Kim Nelson: Polebridge, Montana

We were driving back to our cabin after a long day of kayaking and hiking at Kintla Lake, just south of the U.S./Canadian border. The road was 40 miles of unpaved gravel and potholes, and we rumbled down it while exhausting the music supply in our iPod. This far north, the sun was still high in the sky at 9 pm. Along the road, we saw a baby moose standing on the edge of the grass. It noticed us at the same time and startled, then ran away on its little knobby legs, all awkward and adorable angles. Further along, a mountain lion sauntered right into the middle of the road. We gasped at the sight of it, fumbling for the camera, but it leapt up the hill and out of sight in three quick fluid strides.

IMG_3245We stopped for dinner in an electricity-free town called Polebridge (population of 59), a cluster of houses, cabins, a saloon, and a mercantile exchange. Solar energy and generators keep the businesses running. We approached the Northern Lights Saloon; out front, people sat at picnic tables talking, laughing, and throwing back beers. A wood sign declared “Unleashed dogs will be eaten.” The town smelled of pine trees and fresh air, and the sky was just beginning to show the first subtle pinks of twilight. Mountains loomed in the distance.

It looked absolutely perfect. Inside, we ordered chili and drinks. The bartender pulled our beer bottles out from a cooler running off the generator and set my wild huckleberry wheat beer down in front of me. I noticed a sign on the wall that read “People from all walks of life welcome here.” It warmed my little blue state heart, smashing preconceived notions of what I thought rural Montana would be like.

We told the bartender about our mountain lion sighting. He raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty good,” he said. “I’ve been out here 17 years and I’ve only seen one; they’re so elusive.” He was from a city on the east coast and fell in love with Montana, just as we had.

I imagined what it would be like to live in a town of 59 people with no electricity. Every time I reflect on the city that I’ve made my home for the last 17 years, the wanderlust that creeps through my veins kicks in. I think about Polebridge and that warm, sunny evening, a place where elusive animals slip along the sides of the road like they escaped from the zoo, shocking you with their languid ease and beauty. A town where time moves by as slowly as you’d like it to, where you pick up your morning coffee and pastry from the same mercantile exchange every morning, and go out to eat at the saloon in the evenings, a cozy bar where vegan options are on the menu and all walks of life are welcome, and you can drink a frosty huckleberry beer from the cooler.

If I were to run away to Polebridge, my problems would follow me–student loans, credit card bills, all of the other stresses and anxieties that come with adulthood. The change of scenery might temporarily distract me from them, but they’d still lurk in the smudgy shadows, waiting for me to be settled in so they could rise again like ghosts. Maybe it’s better to leave Polebridge as it lives in my memory, a secret little haven hidden away from the rest of the world, a place I can visit, where as I sit drinking my cold beer and watching the local dogs chase visitors, and no problems exist.

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