In 2010, my one-act play Coming Back to Bozeman was included in the Equinox Theatre One-Act Play Festival. I thoroughly enjoyed watching two actresses and one director bring my play to life, and I was pleased to see that it was very well-received by the audience.
***Part One, Coming Back
From 30,000 feet, the first glimpse of Montana makes me smile. Seemingly endless prairies make way for seemingly endless mountains. Our plane zooms along and the Crazy Mountains appear before making way for my beloved Bridger range. The M on Mount Baldy comes into view and sweet Bozeman lies below.
Bozeman was my home for 12 years and shaped my life as nothing else has. My education, my husband, the start of my career in the arts, and my love of the outdoors all can be traced back to this place. Bozeman was a dream for a young couple during college and the years that followed. Andrew and I spent a few years working crappy service jobs while we spent as much time as possible testing our limits in the outdoors. But as fun as that lifestyle was, we both had drive and Bozeman was a great place to dip one’s toe into the waters of adulthood.
Andrew and I used to think Bozeman would be our home forever. We loved it here, our house, the mountains, the quality of life. We couldn’t think of living anywhere else but life puts opportunities in from of you. I always pause when I get to this point in the story. While life in New York City has rewarding in ways I never expected, I can’t help but think what if? What it we stayed in Bozeman?
Our annual visits back to Bozeman turned to every other year visits and eventually became even more sporadic. This time it’s been almost a decade since we’ve visited, and we’re ready to make Bozeman part of our life again. We’re going to buy property here. Something small and simple to maintain; a cabin outside town, a small place in the city limits, a condominium, whatever. A pied a terre we’ll visit a few times a year. Andrew and I have downsized from our Park Slope brownstone to a much smaller place, a contemporary loft in SoHo, so a second place won’t be too much to manage.
Folks warn me, “Watch out for what you wish for Jennifer. Bozeman has changed. So many people have moved in. It’s not the same.”
And from there the debate rages on. Some delight at the abundance of restaurants and cultural opportunities while others claim Bozeman is ruined; too big, too crowded, too expensive, no longer the small town. But I see Bozeman as a tough gal with a strong personality that will prevail. Besides, one thing that will never change is her proximity to the mountains. Piles of new people may have descended upon Bozeman, but the great outdoors are still there, a bit more crowded for sure, but it’s impossible for the mountains to go anywhere and it certainly beats the long drive to Vermont we’ve made for so many years.
Andrew and I are meeting friends for our 50th college reunion, and we’ve built in a few extra days to hang out, enjoy the outdoors and shop for real estate. We have lots planned, but I parceled out the first morning just for me. To reminisce, daydream, to take it all in. I’ll wonder the neighborhoods and see if a property speaks to me. I’ll walk by our little house on Rouse Avenue and if I work up the nerve, I’ll knock on the door and ask if I can have a look around.
Our flight gets in just before midnight and we head to our lodging. A new boutique hotel in the center of downtown, a refurbished motor lodge, is all the rage. You can’t deny its artistic polish and stylish architectural design, but a motor lodge? At another point in time, motor lodges were out, stepping out of the room and into the parking lot did not sit well with us but now, at age 72, we’ve softened. Plus, this is Bozeman not New York City, so safety is little concern.
The next morning, we head out to meet friends for coffee and a quick breakfast. Afterwards, Andrew and friends head to the Gallatin River to fish while I head down Main Street.
***Part Two, Taking It All In
I wander down Main Street and turn left on Rouse. Yes, things have changed as I had expected, but what strikes me is the electric train, the Gallatin Express. A sign at the depot announces trains to Bridger Bowl, Big Sky, West Yellowstone and Three Forks. Folks board it, some decked out in hiking gear, others sport mountain bikes.
I walk a few shot blocks and there is it, 327 North Rouse Avenue, my first house. While it doesn’t surprise me that it’s been remodeled, the transformation is more than I had expected. The original 800 square foot box of a house is still there, but the place has grown exponentially. A wing extends on the ground level and a second story has been added. Freshly painted and I’m happy to see still blue, the house is now is quite the contrast to the home I lived in. Aluminum accents, an angular roofline and a huge vaulted ceiling give the house a contemporary flair while the immaculately maintained front lawn sports a thick grassy surface reminding me of the Scottish countryside. The contrast between contemporary and country is captivating. Now I’m dying to see what has been down with the place, and my shyness over knocking on a stranger’s door has dissipated.
I walk up the elegant stone walk and knock on the front door with a stately brass knocker. A perky 30-something woman answers. She has an air of confidence that cannot be mistaken. Her sleek brunette hair is cut in a blunt bob, not a strand of her pin-straight locks is out of place. Purple blocky glasses sit perched on her slightly upturned nose. She’s wearing an outfit that is impeccably put together and has a look of polish and perfection that I remember few women in Bozeman bothering with. And the eye cannot fail to be drawn to an enormous sparkling ring. This woman would be right at home in a posh townhouse in Park Slope yet she’s here living in my house.
“Hi. I’m sorry to drop in on you like this. My name is Jennifer Stern. My husband and I owned this house a long time ago. It was our first home and I was hoping I could have a quick look around.”
At first, she seems quite shocked. With a stranger appearing at her door mid-day, who can blame her? But she quickly warms up to me, welcomes me in and offers to show me around.
“I’m Jennifer, too,” she says. “Jennifer. Now that’s a name that went out with Subarus and river sandals. So 1970s. What was wrong with naming me Madison or Hyalite or even Absorkee? Anyhow, sorry to ramble on like that. What brings you back to Bozeman?”
“My husband Andrew and I are in town for the MSU homecoming. It’s our 50th reunion. We’ve been living in New York City and it seems like forever since we’ve been to Montana. Andrew couldn’t wait to go fishing so I thought I’d take a walk around town while he’s out on the river.”
“Well, a lot has changed, but after living in New York City, you probably won’t even notice the difference.”
I have a look around. A lot has changed for sure, but in a strange way, the house bears a striking resemblance of our loft in SoHo. Jennifer leads me up the stairs to what she calls The Great Room, and I must say, it is great. An open floor plan reveals a huge gleaming modern kitchen. White walls and white subway tiles meld stylishly with white cabinets sporting trim back hardware. State-of-the-art stainless steel appliances sparkle throughout. The black, white and steel combo gives the room a look that shouts out neutral, not a single speck of color anywhere, yet it still pulls off a lively feel.
This wonder of a kitchen blends seamlessly into the large dining area and living room. What I can’t help noticing is the soaring floor-to-ceiling window offering an unobstructed view of the Bridger Mountains. The large window also reveals a humongous garden. Even in late September, the garden blooms prodigiously. From my perch above, I can several luscious tomato plants, not the spindly variety Andrew and I tried so desperately to grow all those years ago. Bright red tomatoes resembling softballs hang proudly from the plants. A sprawling vegetable garden yields a bounty of produce, a lush bed of wildflowers blooms in all colors of the rainbow and if I’m not mistaken, the vines crawling up the gazebo are sprouting tiny kiwis. Unbelievable. The whole scene is so stunning that I can’t help but exclaim, “Some yard. What a garden.”
“People were all freaked out over climate change, but really, when you think about it, it’s what we were all waiting for. We can now grow everything we need in Bozeman.”
She confirms my suspicion that those are indeed kiwis. She says they’re hard to grow, but they always manage to get dozen or so each year.
“This is quite a renovation Jennifer.”
“When the electric train went in a few years ago, real estate prices skyrocketed. This area had been blighted for so long that prices were cheap in comparison, so my husband Bridger and I bought this cute little fixer-upper.”
Her cute little fixer-upper was our delight. How we saved for it, stressed out over whether we could really afford it. Should I be insulted? A cell-phone rings chirps with a space-age tinkle and conversation is cut off for a moment. Jennifer’s loud booming voice fills the room and it’s impossible to avoid overhearing the conversation. It goes like this,
“Gallatin darling. How are you?”
“This is simply divine.”
“Yes, Bridger and I will be there. We wouldn’t miss this for tuit le monde.” Her posh accent enunciates the French perfectly.
“Splendid darling. See you at 7:30. Ciao.”
“We just got a reservation at The Anker.” Jennifer exclaims.
The Anker, she informs me, is the nickname for Conrad Anker’s Bistro, the new gluten-free restaurant in the Baxter Hotel. It’s only been open for six months and it’s impossible to get a table.
“But there was an unimagined cancellation tonight so thankfully we won’t be spending another evening at Plonk.” She rolls her eyes at the mention of Plonk.
So, Plonk is still around. Jennifer says I can find it in its new location on 74th Street. I remember when Plonk opened. At great expense, the old hallmark store was converted into this swanky wine bar, the first of its kind in Bozeman. There was much debate as to whether a swanky wine bar had its place in Bozeman, but it took off right away.
We settle into the luscious couch, its overstuffed suede seats engulf me in a cocoon of comfort that is otherworldly. Jennifer offers me some polar ice cap spring water, the boutique water that is all the rage these days. Oddly, no one seems too concerned that the glaciers have dwindled down to next to nothing, or that it’s not locally sourced, or that it takes a carbon footprint the size of Montana to get it anywhere. I take a sip and I must say, glacial run off is a cool crisp delight and I can see why people rave over it.
“Plonk is so gauche,” Jennifer declares. Another word in French. I wonder if she’s taking a French course or if she’s perhaps a tad pretentious?
“Old fashion wine bars made a comeback a few years ago, but trends come and trends go and everything moves ahead. For some reason, Plonk stayed the same. Don’t get me wrong, the drinks are great, the food, to die for, but the atmosphere has got to go. And with all of those professors and conservation folks filling the place, and their beat up old Prisuses and Subarus parked out front. Plonk is, you know,” she pauses trying to be tactful. “It’s like a museum to the past.”
I make a mental note to stop by and take a look for myself. I shake my head in disbelief that Bozeman now extends to 74th Street. How far did it go when I last lived here? Past 19th for sure, maybe as far as 23th or 27th?
“Let me guess. You and your friends liked Ale Works.”
Jennifer rambles on with her commentary about Ale Works and the kind of people who frequent it, people like me she says, active and social, part of the hard-core crowd. And when I think about it, I’m not surprised she’s drawn that conclusion. I’m wearing khaki pants, river sandals, a sports watch, and a KGLT t-shirt. I carry a small nylon Patagonia bag, the kind athletic girls use in place of a purse. She’s also right that we did like Ale Works. It was our go-to spot.
Jennifer litters her conversation with lingo from back in the day; bro brah, droppin’ in and the like. I’m the course of the conversation she reveals that was a history major in college and now runs the historical society. A while back she helped curate a big exhibit on turn of the century Bozeman and favorite part was the old ski bum culture. It’s kind of surreal to think that our lifestyle all those years ago has been recreated in a museum setting.
“Yo’ dude! Go big. Hard-core.” She mimics the lingo and gestures perfectly. “That’s my favorite, hard-core. You sounded like a bunch of ballerinas or stay at home moms on a Pilates kick.” She’s chuckling at herself like she’s a real comedian. “Get it? Core.”
Good God. This girl is nice enough on one hand but full of it on another.
“As I worked on the exhibit, I couldn’t get enough of those extreme ski films. The rad skiing, the old-school gear, the ubiquitous techno music,” she says while busting out a few dance moves. “Untz, untz, untz. I’m surprised it didn’t drive you mad. Of course, everyone was probably half mad to begin with. No offense.”
“No offense taken,” I mumble, but I don’t know if Jennifer heard.
“I mean, of course you were mad schlepping those massive skis and clunky ski boots up and down the mountains all day. In flimsy Gore-Tex before climate change really kicked in. I’m surprised any of you lived to tell about it.”
She speaks in an endless series of exclamation marks, which is jarring, yet she speaks with great enthusiasm and doesn’t hold much back, which can be kind of refreshing. In a way, Jennifer reminds me of a stereotypical opinionated New Yorker.
“Let me show you something. You’re going to love it.”
Jennifer comes back with a box that was left in the shed by previous occupants of the house. She’s having her curators at the historical society label and catalogue the contents, and they’ll use the artifacts in an upcoming exhibit.
“Go ahead, take a look.”
I peer in side and find a treasure trove of memorabilia from back in the day; a single Chaco river sandal that has seen plenty of action, an old avalanche transceiver, a dog-eared copy of Outside Bozeman magazine. A collection of season passes from Bridger Bowl dangles from a cord, and I thumb through them. Ty Wiggins, the young man on the passes, transforms in front of my eyes from a gangly young college kid, to a hipster with a silly ironic mustache, to a normal looking blocky guy. A flood of memories comes back to me, and I have vivid memories of being 28 years old.
“Look at this,” Jennifer says handing me a Co-op membership card.
“I was a working member there. Is it still around?”
Sure enough the Co-op is still around. Chain supermarkets were outlawed from Bozeman and there are now over 30 Co-ops around town. Everyone always loved the Co-op, so it’s not surprising they’ve grown, but a law against chain grocery stores? That seems kind of over-the-top, and besides, with 30 plus Co-ops, hasn’t the Co-op become the new chain? The irony is hard to miss, but before I can point this out to Jennifer her phone tinkles.
“Please excuse me. It’s my daughter’s school calling. I’m going to take it in the other room. Yogo’s been having some discipline problems lately, so this may not be too pretty.”
Left alone in the living room, I realize how worked up I have become. I rise and stand tall, take a few deep breaths and extend my arms overhead before lowering hands to my heart in Namaste. I remind myself to breathe. Deep breathes. I bow my head to clear my thoughts, but equanimity does not come. I look at my FitBit, which tells me my heart rate’s okay, my chi is flowing freely, and that my temperature’s all right.
A inexplicable feeling washes over me, like none I’ve experienced before, a strong sense of “Where am I?” I open my bag and take a look at my plane ticket, which says I’ve landed in Bozeman. Out the window I see the Bridgers, so this must be Bozeman. Isn’t it?
“Whew!” Jennifer says barreling back into the room. “Really nothing at all. I just forgot to give permission for a field trip. It’s the skydiving unit in PE and they’ll be doing some big jumps in the Tranquilities today.
I try not to judge young people, and I don’t want to be that fusty old lady worried about everything, but someone’s going to get hurt.
“Skydiving?” I gasp.
A friend of mine was badly hurt in a skydiving accident. A freak accident really, but it still leaves me shaky. Jennifer senses my discomfort and in a rare moment of empathy she tries to reassure me.
“There’s really nothing to worry about. Skydiving’s become so safe. Yogo started when she was four.”
The Tranquilities, I am told, are the mountain range near Big Timber. They were known as Crazy Mountains when I lived here, but the name was making people uncomfortable so it was changed. That was during the height of the big mental health crisis that swept the country a while back; when people still had to use primitive drugs like Valium and Prozac to handle stress and anxiety.
“You said they’re going to the Crazies, I mean the Tranquilities, for the day? That seems like a long way to go for a gym class.”
“Yogo’s away at boarding school in Big Timber.”
I tell Jennifer she doesn’t look old enough to have a daughter in boarding school and realize this might come across as tacky, so I quickly inquire, “Since when does Big Timber have a boarding school?”
“Yogo’s only six. Bridger and I had kids pretty young. We were only 32. Call us old fashion, call us nuts, but we couldn’t wait until we were in our 50s to have a child like couples do these days. Anyway, Yogo is spending her primary years at the Big Timber Multi-Lingual School for Young Children.”
“Can you repeat that please?”
“The Big Timber Multi-Lingual School for Young Children. Based on the Thich Nhat Hanh concept of primary education.”
A Thich Nhat Hanh school. I read about those in the New York Times, a multi-lingual boarding school with a mindful approach to education. I nod my head in recognition.
“It’s the new paradigm,” she says. “Bozeman, even today, is pretty isolated and not very diverse. Thich Nhat Hanh schools require at least 50% of the teachers be foreign born. A curriculum of genuine holistic mind/body education,” she pauses and if I’m not mistaken she’s getting teary eyed. “Bridger and I always knew that was how we wanted to educate our daughter.”
“How does your daughter, Yoda is it, deal with being away from home at such a young age?”
“Her name is Yogo,” Jennifer corrects me holding out her hand so I can admire her rock size Yogo sapphire and diamond ring. “Named after the most precious gemstone ever mined in Montana. So impossible to come by these days. The Yogo sapphire, more rare that a bro bra shredding cold smoke at Bridger Bowl on a powder day. Excuse my humor.”
Once again, she finds herself terribly amusing and gives herself a big chuckle at a not so funny joke. But I’ll give her credit, she really does have a way of things into historical prospective. No wonder she runs the historical society.
“Sending your child to a Thich Nhat Hanh school is so de rigueur.”
What kind of person says de rigueur?
The ideology, which Jennifer calls “quite brilliant,” includes everything from rigorous academics to destiny expanding opportunities to intensive outdoor recreation. They even have a totally local, vegan cafeteria.
“When Yogo’s ten she’ll go abroad for a more worldly education. Besides, there’s the crime we have to worry about.”
Proper education? It sounds good to me, but I feel the question will lead us down a place I do not intend to go, so instead I ask, “Since when is crime a problem in Bozeman?”
“Since developers build mid-rise apartment buildings all over downtown and took away all the parking,” Jennifer huffs. “You thought growth was crazy when you live here, well after the mid-rises went up it really exploded and crime came with it. Bozeman’s no longer a cow town, if you can imagine that.”
I roll my eyes slightly agitated. “Apparently, it’s no longer even a ski town” I say and my disgust is obvious.
Jennifer doesn’t even notice as she’s already launched into another one of her monologues. “At the turn of the century people used to think crime in Bozeman was under control, but then that guy with the soup kitchen built a homeless shelter.”
A conversation like this is too exciting to sit through and Jennifer is now standing and pacing uncomfortably around the room.
“The mid-rises went in a few years later,” she tells me as she beings to talk in a rapid and ever more dramatic manner. “And it’s been a constant stream of new folks moving in and disrupting our quality of life. And with the electric train zipping people,” she almost shrieks, arms waiving around, pointing wildly, “from Bozeman to Three Forks to West Yellowstone and beyond, and with over 300 miles in the Main Street to the Mountains trail system everyone has become much more free to move around. That’s how crime spreads, you know.”
She is now looking directly at me while she leans forward nodding her head, her forehead mere inches from mine. Give me a break. People getting away with acts of crime using the trails as their get-away? I don’t think it happens that way. Jennifer leans back and looks slightly startled. She sheepishly sits down leaving the room in awkward silence, but thankfully she is still.
“Oh, listen to me going on again,” she says breaking the silence. “All I know is what I’ve read at the historical society. Bridger says when I get like this I sound like a desperate housewife.”
“I loved that show,” I declare to a confused Jennifer, but my attempts to describe the sitcom are futile, so I stop mid-sentence. Another awkward pause, but the calm is broken when Jennifer looks at her watch.
“Look at the time! I’m late for a lunch appointment. I have a million things to do before dinner at The Anker. I’ve got to go.”
Jennifer runs around like a tsunami, gathering her coat and throwing things into her bag. Nothing about this young woman is subtle.
“No problem. I enjoyed our visit. I’m surprised you let a stranger in considering the crime.”
“You can spot an old-time Bozemanite from a mile away so I knew you were okay. I enjoyed our visit, too. I should call you. I’d love to interview you for the historical society. Better yet, why don’t you just drop by? We’re located in the old Story Mansion, in between the coffee shop and the city offices.”
“Thank you Jennifer. That’s a very kind offer.”
“I’m sorry I have to run on you like this,” she responds waving her hands in the air. “My life is frantic! I don’t know how I manage to fit everything into one petite day.”
Jennifer pops a pill from a small bottle and instantly becomes calmer. She tilts the bottle towards me, but I shake my head no.
“I used to work in marketing for the Metropolitan Opera and in times like this our lead soprano used to get frantic and call out, ‘I need a Valium. Someone bring me a Valium.’”
“Cute. Valium,” Jennifer chuckles, and when I think about it, that is a quaint old-fashioned notion. Jennifer’s use of a pill and its instant calming effects mere minutes ago confirms just how far medicine has come since the Valium days.
We shake hands and start walking out the door. I am within steps of freedom from this bizarre experience, but Jennifer has to have the last word.
“Hard-core,” are her final word before I am back down on Rouse Avenue. Alone, free to enjoy my day of reminiscence the way I what it to be.
***Part Three, Figuring It Out
“Valium. I need a Valium. Someone bring me a Valium.” I hear someone call out.
I’m in a dark room at Jennifer’s house. What time is it and how on earth did I manage to fall asleep here? Who needs a Valium? I feel my heart thudding in my chest and a sense of dread shrouds me.
The lights come on and I see Andrew rushing towards my side. He must be back from fishing. How did he find me here?
“Honey, calm down,” he assures me. “It’s just a nightmare. Everything is okay. What were you dreaming about?”
That was me, calling out demanding a Valium? I fully awaken and find myself back in our SoHo loft, which looks exactly like the house in the dream. I’ve fallen asleep on the couch, my book and reading glasses discarded on the floor. I start to sort out what’s going, but it’s a slow process.
“I was dreaming we were in Bozeman,” I tell Andrew. “I was visiting our little house on Rouse, but it had changed. Everything had changed. Everything was different.”
My pounding heart begins to slow, but the panic is still present. The thought of sweet little Bozeman being ruined disturbs me. Could people be right?
“Of course dear,” he says. “Bozeman was always changing. It still is. Come to bed now. We leave Bozeman in the morning. I can’t wait for the reunion. Moscow Mules at Plonk!”
Yes, yes, the reunion is this weekend. I’m excited too, but I’m going to do my darndest to make sure we don’t end up at Plonk.