Coming Home to Montana – Part One


Dad’s ritual of making the entire family get out of the car and kiss the ground every time we re-entered Montana after a trip seemed fun and daring when I was about six. I loved watching the passersby whip their heads around to catch a glimpse of us knelt over on the side of the road as they sped by in their cars. But, what is fun at six is down right embarrassing at ten, and undoable at thirteen. Dad would go on about how much greener it was on the Montana side, how much clearer the air was, how much bigger the fish were–little did I realize, I was actually letting his love of our home sink deep into my own skin.

Where did my connection with horses, the outdoors, and my home state begin? My deep Montana roots follow my family tree –both my mother’s and my dad’s – but not in equal measure. In all honesty, it was my dad who had the biggest impact on who I have become. His unbreakable bond with Montana, his natural, gentle way with animals, and his keen interest in science were my guiding forces.

Dad worked for forty-five years as a ventilation engineer for the Anaconda Company in Butte, Montana. Most of that time was spent underground, in the bowels of the hard rock mines of the Richest Hill on Earth. It was his job to ensure that the miners had air to breathe while toiling in the dark, nearly a mile below the surface.

Montana’s mountains and streams were Dad’s weekend escape from those dark tunnels. We drove and hiked the mountain roads and trails and we knew all the spots that would yield worms for our hooks to catch a trout dinner. Every time I drive my six-horse trailer along a steep and narrow mountain road, I thank my dad for the comfort and confidence I feel in such surroundings.

Those years in the mines took a heavy toll on my father’s health, especially on his lungs. As he approached 70, he was told to seek a lower elevation to give his lungs the benefit of more oxygen. So it was that he and my mother moved to the Washington coast.

For Christmas their first year away, I had a friend make a sign in the shape of Montana, inscribed with the words, “Bill and Phyllis Goodman – Misplaced Montanans.” It hung above their door for some twelve years.

About the time Dad’s descent into Alzheimers was making it impossible for my mother to care for him alone, my husband and I qualified for retirement from our jobs in Alaska. Our children were still young enough to be easily moved without disrupting their lives, so we decided it was time to move back to Montana.

After getting the children settled and enrolled in school, I drove to Washington, took down the sign, and brought my parents back to Montana. As we drove east on I-90, I stopped near the border at Lookout Pass to let Dad feel the immense pleasure of coming home, once again. No longer able to kneel and kiss the ground, both my father and mother lingered for a while, staring into Montana, and then they bowed. It was my father’s last crossing of the border.

His mind did not always understand that he was actually living in Montana again. He would often say to me “Look, SuzAnne, at all the Montana license plates. Isn’t it wonderful!” Even if his mind did not know, his spirit did, and he was happy to be back. So am I.

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SuzAnne Miller is the owner of Dunrovin Ranch, a small guest ranch nestled against the Bitterroot River and the Sapphire Mountains, south of Missoula. She shares her home with her husband of 42 years, 2 sons, 20 equines, 2 or 3 dogs, the resident wildlife, and anyone looking for high adventure.