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FOR FREE PEOPLE

(Erin Otwell / The Free Press)

The Inconvenience of It All

Moving from San Francisco to the middle of Montana has made me patient, because I have no other choice.

In my efforts over 26 years to motivate high school juniors to engage themselves with the writings of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller—pioneers of the transcendentalist literary movement in the mid-nineteenth century—I gave them homework to live a simpler life for a month. 

I instructed my students to give up one convenience, which included, through the years, remote controls, beds, hot water, television, radio, curling irons, and cars, and then write about the experience in Thoreauvian style. 

Little did I know that I would live out my own assignment forty years later.

Months away from my 70th birthday in 2019, we purchased a rural property in south central Montana to spend half of our year. We were twenty miles from the closest town with a population of 1,500 people. The whole county had double that. 

We moved our furnishings from our San Francisco Bay Area home to a small cabin in the shadow of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, and I brought along my fantasies for our lives so close to alfalfa fields, bears, rattlesnakes, antelope, mountain lions, chokecherry bushes, and Yellowstone National Park. What I had not considered was the lack of comfort and easy living in such a rural setting, so far away from modern conveniences. 

Last summer, on the way home from my weekly grocery shopping in Livingston, Montana, an hour and fifteen minutes away from our rustic cabin, bumping along in an always-filthy truck, made so by choosing to live on a gravel road in the country, my patience flared. I complained out loud to a grasshopper stuck inside the cab, one of the thousands that hop and whirl around our property in the hot August sun. 

I snapped, “Montana is so inconvenient!” 

The grasshopper ricocheted from the windshield smeared with its dead landsmen onto the collar of my wrinkled denim shirt and answered me in a throaty buzz. 

Isn’t that the point?

Relocating from the Bay Area beehive, where eight million people, ready to sting at any time, swarm everything—from freeways to parking lots, hair salons to grocery stores—has been life-changing, largely because of the inconvenience of it all.

Before moving to Montana, I had never imagined waiting three weeks for a plumber, six months for a well-driller to help us locate our wellhead, and five months for an electrician to install our generator. My previous self—living in the shadow of Silicon Valley for most of my 70 years, where technology has changed the heart rate of its inhabitants—would have been incensed by having to wait weeks. 

The impatience that I developed in California as technology advanced has been breathtaking. Now, when the wait time for a plumber is three to four times longer in Montana, I am patient, because I have no other choice. I learned to lower my expectations, find ways to circumvent broken appliances and leaky faucets. I watch DIY YouTube videos and have fixed my own dishwasher. The guys at the local Ace Hardware know my name. 

I had never considered driving ninety minutes for a routine doctor’s appointment, packing a cooler with ice so that the ice cream purchased in town would not melt, asking our upcoming guests to stop and buy fruits and vegetables before they arrive. The commute to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary at an upscale restaurant was two hours, there and back. 

The house we bought is old, small, and sits on a river’s edge, 5,000 feet above sea level. The stacked washer and dryer don’t cut it, so I travel four times a week up a series of railroad ties to another small house on the property, lugging jeans and more jeans, where an old Maytag washer with a decent-sized drum actually cleans the clothes. 

Most would find this effort highly inconvenient, including me a few years ago. But my legs and arms are stronger than they have ever been, no Pilates or yoga classes required. This past summer we put up a clothesline where I hang everything out in the morning before the dusty afternoon wind begins to blow. I walk out to the road to deposit trash in our can and over to our pasture to offer an alfalfa cube to one of three Friesian horses who vacation in our pasture as a hedge against fire. No matter the weather—and Montana is a capricious girl in this category—I walk and walk and walk even against the Chinook winds. I journey into town without mascara, my face now shielded by a felt cowgirl hat with a horsehair band. 

Personal services such as pedicures, root touch-ups, car repair, and veterinary services are conveniences I never fully appreciated. In fact, I have begun to give myself my own pedicures because I can now reach my toes. Meanwhile, the monthly $150 grooming appointment for Sugar Pi, our Portuguese water dog, has been replaced by a new groomer—me. 

When you live way out of town, you have few neighbors and breaking into a new community of locals is like pulling teeth. But gradually, there is a thaw. The people I have met living rurally are different from those in the Bay Area. There is an unspoken understanding that we may need each other, living so far away from medical, fire, and law enforcement services. Now, neighbors, farmers, and ranchers wave to me as I walk my dog every day on that gravel road. Even the dog’s paws have toughened up. 

Out of necessity, I know how to use a gun, a rifle, bear spray, and a knife. I can’t sharpen an ax, as Thoreau did, bragging about returning it sharper than when he borrowed it, but my confidence in my body and my abilities to survive have improved my life tenfold. Now, I cherish my drive along Highway 90, marveling at the Crazy Mountains and the agricultural pivots, navigating the Bozeman Pass on an icy morning. I have time in the truck to reflect upon the blessing of having family and friends who are willing to make the 17-hour drive from the Bay Area with their kids and dogs to see me. 

The grasshopper was right: inconvenience is exactly why we left California, the Land of Modern Technology and Convenience. My life has been enhanced by courageous exploration into a new life I never knew existed, reminding me of Thoreau’s famous line: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

When he wrote that, he must have known that someone like me would read it, teach it, and then try her best to live it.

Cheri is 73 years old and living in Montana. Her hobbies include oil painting, writing, and walking.

Read the other Senior Essay Contest runners-up, Joan McCaul and Jonathan Rosenberg.

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