Ever since crossing the Mississippi on my travels west, I have experienced a renewed reverence for the land and its use. We live in a huge country and much of the land is left unattended and natural. I’m told that 1/3 of the landmass of the United States is public land, meaning no one person can own it. It is there for all of us, in perpetuity.
The mountains are the most impressive and obvious – visible with their white tips as far as 40 miles away. The forests also stand out – logged and replenished on a regular schedule. But what rarely gets mentioned are the endless rolling hills that stretch to the horizon without a trace of human existence.
Then there are the rivers – plentiful and flowing throughout the west – so many that naming them must have challenged the most gifted of word-smiths.
And, the people who live here are affected by this cornucopia of natural elements. They live and play in it every day. Hiking, rock climbing, biking, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, rafting, skiing, running and walking are just a few of the activities available to those who live where nature surrounds them. And because they can enjoy the out-of-doors, they protect it by passionately advocating for its preservation. To be here is to enjoy all that is here, every day – weather included. (Side note – if they haven’t already, Cabellas, Bass Sport Shop, REI and other nature outlet stores need to establish a headquarters somewhere in Montana, Wyoming or Idaho where the cost of living is still reasonable and there is a reverence for the out-of-doors). The people here appreciate nature and want to preserve it – protect the wildlife and save the public lands for future generations. Joy comes with the territory.
A few examples – I met fishing guide Scott Schnebly in Ketchum, Idaho who has observed and protected what he sees and hears every day for the last 30+ years. He owns a store in town that sells fishing and hunting licenses and gear that can make the experience of being in nature comfortable and enjoyable. But the best part of his job is to take people like me out to a private stream with all the fishing gear one can carry and a trail lunch to boot to participate in the time-honored tradition of fly fishing. The bait is smaller than most mayflies and it takes a gentle hand to drop where the fish will find it. But once you get it there and realize that you’re surrounded by nature, you understand the significance of preservation of the surrounding beauty. Catching a trout in these waters allows you to see under the surface. The tug of something living under the water that is more beautiful than anyone can imagine.
He guided me to catch this trophy brown trout and while I learned a lot about fishing, I also learned that if you live your life doing something that you love, you don’t ever have to retire. You are doing what you want, when you want, how you want, where you want. Isn’t that the definition of retirement?
And then there’s Ed Lewis – a passionate conservationist and advocate for public lands. He lives in the heart of the West – Bozeman, Montana – where he consults with several organizations that protect the land and its inhabitants.
Full disclosure – Ed is a friend. But beyond that, he has developed a following and reputation for significant land management, negotiating land swaps and making sure that public land stays public especially in and around the greater Yellowstone area. Ed makes his home where the deer can graze in his backyard and the bike paths go on for miles. Together we toured the fascinating typography of Yellowstone and the headwaters of the Missouri River. Now I understand why he has dedicated his life to making all this available to future generations. Because he loves it.
Throughout my journey west, I have encountered wide-eyed naturalists who enjoy living here. I understand better than ever what attracts them initially – some are here because their parents chased a dream of mining gold or raising cattle. Others decided to stay after a vacation, university education or visiting a friend, as they discovered a part of themselves they can only reach when living close to nature and away from the noise and fumes of industrial cities. The air is fresh here and the opportunities for living the “good life” abound. If this post encourages you to experience the West yourself, don’t hesitate. You won’t be disappointed. It’s worth the trip. You may find yourself wondering why you would live anywhere else.