From Big Sky to Big Sky(scraper)

Text by Claire Baiz

“Can you at least wait until I die?”

My mother was only half joking.

I wasn’t about to succumb to guilt. Most people move away from home when they’re kids—I’m almost sixty. “Tell you what, Mom,” I sighed. “Why don’t we wait until after I die?”

My mom is 90, but she’s not feeble. When she’s not at a concert or demonstrating against social injustice, she’s strategizing to save the Rocky Mountain Front. She’s into Zumba and water aerobics. She’s president of Preservation Cascade. For crying out loud, the woman even has more teeth than I do.

Mom has a deep, abiding love for Great Falls. As one of her five kids, I have come to regard Great Falls as a competitor for Mom’s affection, worthy of pride—and rivalry. It didn’t help that I’ve always had a hard time fitting in. I was a jazz-lover in country-western paradise, a gluten-free vegetarian in a state whose major agricultural exports are wheat and beef. I walked to work in a town where people circle the lot of a sporting goods store to find the parking space closest to the door.

We’re in Chicago so my husband can be close to his folks for a change. For me, camping out in a high-rise is an adventure: climbing out of the State Street Red Line to the smell of sewer gas and Mexican food, guzzling gluten-free beer at Wrigley Field, dumping $300 into a puffy black coat that makes me look like a stack of Michelins.

Sure, there are things I miss about Great Falls. Having a window in my bathroom. Bald eagles over Rainbow Dam. Hoping the person in the ambulance speeding down Tenth Avenue South is not related to me. Sleeping in the shadow of a hundred armed nuclear warheads. Stuff like that.

I miss my mom, but I’m not leaving her alone. She lives with my brother in the house my dad built. My sister, a retired doctor, lives six minutes away (by car, of course).

Around the time I packed up, Great Falls’ total wages went up 5.2%. New rental complexes, retail shops and grocery stores came to town. The River’s Edge Trail is complete. Millions of eggs will soon be sorted here. ADF, Loenbro and AvMax are bustling. Residential real estate has been described as “a seller’s market.”

As I drove past Malmstrom AFB, I think I saw outgoing Chamber of Commerce president Brad Livingston frolicking in a wheat field in my rearview mirror. He was throwing confetti (okay, maybe it was hail).

Maybe I should have left sooner?

I love Montana. I love her peaks and plains, her echoless flatlands, the Montana constitution AND the Montana Constitution, which my tireless mother helped to write, back in 1971.

A year or two in this Windy City might give me a huge hankerin’ for home.