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From Empire to Treasure

A Couple’s Journey Home
Article and Photography Chelsea Lyn Drake

There’s a sign hanging in a Missoula home that reads, “Life is all about how you handle plan B.” I saw it when my boyfriend and I were house hunting and being filmed for an episode of Living Big Sky, a new series on HGTV about finding a home in Montana. I didn’t know it then but I had already made up my mind about moving here. These mountains, this community, and that sign reminded me of what it means to make a living and a life. I was reminded to expect the unexpected.

Our plan B began the day my father died. My boyfriend, Chris, and I spent our childhood in the beautiful Hudson Valley. We met in high school and went to college just off the shores of Lake Erie a few years later. Our post-college lives took us to the ever-lit streets of New York City, just an hour south of the home where my father and I once lived. He was sick, and Chris and I were glad that our applications for jobs out West went unanswered. This is meant to be, we told each other. A short drive from home was what we needed. Plan A meant working for the weekends and stuffing our paychecks back into the flames of New York’s engine. It was the city of someone else’s dreams.

It was snowing the day we flew out of New York. We were flying into Missoula for the first time, together, to house hunt with a film crew in tow. He, an avid snowboarder, and I, a lifelong equestrian, had dreamed of owning our own place in the Wild West, away from the monotony of public transportation and inbred exhaustion. We’d filled out an online application for the TV show the way one throws a penny into a fountain. We decided on a budget and made our wish-list, and during the days leading up to our trip we daydreamed about loading our horse into the trailer and letting our roots take hold in a place where the American dream was rumored to still exist.

I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew we’d live here. It was somewhere between opening the barn door of a home for sale and pausing to notice the sweet sound of nothing just before the sun disappeared over the Bitterroot Mountains. Montana had thrown an arrow through our hearts and opened a door we’d never thought was there. We flew back to New York after our five-day trip and returned to our jobs, their glow slightly dulled by what might have been, or by what could be back in Montana. We applied for jobs and when Chris got one we made our calls to family and friends and began to dissemble the lives we’d carefully built. I would quit my job without having another, something almost every mentor of mine had warned me never to do.

I thought about my father after Chris left for Missoula. I’d leave almost two months after him and in the interim I’d coax myself in and out of the guilt that clings to all happiness after losing a parent. I was about to hand over the life I’d always known for a bigger dream that held no promises and I wondered if we would have still gone for it had he still been here. He’d spent a lifetime working tirelessly for a simple life and when he came to the end of it he passed that dream along to me.

It was late April when I loaded our horse into the trailer and drove 2,400 miles into plan B, my mother riding shotgun through 11 states, two horse hotels, and one Super 8 where our horse could stay just outside our room (Hello, Montana). When we arrived in Missoula we shook the hay from our boots and watched my mare stretch her legs and settle in. We laughed about the spontaneity we didn’t know we had and cried for all the miles that would separate us from our families.

Life in Montana doesn’t glitter. It doesn’t need to. It’s a rare risk and reward that takes quitting a dream job in the wrong city to allow the smaller things in life to bask in the limelight that they deserve. Leaving New York was one of the hardest, best things we could have done for ourselves. Despite cartwheeling our way into a world of unknowns, we are, at last, home.

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