We drove east on I-90 out of Missoula passing through Hellgate Canyon, meandering alongside the Clark Fork River. I blinked away tears while whispering “I’m not ready to leave Montana.” Plans had changed. Vacation: canceled. Classes: canceled.
The global pandemic turned into a national emergency; the weight of this new reality finally felt personal. After a few hours of haphazardly packing up my car, we were making our way toward Colorado. The future, in a way I had never known, felt uncertain.
For nearly two years I’d lived in Montana while my fiancé, Peter, remained in Colorado where we once lived together. Soon after he arrived for a week-long visit, we found out that his small mountain community in the Gunnison Valley had made headlines as a coronavirus hot spot. I wondered if we were stupid to run back into what seemed to be a house burning down to the ground. Residents were told to self-isolate and limit travel. Tourists were told to leave. The town was officially on lockdown. Colorado had documented hundreds of COVID-19 cases, and the virus was spreading fast.
We weighed our options, but in the end, it came down to one simple point: going back felt like the right thing to do. Remaining in Montana would mean Peter might put others at risk. We also asked ourselves: If this thing gets really out of hand, where do we want to be?
Feelings of uneasiness and dread filled my gut whenever I thought about the global pandemic. My anxiety was through the roof, and I didn’t feel confident in how our society would navigate our way through it all.
Similarly, in the months leading up to the pandemic, I felt equally anxious about returning to Colorado when I graduated. So much that I lay awake at night with thoughts racing through my head. Despite wanting to be near Peter, I feared the return to the place where I felt stuck — to a life that felt stagnant and unfulfilled. Despite our conversations and his willingness to try somewhere new, going back after graduation felt inevitable in some ways.
I made my way to Montana after making the difficult choice to leave that small mountain town where I had spent the better part of a decade. It was time to shift my life’s course, to focus on new priorities. The endless days of skiing and biking had finally lost their allure.
Despite the millions of acres of public lands, I felt as if I was being held captive; I needed an escape. I wanted to pursue something larger than myself, so I packed up my bags and my life and moved to Montana to pursue a master’s degree.
Missoula is defined by the confluence of valleys and rivers; the Bitterroot mountains run south from the city, connecting to Idaho to the south and west. Nearly two years later, and after several changes of seasons, Missoula almost felt like home.
In between my studies, I made new friends the best way I knew how: offering to go skiing, running and biking. I laughed with them over glasses of wine while planning weekend adventures to explore new places. With each new trail walked, each new run skied; I discovered a familiarity I had once discovered in the Gunnison Valley. My connection and love for the place became defined by the land I explored, and the people I shared it with.
But it was over now. Uprooted and on my way to Colorado, I wouldn’t get to finish graduate school the way I had planned. I wouldn’t celebrate with my classmates and family. I wouldn’t have a proper Montana goodbye.
It was clear that my shattered expectations were small compared to the enormity of what we—humanity—faced. Each day the news seemed incomprehensible and unprecedented: borders closed, ski resorts shut down, Italy was at war with the virus, dead bodies piled up in hospitals while officials predicted the next depression. We kept driving. Farther away from where my roots were starting to take hold, into the unknown.
As we rolled into Gunnison, we were greeted by a flashing sign above the highway that read, “No Tourist Gunnison COVID-19.” Town felt eerie. The grocery store shelves were sparse, and sporadic coughs made us jump. Stores were closed and the streets felt empty.
Yet, many things remained the same. The ground was muddy like it always is in March. The grocery store was full of familiar faces. We chopped wood for the fire to keep us warm in the evening. We clicked into our skis and made a few laps at the shutdown resort. The river ran through town. The ridgelines of the jagged snow-covered peaks created a silhouette along the valley’s skyline.
It took me a few days to unpack my things and organize them in Peter’s house—our house. In the days following our arrival, I changed my address and health insurance, and I signed up to volunteer locally delivering groceries and answering calls from the sick.
Despite the upheaval in my life—in our world— it didn’t take more than a few days to realize that I felt privileged to return to this strong, supportive and special community. I spend the mornings taking deep breaths; I take walks to the river in the afternoon. I’m thankful for the open spaces that once held me captive, that at this moment, are the path to freedom.
Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, I know that none of this can or will last forever. We will not be locked down in our homes forever. People will not be sick forever. Our economy will not be broken forever. I don’t have to stay here forever.
We will know more once we are on the other side of this. But before then, right now, in the midst of all this madness, I’ve finally come home.
Stephanie Maltarich was a graduate student in environmental studies in Missoula, Montana, before moving back home to Gunnison.