I won't lie: When we first started our family in rural Montana, I took to heart the casualness of visitors, who were excited to bring their kids out on vacation but “wouldn't want to live here.” They'd allow that the area was beautiful, as if complimenting a pretty girl who wasn't so bright. But it seemed like all anyone could see was what we didn't have: museums, clubs, art classes, libraries, and theater, to start. I admit: I shared this opinion for a while.
My husband and I ended up here thanks to a great job opportunity for him. That, and we both yearned for a slower way of life. When we first started our family here, we had moments when we wondered if our reasons would compensate for what our children wouldn't get. Today, I don't think twice about the decision. The lack of dance and gymnastic classes was a bummer, until I started watching my girls on their skis in winter, and crossing rivers on logs in summer. Grace, it turns out, isn't only achieved in satin shoes.
I began to see that what we didn't have opened up blocks of time for what we did have. With no soccer teams or concerts, my girls maintained a bluebird house trail, and deciphered crystals in the snowpack to tell whether it was avalanche prone. They built living willow-branch forts, and identified every aquatic insect near the river. Unlike urban kids, my girls were able to relate to the poem they learned that year: “A mayfly flies in May or June/Its life is over much too soon/A day or two to flit and fly/Hello, hello, goodbye, goodbye.” It's their favorite.
None of this is to say we'd ever reject cultural opportunities. We can't pass up a traveling theatrical production with the ease of someone who knows Broadway is a subway ride away. So we drive for hours to see shows and events that offer the same novelty for us that hiking offers city dwellers. Our girls may have seen only a handful of shows, but they remember each one.
When I lived in Chicago, I was never invited to a bar mitzvah, Ramadan feast, or Native American powwow. We went to all three last year. My friends there were very similar to me. Out here, we socialize with Harvard-educated billionaires, high school grads with snow-plow businesses, and Polish immigrants. Small towns don't just encourage tolerance, they demand it. Diversity is about much more than skin color. When I consider all the lessons my kids will take from their childhood, this may be the one of which I'm most proud.
Barbara Rowley lives with her husband and two daughters in Big Sky, MT.