate 90 that joins the Gallatin and Bridger ranges, and sits at the approximate midpoint between Bozeman and Livingston. Driving over “the pass” in the winter is dangerous, and instills a twinge of fear in the hearts of all but the most foolhardy locals. Before I attempt it, I do my research. There’s an online webcam that offers real-time pictures of the highest point (elevation 5,702 feet), but to me they always look like the grainy, inscrutable black-and-white images produced by a security camera or a sonogram machine. Usually, someone who has had to drive over the pass—for work, or to fetch a visitor at the airport—posts their snapshot on the Livingston Facebook page, letting other people know of the conditions. News of snow and ice also travels quickly by word-of-mouth through the town’s lunch spots, coffee shops, and bars.
I don’t yet know about any of this on that afternoon five years ago because I’ve only just moved to the area, and by the time I reach the pass, I am driving through a blizzard. The snow is coming down with such dizzying density and speed that I’m unable to see more than a few feet in front of me—a complete whiteout. For long stretches at a time, there’s no shoulder on I-90, so I can’t pull over. Places where I might have stopped are already occupied by cavalcades of semitrucks whose experienced drivers knew immediately not to press on. In any case, I don’t trust that the small Ford hybrid I’m driving will keep me safe and frostbite-free while I idle by the side of the highway, with more substantial cars hurtling past, spraying snow from their tires. So I creep along, praying I won’t slide into another car, or off the mountainside, trying to suppress the hysteria rising in my chest, promising God that I will no longer be crabby or impatient or late on my deadlines if I could just have some help getting home.
When most people learn that you’re from Montana, they say something like, “I hear it’s gorgeous there,” or, “Wow, Montana, beautiful Big Sky Country.” They’re referring to the landscape, of course, with its immense, unobstructed horizon and blue-tinged mountains that break into rolling sage-covered hills of grayish-green. It is beautiful, almost heartbreakingly so, but that’s an idealized portrayal, and such a superficial description of what nature is like here. It assumes that nature is solely pictorial and visual—an image on a postcard, an object you appreciate, an amenity. But in Montana, nature is forceful, astronomical in its magnitude and scale, powerful in its ability to dictate your daily life.
And that’s not only during winter. There are dust storms here that brown out the sky, winds that pinball through valleys at hurricane speeds, and golf ball-sized hail that descends without warning to pockmark the roofs of houses and cars. Four summers ago, my husband and I attended a music festival in Paradise Valley, just south of Livingston. It was held high in the Absaroka Mountains, so attendees were bussed up. As we listened to the music, the clear late-summer day swiftly turned inclement. I heard the low growl of thunder. Neon bolts of lightning sliced through the sky. The other concertgoers looked up, then around at each other. “Lightning is striking,” you could almost hear them thinking, “…and we are trapped on a mountain together.” Not ideal. People began to run for the busses, but the concert was still in progress and the vehicles hadn’t yet made their way back up the mountain. As a group of us stood there, waiting, the rain falling cold and hard, the sky crackling and flashing, I heard a man’s voice loudly drawl: “Mon…fuckin…tana.”
Drenched, jittery, jaded, and having grown fatalistic from living here, we all knew exactly what he meant.
I didn’t move to Montana to escape my life, to find myself, or to edge closer to nature. I’m not one of those urbanites who left her office job to subsist as a faux pioneer, shearing sheep and canning artisanal jam. I should say, too, that I don’t live in the wilderness. Our town, though small, has a post office, movie theater, nail salon, yoga studio, three bookstores, 14 art galleries (Livingston is a mecca for artists), and a handful of decent restaurants. My husband and I live in an old boarding house from the 1890s that has the airy, bohemian feel of a loft. I buy a 16-ounce green tea from a coffee shop every morning. We do shots of wheatgrass at the local juice bar. I rarely cook, so we eat out most nights. In other words, I didn’t make a deliberate decision to leave civilization behind.
I moved for the reason many people relocate: to make my relationship work. My boyfriend had been commuting to visit me in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, and the back and forth was taking its toll. Whenever he had to miss his kid’s soccer games or a children’s theater production, he felt torn. I understood. My parents were divorced. I rarely saw my dad. And no one attended my track meets. Yet if you had told me a decade earlier, when I was living in New York City working as a magazine editor, that I would someday move to Montana—and for a man—I would have scoffed: “What a hilarious idea.” If you had told me that by taking this leap of faith, which could have gone wrong in any number of ways, large or small, I would develop one of the most significant and sustaining, though at times frustrating, relationships of my life—with nature —I would have laughed: “Are you sure you’ve got the right girl?”
I’m not the outdoorsy type. I hate swimming if it means I have to put my face in the water. I hate getting dirty. I hate camping, obviously. (I tried it once, when I was a teenager, and came home with lice.) Perhaps because my middle-class Midwestern childhood was so relentlessly monotonous—a geography flat as a cardboard movie set, a sky that covered the full palette of grays, a high school with many windowless classrooms—I developed an unabashed love of glamour. Cities, art museums, pricey restaurants, high-end department stores, beautiful clothes—I adore it all. As an adolescent, I read Sassy magazine in my stuffed animal-filled bedroom and dreamed of moving to New York, but now, looking back, I realize that this fantasy pretty much revolved around imagining where I would shop.
In fact, an essential detail of my childhood is that much of it was spent at malls, arguably whetting this acquisitive appetite, but without much to spend. The mall was our lifeblood, our town square, and our main source of entertainment. When I was growing up in Bettendorf, Iowa, my single mom kept my two younger sisters and me occupied on weekends by taking us to shop the sales. As a teenager in suburban Chicago, my friends and I would return to Ben Franklin, Claire’s, Gap, and Contempo Casuals like homing pigeons; we knew the inventory by heart. (One of our mischievous tween games was to put items on hold under ridiculous names we’d invented, like “Tami Pon,” “Bertha Control,” or “Maxi Pad,” roaring with laughter as we ran out of the store.) And the ritual excitement of shopping for school clothes at the mall animated every fall.
During these mall-centric years, I spent little time in nature. Until my early 30s, when I arrived in Montana, my experience of the outdoors amounted to climbing trees in neighborhood yards, occasionally swimming in rivers or lakes (always opting for the side- or backstroke, to keep my face out of the water), and, the summer after sixth grade, attending gymnastics camp in rural Wisconsin (where I promptly acquired 18 mosquito bites on my face). Beyond that, I can count on one hand the number of times that nature and I communed. During the six years of my 20s that I spent in New York, working so much that I barely saw the sun, I visited Central Park four times, tops. In my early 30s, several friends and I rented a house on a wild Northern California beach, but I spent the entire 10 days indoors writing an article, endearing myself to no one.
I don’t know how to account for my indifference to the Great Outdoors. I was a bookish child—my grandmother was always encouraging me to “go outside with the other kids”—and calling my mother overprotective is putting it lightly. But the truth, though it pains me to write it, is that I never thought about the natural world. I don’t remember ever feeling moved by nature, not by a sparkling night sky, nor the mournful elegance of a tree, nor the hallucinatory colors of a sunset. The physical realm—plants, animals, landscapes—as a phenomenon separate from the human realm simply didn’t exist for me. My experience of nature, such as it was, tended to be as an extension of my suburban surroundings. Yes, I could go out and play in the yard, but it was still just a yard. I could go swim in the lake, but at my friend’s parents’ lake house. And yes, as an adult, I’m as concerned about global warming and oil spills and the acidification of the oceans as the next person. But having an awareness of nature is not the same thing as being in tune with it: one is abstracted, academic; the other concrete, visceral.
In the early days after my big move, to my great surprise, I was delighted by Montana. I experienced a near-constant state of awe. I couldn’t spend enough time outside, which was fine, since, unless you want to go see Kung Fu Panda 3, that’s mainly what there is to do here. The sun-bleached, maize-colored hay fields against the arresting blue sky: I had never seen this combination of colors. It felt visually peaceful, hypnotic. My instinct was to drive around and take it all in. Surrounded on all sides by meadows and mountains and sky, I felt the prodigious embrace of the living world. When my boyfriend and I hiked Livingston Peak, or Mount Baldy, a 9,295-foot crest of the Absaroka Mountains, I gathered wildflowers for the first time, later determining their genus and species names with the help of a book I’d purchased: deep-purple lupine and fiery-red Indian paintbrush. Their colorful, elongated, bell-like shapes reminded me of women in old-fashioned dresses. And the animals! Deer, grouse, magpies, meadowlarks, antelope, foxes, porcupines, eagles, ospreys, bighorn sheep: They enchanted me as though I were a child. Every cow was an event. “Look, a cow!” I would call out from the front seat of the car, during our regular Sunday afternoon drives. “It’s…a cow,” said my boyfriend’s adolescent daughter, who had grown up here, where bovine life is like street life in New York.
It did not take long, however, for me to realize that my chief relationship with the natural world would not be as a beholder of it. Living here, nature becomes a part of every decision. You come to understand that dealing with it is not optional, a choice, like going to a park. It’s not uncommon to meet a grizzly bear, say, on an afternoon hike. Or a rattlesnake, as I did one summer afternoon while walking through dry summer grasslands with two friends visiting from New York City. (They looked like they might vomit or wet their pants, not that I could blame them.)
But my scariest brush with nature’s menacing side involved another cold-weather debacle. After an evening soak in a sulfurous hot spring—a popular wintertime activity in this area—my husband suggested that we drive a backcountry route to Great Falls and have dinner there. It was December, so the dark descended quickly: inky, thick, enveloping. We drove for a few minutes and then the car stopped suddenly, jolting us forward and back. My husband pressed on the gas. The gears ground unproductively. The tires spun in deep ruts of hard, impacted snow. We were stuck. He tried again. Nothing. We waited for a car to pass so we could flag down the driver and ask for a push. But an hour later, not a single vehicle had gone by.
I began to panic. I could see a ranch in the distance, but the windows of the main house were dark. Even if we could reach it without freezing—literally—what if no one was home? There was no cell phone reception, so we couldn’t call for help. And we didn’t have enough gas to sleep in our car. My husband, poker-faced, though obviously desperate, found a windshield scraper in the truck, slid himself underneath the car, and painstakingly dug out our tires while I pedaled the gas whenever he instructed me to. Almost two hours later, the car lurched forward with a loud, pulverizing noise. We returned the way we came. Only then did I notice I was shaking. At the base of the hill, where we stopped for coffee and gas, the attendant listened to our tale and told us, in his affectless Western way: “You guys got lucky. In the winter, we only send search and rescue up there every two days.”
If this seems like a story about a city person who finally becomes aware of the planet she has always lived on, that’s only partly true. It is, on a deeper level, a story about someone who prizes a certain mastery of her environment—a control freak, if you must—coming to terms with the reality that great swaths of life are beyond our power to dictate, and that this is terrifying and constraining and liberating and exhilarating, often all at once. It’s a story about how there are still some places where nature is so extreme and dramatic that it persists in pushing through the cracks, forcing you to obey its rhythms, and not the other way around.
Before I moved to Montana, the natural world, with a few outlying exceptions— earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes —always seemed tame to me, domesticated. We had bent it to our will. Here it remains feral, recalcitrant. It assaults you, demanding that you confront your own fragility. All Montanans are aware that you can set out on a trip, errand, or hike, and your course may veer wildly from your original intentions. The road you expected to take is closed suddenly. You are in danger suddenly. You are on your way to have coffee with a friend and you find yourself in a dust- or snowstorm suddenly. Nature here is not benign or comforting, but prone to violence and caprice. It disciplines you. You must contend with it. But here’s the truth I’d avoided as conveniently as I’d avoided nature: No matter where I was, a lot of life was beyond human control. It took nature to shake me out of the illusion that people have ultimate agency here on Earth, that everything bends to our will.
These days, I find myself doing the accommodating. In early July, summer is reaching its climax. After eight months of winter, it is Carnival in Montana. There are more than 16 hours from sunup to sundown, and the long days induce a kind of mania. The animals are out foraging, eating, mating. The hills and meadows, whose muted, striated colors and varied textures usually call to mind sedimentary rock or a woven Native American blanket, are momentarily lush and electric-green, as though someone decided to plug in the scenery. The natural world is sped up and active, and I, too, find myself in a pleasant but useless state of euphoria: unable to sleep, uninterested in work, full of grandiose plans—an environmentally induced cocaine high.
By my third summer in Montana, I am accustomed to the sharp upsurge of unfocused energy, the frenzied lassitude we experience at this time of year. Early on, I would go to a shop or restaurant only to find that the proprietor had closed it to fish, hike, or simply absorb a glorious summer day, and I’d feel annoyed, judgmental: “Don’t they want to make money?” Like a lot of people, I’d spent many of my adult summers in a cubicle; I was used to ignoring the seasons. I was also constitutionally impatient, and accustomed to satisfying any urge to buy or eat or do something on demand. (A guy I dated in New York used to call me “Demanda.”) But now I know that during these short, fertile couple of months, people are tending to their well-being by hoarding their sunshine for the year.
My husband, another couple (she, a mixed-media artist who owns a local boutique; he, a ranger at Yellowstone National Park), and I have driven 20-some miles out to the Boulder River in the Gallatin National Forest. This spot lies beyond all traces of humanity. Here, you won’t encounter street signs, businesses, billboards, or other people. From an overlook at the Natural Bridge Falls, where the river rushes wildly over limestone rock, the four of us bask in nature at its most glamorous. We are at the natural world’s equivalent of the Los Angeles’ famed Chateau Marmont, and we are entertaining ourselves with celebrity watching. In the clear, bright summer evening light we see a bald eagle, a pair of Hungarian partridges, a wolf with haunting, colorless eyes, a chubby porcupine toddling along the gravel road, and a black yearling bear ambling on all fours away from a public restroom. I feel a giddiness rise in my chest. My work has languished for days, and, uncharacteristically, I don’t care.
Over time, living in Montana has pounded into my consciousness the notion that no matter how much we fight it, whether with technology, our wills, or sheer denial, we are natural beings subject to forces greater than ourselves. Even when I was living in New York, my body knew this: I gained weight, my hormones went haywire, and I was always tired. These days, when I remain in Montana for long stretches without traveling, my menstrual cycle syncs with the full moon. Doctors and researchers have lately begun to argue that nature is the antidote to our hyperfocused, technology-driven culture. In Japan, there’s a growing body of much-publicized scientific evidence that time spent in a forest—what the Japanese call “forest bathing” or Shinrin-yoko—has salubrious physiological effects: decreasing blood pressure, glucose, cortisol, and other deleterious hormones, while increasing mood and immune function. The Japanese government treats forest bathing as medicine, and, to this end, has designated 48 official Forest Therapy Trails while funding four million dollars in research. It’s hard to argue that encouraging people to spend more time in nature could be negative. Still, there is a pitfall, I think, to viewing the natural world as a therapeutic tool for human self-improvement, like an audiobook or a yoga mat.
In my experience, the opposite is true. It is therapeutic to accept that nature is a reality you’re constantly being forced to yield to, physically and practically. By giving in to its ineluctable pull, you begin to see yourself as part of it, rather than in perennial struggle with it. You loosen your grip. You revise your sense of time. From this surrender comes the pleasurable sense that you’re having a deeper experience than one born of your own decisions. You are having a collective experience, a cosmic experience, with all living beings energized and activated, or de-energized and deactivated—seasonally, meteorologically, astrologically.
Sometimes the natural world takes your power, as it does deep in February, when every fiber of your being wants to hibernate. Sometimes it bestows you with power you never imagined you could possess, as it does during the peak of summer, when you don’t need much sleep, and you feel like you’re riding along with all of the motions of the universe. Sometimes it terrifies you with its awesome brutality, as when you are driving alone on a mountain pass and encounter a blustery springtime blizzard. Just as there are receptors in the brain for drugs—like THC and psilocybin—I like to think we have receptors for nature as well. We may believe we are run by our thoughts and anxieties, our urges and our choices, but come to a place like Montana and you will be reminded that the moon is running you. The sun is running you. The light or lack of light is running you. You are the full moon. You are the rushing river. You are the animal, moving and being moved.
Photos by Morgan Phillips