I spent my youth on a Milk River Valley farm in the ’50s and early ’60s, my life bounded by the river which held our fields like a broken cup. A mile length of private road connected us to the county roads and on to Harlem. In those days there was little need to travel further afield. In Harlem we could find the necessities, food and clothing, hardware and tractor parts. We even had a movie house. I went to Havre only for school or church functions, maybe three times in my high school years. Havre, to me, seemed every bit as far away as Minneapolis.
When I could break away, I found solace in nature. I spent many afternoons along the sandy banks of the river or climbing the cottonwoods whose great trunks arched over the water, runways to the gnarled branches in which I could hide and dream. From my treetop perch I could see cars purring down the highway, the trains whistling past.
Those years were a time of mobility — for everyone but me. Every outside stimulus conspired to deliver the message, “There’s more to life than this.” Any other life seemed an unreachable dream, a life of fun and excitement, adventure and exploration. Our radio gave me an “out there” I yearned to touch. The music of the road hooked my heart. The Hi-Line, a mere two miles north, stretched east-west arms to unknown worlds. With the lonesome whistle of every freight, Hank Williams called me to get moving. But the daily crossing of the Empire Builder, that was truly magical. Shadowy figures behind sun-glossed windows. Men and women, traveling in luxury, going, going.
Television showed me with unarguable certainty how much I lacked. Television brought the “good life” into our living room. Along with every girl in Harlem High, I struggled to imitate the coy moves I saw on American Bandstand. We wore circle skirts with starched net under-slips and sweater sets. We bound our hair in brush rollers at night to create Annette Funicello tresses. Those who were fortunate to be going steady wore their boyfriends’ class rings on long chains around their necks (think about what that says) and Harlem High letter jackets. My life was nowhere near the “Father Knows Best” life, but I knew that everybody else lived that way; television said so.
It was years before I broke loose, but when I did, every place I went was food and drink to me. I tasted Salt Lake City, Portland, Santa Cruz, San Jose and Chicago before landing back in Montana for a new beginning. Then I moved to the Seattle area where I put down roots of a different kind for 25 years. But I never quit ranging out and exploring, learning, soaking up the beauty, piling up experiences.
One day my friend Robin, who pilots 777s to Paris and London, talked me into getting a passport. “Sondra, you have to have one,” she said. “Once you get your passport, you’ll use it, I promise.”
It took a year of Robin nagging me before I broke down and got one. She was right. Within weeks I was on my way to China. A year later I went to Japan for a month, solely to hold my new granddaughter. I’ve been to India and yearn to go back. I cross our neighbor borders, north and south, frequently.
That’s my gypsy me. Wherever I go, in or out of the country, I’m a quintessential tourist. I gawk and gape at all the sights. I soak up the music of the language, the smells, the architecture, the landscape and the people, always the people.
Roots. Some roots are never completely ripped out. My guru, Rabbi Rami, tells me an aspen grove can be cut down, but its singular root system never dies. I’m still amazed to find myself, like an aspen tree, back in Harlem, come full circle. True to my roots, one of my greatest pleasures is grubbing in the dirt of my garden, aching back and all. I’ve built a comfortable nest; still, I love to hit the road. All it takes to pry me loose is “Have you seen ...” or “I wonder what’s over ...” or “Let’s go.”
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little diffeent. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)
(That's how we roll at http://viewnorth40.wordpress.com.)