You’re from Montana? So do you think you will go back?
This is one of the most common questions I am asked. Do people from, say, Iowa get this? Or Nevada? Sometimes it is like being from an exotic foreign country and having people wonder why you would ever leave. I mean, they went there on a vacation and had a great time. Why wouldn’t you live there all the time? Well, because life is not a vacation and Libby is no paradise.
Libby is where I was born and raised. Certainly it was unique. I took for granted that dead animals should hang in the yard waiting to be skinned each fall. Heating the house meant chopping and carting wood to build a fire. The theater only had one screen. You either worked for the mine or the lumber mill. I think we barely tipped the scales at 10,000 people for the entire county. I may not have known everyone in town but they knew my father and, thus, they knew me. It was hard to get away with much.
These are not the reasons I left as quickly as I could. It had more to do with the confused looks I got when I said I wanted to go out of state for college. It had to do with the underhanded remarks that muscles were not appropriate for girls. It was the doubt that I would ever be much of a real runner. Ambition did not sit well there. To this day nothing riles me more than being told I am not good enough.
So I left and didn’t go back. It had been 14 years since I passed through Libby and more since I really lived there. My own family had long since left the area. I considered skipping it all together for this trip, still not sure I was ready to prod those memories back to life. Yes, I had done it all: finished college, become a doctor, run in the Olympic trials. Yet here I am having quit my job and wandering the country and not really sure what to do next. I’m not sure that is exactly my triumphant return.
In the end, morbid curiosity drove me home. Was anyone still there? With the mill and mine gone, was it taking its last agonal gasps? In reality it had changed very little other than to shrink a bit. A few buildings had been painted but otherwise little had been built other than a new hospital. Like me, Libby was trying to cover up the grey with a good dye job but it’s hard to cover up the wrinkles. In spite of this, I wound up lost several times. Apparently, I had succeeded wildly in forgetting Libby.
I am lucky that they did not forget me. No, Libby had not grown. There were no fancy shops. The city still struggles but the small army that believed in my dreams and understood that Libby could not feed them also welcomed me home. My stories are consolation that their investment in me had indeed paid off. These are the meager returns in small town America. The hard part was learning how many people were gone. Death had sadly cut down the cast of characters.
Going home forces me to confront some very small moments that had a very powerful impact on my life. Perhaps this is something everyone experiences with age. Perhaps it is only in moments of great humility that it is possible to acknowledge this. I will not claim that a truce was declared or a peace pipe smoked, but there is something reassuring about knowing there is a place to call home and that maybe I fit better than I ever imagined.