I came to Montana in 1982 for three reasons:
a woman, the land, and the quixotic urge to leap into the abyss of freelance
I am still with that woman, Marypat Zitzer. We share three children, Eli, Sawyer and Ruby, all born in our bedroom near downtown Bozeman. We share decades of adventures, including two separate years spent paddling a canoe across Canada and wintering in a remote log cabin on the shores of Lake Athabasca. We have made money together, made a home together, raised kids together, become part of this community together, spent time outdoors in every conceivable environment and weather together, grown gardens and weathered tragedy and skied slopes and paddled creeks and walked dogs and watched soccer games and found joy together. We are partners more than we are spouses.
The land still holds me fast in its spell. Ever since I read Guthrie’s The Big Sky as a teenager, the west, and especially Montana, has drawn me to it, made me breathe deep in response and lean toward its wide promise. The first time I came to Bozeman to visit Marypat, it was spring. The mountains that ring the Gallatin Valley shone white with snow. The bottomland was emerald. The creeks and rivers raged with snowmelt. Bluebirds and meadowlarks perched on fenceposts. Sandhill cranes stalked through grain fields. I was stunned. On a regular basis, I continue to be stunned by the power here.
Freelance writing really was an abyss. I plummeted to the bottom of it. I came from a decade of work as an outdoor educator. My parents couldn’t believe I’d walked away from a secure position at a college. For years everything they say about the sketchy proposition of freelance writing came true – the repeated rejection, the poverty, the unrewarded discipline required, the scant encouragement. For years I did a great many things besides write to make ends meet. I planted trees, I worked a livestock yard, I clerked in an outdoor store, I carried hod. I wrote when I could. I sent stories to magazines. I had rare, small checks in the mail.
Our first canoe expedition across Canada, in 1985-86, was the turning point. After that epic journey, magazine editors finally paid a bit of attention. Stories began to sell more frequently. I sat down at my kitchen table with a legal pad and started writing and typing my first book. Two years later I actually found a publisher and sold the manuscript. In 1989 my first book arrived, tangible and precious as a first child. Incrementally, in fits and starts, my writing career grew and established itself.
Several decades along, I am fortunate enough to have eleven published books and hundreds of magazine articles in print. I’ve found myself writing curriculum guides, outdoor manuals, ad copy, cookbooks, adventure tales, equipment reviews, history, comedy, drama, profiles, environmental essays, editorial pieces. My stories have appeared in Audubon, Canoe & Kayak, Natural History, Family Fun, Men’s Health, Backpacker, Outside, Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, High Country News, Glamour, Montana and other magazines. My roles have run the gamut of columnist, editor at large, senior editor, and contributing editor.
I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with talented and remarkable people along the way. For three years I shared the stage with classical guitarist, Stuart Weber, and we performed a duet of words and music we called Confluence. I worked together with Dr. Susan Wicklund to write her professional memoir, This Common Secret, the powerful story of a life devoted to womens’ reproductive health and providing safe, humane abortion services. Most recently, I paired up with Montana-based photographer, Thomas Lee, on a series of stories profiling inspiring Montanans. A best-of collection of our photo/essay pieces makes up the 2012 publication, Montana: Real Place, Real People.
Thirty years ago I came to Montana, fired up with a romantic notion to set the world ablaze with words. That didn’t happen. What came my way instead is a lifelong partner, a home in geography that inspires, children who make me proud, and the luck to make a living doing things I love.
Not bad for Plan B.