By Molly Priddy
If I could pinpoint when the despair set in, the crushing feeling of fear and self-pity mixed together, it would have been when the taillights of the farm truck, which had been my guide for the last 20 minutes, slipped away, further into the blizzard than I could see, leaving me alone in a bubble my headlights created in the blowing snow.
Alone on the Montana highway in late November, in a front-wheel-drive roller skate of a car, I'd made the poor choice to push on through the weather. I should have turned around when the snow really started pouring down along the southern edge of Glacier National Park on U.S. Highway 2, and definitely should have waited it out as I barely slipped up Marias Pass, leaving the western edge of the mountains and heading into the plains.
I'd tricked myself into thinking I could handle it, since I'd been driving in Montana weather since I earned my license at 14-and-a-half years old, and had never had a problem.
But this was a battle I wasn't prepared for; no amount of David-versus-Goliath self-talk was going to get me out of this moment. When the stranger in the farm truck pulled ahead and out of my vision, and I unknowingly began descending a steep grade, I knew nature was going to win.
By the time I was halfway through the first spin going downhill, I could visualize another huge truck, as are common on Montana's highways, pushing through the snow, staying on the road, and not having enough time to brake in the swirling whiteness before smashing into my driver's side door.
For me, growing up in Montana allowed a healthy respect for nature. When we went camping as kids, if you left your boots or your favorite sweatshirt outside, you'd wake up to soggy clothes and a lesson, courtesy of the dew.
My dad helped me unhook and gut the first few fish I caught, but after that, I was expected to do it on my own. If I was going to take that fish from the river and use its life to sustain my own, I had to get my hands dirty to really understand what that meant, its little fishy lungs struggling in the alien environment, the life leaving its scaly body.
I didn't like, and still don't, the struggle of a fish trying to stay alive. But, as my dad explained, I can't just expect to take what I want from nature without having to give something back, even if that's just losing my blissful ignorance to how life really, truly works.
The same was true for the first time I shot a deer. Luckily, the shot was a through and through, and the doe stumbled away and died, but taking a knife, opening her belly, reaching up and cutting her esophagus in order to pull out her innards in one swoop – I've never forgotten her heat, or the way she smelled, gamey and confused, lying on the dead pine needles in a cove of trees in eastern Montana in the heat of early fall.
But even in those moments, we're given accessories and tech to help us adapt to the surroundings. We stay comfortable, and we think we've got this whole thing licked; my hunting rifle has a scope, the truck isn't too far away to haul the carcass, and once we've dabbled in nature at its most serious – life and death – we head back to civilization.
In the moments when I was spinning in my pathetically small car in the prairie, I wanted to cry, and I wanted to bargain. Crying was out of the question, I reasoned quickly, because it would only obscure my vision further. Trying to talk my way out of the situation was a bit more attractive, but only because I'd grown adept at manipulating human-constructed rules and loopholes.
Growing up as the middle child of five girls, I’d learned that an even-keeled, reasoned argument could get me more places than tears or screaming ever would. Adults were more likely to listen to me, giving power to my ideas and requests, if I spoke like they did and let reason rule, not emotion. And in school, by the time college hit, reality came into focus: If you're generally smart and diligent, deadlines can be extended, grades can be argued, a frank apology can smooth over potential repercussions for breaking the rules. Any subject wherein I could debate or cajole, I had room to manipulate.
I graduated undergrad thinking I'd like to be a journalist, and applied to several master's programs around the country, knowing it would be the most financially feasible if I could go to the University of Montana.
When the rejection letter came in the mail, my girlfriend and I cried in a brief moment of despair; she was still in school, and I didn't want to have to travel across the country from a Boston university to see her. U of M seemed like the best of both worlds, and it had been denied.
The rejection, of course, I knew was just the opening salvo. After cleaning up the initial teary mess, I got to work inundating the professors at the journalism school with my writing clips, and kept calling, asking about a program waiting list for the coming school year. I was told that no, there was no waiting list, and no one had ever asked to be put on it.
Again, I just felt challenged. I continued to call and email, trying to show them they'd made a mistake, and that I could indeed play the part of the insistent, pesky reporter trying to get what I wanted.
My work was rewarded when, in the last couple of weeks of my senior year in undergrad, the school called and said sure, they would admit me to the program, probably in an attempt to get some peace, since they said it seemed like I had the "tenacity for the profession."
Looking back at my hubris, it's not surprising that I was completely thrown by a decent challenge from an opponent – nature – that would not and could not hear me out.
Nature had thrown the gauntlet at me before. In late spring when I was 19, my dad and I and a few friends were floating the Smith River, a gorgeous stretch of trout-filled water that winds and powers through a canyon system in the middle of Montana.
It had been a lovely if uneventful four-day trip, and my dad and I were leaving ahead of the other guys, our canoe piled high with our nature-conquering equipment, and my personal flotation device under my ass for extra padding. We'd grown accustomed to wearing our chest-high waders at all times, given the amount of time we spent fishing or exploring the banks.
This, any angler would tell you, is a terrible recipe for disaster. And when my dad misread the fast-running water and steered us into some sort of obstacle, the top-heavy canoe tipped faster than either of us could react. Before I knew it, I was in the water, blindly reaching for whatever I could grab before my waders filled completely with water, rendering me a cocky, pathetic anchor.
Luckily, I was able to snag one of the dry bags and a paddle floating by. Just in time, too, because my feet no longer touched the bottom of the riverbed as I flowed through a hole where the river bottom was much deeper than my nearly 6-foot frame could reach. When I got my bearings back and sloshed to land, I was able to lie upside-down on a hill and empty my waders. The PFD was long gone, along with the other gear.
We got back into the canoe, got everything righted, and then immediately tipped again. I had to get back to shore, back on the hill, and generally fight nature and the growing shame that I'd been acting so cavalierly and so stupidly.
When we finally made it back to our truck, and to a hotel, I got in the shower and realized my entire left leg was black and blue from the knee down. I'd narrowly missed drowning, but nature made sure I got my beating.
In my car in the snowstorm, I understood while I was spinning down the country road that the only way out of this situation was through it; there was no under or around.
I knew with great clarity that I am small, that I am hardly a speck. I may be made of the same molecules as the stars, but I do not wield their influence. I will eventually die, and feed the Earth's worms and plants, and nature will not mourn me.
It's these moments, when I'm vulnerable and scared and speechless in the face of true power, that offer the greatest lessons. I belong to nature, and I knew then that it will always take what belongs to it whether through love, fear or force. It is foolish to think otherwise. We are tolerated, hardly welcomed; strutting on borrowed land and shouting into leased air.
When the car finally stopped spinning, I took a minute to breathe and reorient myself, and realized that I was somewhere off the south side of the road, and hadn't drifted far enough to slide down a sharp hill dropping into a river. I'd made it through, relatively unscathed, though there were still four hours of driving to go before I reached my destination.
Knuckles white and eyes wide, I remained on high alert for the rest of the drive, which also included a busted plate in my car's undercarriage that was scooping snow into my engine. It was so cold that the duct tape I tried using to put the broken piece back together froze and fell off, useless.
By the time I drove down the driveway in Great Falls, my shirt was soaked with sweat and my nerves were worn thin, but I was exhilarated. I had made it, but it felt more like I had been allowed to make it. There's power in the realization that we have no power, and we get by the best we can on nature's good graces – when we understand this, we can take the proper steps to prepare and educate ourselves, and raise our level of respect for what we cannot change but must endure.