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What It's Like to Live in Montana

My thoughts

Updated Nov 2022

My perspective after twenty-two years living in the magnificent state of Montana

I talk about Montana often because I live here, so I have a lot of material to work with, and of course pictures. If you searched the internet for "What is it like to live in Montana?" you're going to find a lot of information, some good, some odd, and even some of it accurate.

What is it like to live in Montana? Ask one hundred people living here and you may get fifty different answers (some of us are bound to agree on what it's like). 

For me, it's close to perfect—most of the time. But it's not for everyone. The pandemic years made Montana more popular than ever, which was great for a lot of people who now get to call Montana home, but it wasn't necessarily good (so quickly) for Montana.

Authors set books in small mountain towns surrounded by beautiful scenery, and while many of us add a lot of realism, that truth is often romanticisized for the reader. Unfortunately, when one isn't prepared to live in a place like Montana, the reality of living here can overwhelm and overshadow the stunning and romantic beauty.

If you have it in your mind to move to Montana because of a book, movie, or television show, understand the reality is often different.

Montana is a Big State

First, and I've said this before, but Montana is a really big state. Yes, it's obvious, but I'm surprised at how many people assume everywhere in Montana is the same, or similar. There are flat areas and mountainous areas. There are high desert regions and there are heavy forests that stretch for miles. It all depends on where you go. Generally speaking, east of the Continental Divide is drier than the western side of the divide. Summer and winter are both different - eastern tends to be warmer in summer and colder in winter. The eastern side of the divide also tends to get a lot more sun while the western side, especially in winter, has a lot of cloud cover. I happen to like the gloomy skies, but if you prefer sun, winter in the northwest can be tough. 

Both sides boast incredible beauty.

While I have always lived in the northwest part of the state, not too far south from Glacier National Park, my Montana books are set in locations on either side of the divide. Always lush, always mountainous with valleys, but on both sides. The only time I had characters cross the vast Montana prairie (and wrote about it) was in Journey to Hawk's Peak when Amanda crossed over from Dakota Territory into Montana. 

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Montana, or who has driven across it, already knows all of this. Most of it can be learned from maps and pictures. So why the fascination? 

I remember during my visit to Scotland meeting a retired couple who had been through the western United States in their younger days (so estimated around 1940s). They had been particularly fond of Montana and Wyoming. When we got to speaking about what they remembered, I couldn't help but wish I had been there during those early years. Montana has changed a great deal even in the many years since I have lived here. 

I miss the old days.

Montana is breathtakingly beautiful and full of wild, open spaces. You can still get lost for days or weeks, and the wilderness can be very dangerous. I feel, though, at times that the "outside" world has encroached far too much. I cling to the history of Montana in my writing because I wish desperately that I could have seen it before.

“I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” —John Steinbeck

It's purported that Steinbeck's visit to Montana was not accurately depicted seeing as how he was not here long. Was it love at first sight? Did he speak with a writer's embellishment? Only Steinbeck knows for certain what he really felt, but that doesn't make the sentiment any less true for those who feel the same way.

It is not always easy to live here. Those who do tend to fall into one of a few categories (of course this is all from my point of view): 

  • They love it and can't imagine living anywhere else; 

  • Or they want to leave but can't. 

  • There is a third category of people who manage to leave and never return. 

  • Then there is a fourth, and these are the people who leave and wish they hadn't. 

  • A fifth category includes those who want to be here but haven't figured out how, or perhaps they only think they want to be here.

  • Then the sixth category of those who move here and want to change it.

Not the Same: Visiting Montana and Living in Montana

In my experience, a lot of people in the fifth and sixth categories don't last too long. I've met enough of them who have come to Montana expecting it to be like the ideal picture that has been painted in movies and books, only to discover that it can be isolated, the winters are long and cold, jobs aren't always easy to come by, cell and internet service can be spotty, and many areas are expensive to live in compared to where they used to live. They make it a year, or two, and then find a way to move on or relocate to one of the larger cities (or what are considered cities in Montana). 

Visiting a few weeks a year, even over the course of several years, is an entirely different reality from living here year round. The same could be said for Montana's neighboring states.

A lot of people who move here return from whence they came. Some stay and figure out how to make their life work—the Montana way. And that, I believe, is the trick to loving and living in Montana—love her, but leave her wild. Love her, but respect her. 

Love her, and don't try to change her.

Living in Montana is perfect for some, but it's not for everyone. I've come and gone a few times, no more than a year here or a few months there for college and to explore, but I always return. I listen to the stories of those who have lived here 40, 50, 70+ years, and wish so very much I could have seen it back then.

Spending time with my characters, whether in 1867 or 1885, is a tremendous joy because, for a short while, I get to at least imagine what it must have been like.

For those who think they might want to live here, visit a few times first for more than a week at a time, in every season, and be certain. Montana can be unforgiving to the unprepared, and the locals will be just as unforgiving to those who try and change their home. For those who already live in a simliar place and love it, you should do just fine. 

For those who want to continue living the dream that is Montana, but are happy where they live, we have plenty of authors eager to share their stories—fiction or not—with those eager to experience the wonders of our state.

Recommended Books Set in Montana

Here are a few to get you started. If you've already read these, there are plenty more out there (seriously, so many out there). Of course, I'll start with my Montana-based series, and include a few classics, along with a few that I've read or I want to read.

Until we meet again, be well, be kind, and stay bookish!

~MK McClintock

This post was originally written for a now-inactive blog in 2019, so I'm reviving it for a post-pandemic Montana. 

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