Belonging to Something.


I arrived back in Idaho two days ago. I called these mountains home for almost twenty years. They calm me in a way I can't explain. The way they tower above the world make me feel safer, somehow, even though some of my most painful memories live here too. Its rugged and challenging terrain is perfect symbolism for how life in this place asked me to face things in myself and others that required reaching deep for strength, stamina, and simplicity.

And getting clarity about who I am.

And who I'm not.

The people here are powerful and weak, both. Like all of us. They pull no punches, but as is true in most small rural towns, the sometimes toxic and cruel gossip is equal to the astounding way they rally when support is needed. These community characteristics are strange bedfellows, with the polarized ability to greatly nurture and deeply wound.

This roller coaster combination is a stark change from the New York City world, where I was raised. Urban life has its own polarized characteristics that frame it. City dwellers experience an ongoing sense of relationship with others, while simultaneously, can be unusually isolated and anonymous.

The difference is city neighbors are rarely those we depend on for our livelihood or social structure. It lacks the interdependency that creates the deep community rural people share.

People in this small, mountain town had to learn to work together for survival over the years. This is a great teacher. It builds an inner strength and honesty not as well developed in their urban counterparts. I'll never forget what a high school senior said when asked what she appreciated most about growing up here.

"We grow up with a deeper sense of integrity and committment to relationships because we've learned how to be in them. We are forced to deal with every single conflict and problem because we are face to face with each other every day. We cannot avoid dealing with our problems together - and how to get over it." - a Mackay High School Senior

This town has a remarkable and unique comraderie I didn't witness in all rural places, and often wondered what set it apart. You sense it when people were together. There was a love, a caring - even if they didn't like each other. While moving cows out on the range one day, I ran into an old-timer, a local rancher, and asked him about it. Randy Pehrson shared his theory.

"The reason we are so bonded in this town - and strikingly different in personality from the town right next door to us is - historically, we were forced to work together as grazing associations on public lands, instead of owning individual permits. Through the years and generations,we had to get along."

This interesting observation resonated.

The west is often characterized by the term, 'rugged, individualism.' This shaped a collective identity that, in turn, shaped individual identities. However, this town needed each other. It was the only way to financially sustain themselves, which led to relationships - especially rare in a culture traditionally separated by religion. Mormons, other Christians, and non-church going people stayed to their own kind, so to speak. But here, they worked together, breaking down the many barriers that, in other western towns, had traditionally caused cultural divides.

The families worked together, year in and year out, for generations. They took care of each other's animals and children. Together, they risked their lives on horseback, broke a sweat building fence at 10,000 feet; young and old participated in seasonal rituals like brandings and weanings. There's something deeply personal, intimate almost, about these shared experiences, that included devastating tragedies too.

It was apparent at first glance when I stepped into this place many years ago. It even influenced my decision to raise my own family here. If we know how to work through relationship issues with integrity; and learn how to walk straight into the angst and fear of life's difficult moments, we've mastered important lessons.

It startled me to hear a young person acknowledge this because, on the surface, people didn't appear conscious of it.

Perhaps they do know how sacred an experience it is to truly belong.

On top of the deep life lessons this place invites us to, I'm also reminded this morning of the fresh, crisp smell of mountain air while the high desert wind whips across the sagebrush. I've missed you dear Idaho. Thank you for welcoming me home to this place I once belonged.

Linda Hesthag Ellwein