Through the Eyes of an Educator: Montana
I remember watching Billy Crystal in City Slickers and thinking ‘that must be what the west looks like’. Perhaps, I would feel much the same –an outsider in my own country and be that kid from the city (even though I lived 45 minutes outside, in the suburbs) in the great, surprising wide-open land. I’m proof that learning happens at any age. More often than not, there’s vital life learning that takes place outside of the traditional school doors. I was an ocean-loving island kid driving across the country that ended up in awe of Montana. Somewhere in early education, there’s time spent on states and their specific details. After that, unless state geography and its internal details strike your fancy, they fall into the abyss of information not able to be discussed in the complex curriculum of secondary education. I can’t remember studying much of Montana, but a road trip to the west changed that for me and for many others who get the chance to see it up close.
Those are the kind of awakenings, we all wish for our students. Whether they’re in the traditional setting or alternative, behind a book or a screen, at the start of their education or in another phase – growth, comprehension, empathy and changes in perspective are priceless. Although they are all attainable, it’s not something that all of us ever try to reach or even think that we might be interested in something different to what we’ve always done. Like many others, my first footsteps into Montana were through West Yellowstone. When I left, crossing the Idaho border, I couldn’t wait to return. For a summer, sand, and ocean-loving, warm weather fan to utter the words, ‘when can we go back to Glacier National Park’ seemed more than ironic to me. Perhaps that perspective shift is where the growth lives. Maybe it’s with the desire to explore something new or test what you’ve always known to see if you still feel the same – I don’t know exactly where the growth lies, but I know it when I see it. That’s the process I wish for my students and all who wish to learn and grow.
As with everything, learning happens everywhere we look. Montana showed me animals, waterfalls, vistas, kindness, humor, endless skies, and much more. As we drove out of Yellowstone National Park into Montana’s West Yellowstone, our destination was the Grizzly And Wolf Discovery Center. This not-for-profit wildlife park was heralded by more than one of Yellowstone’s park rangers as a place that works with the national parks in order to save, heal, and care for wildlife. There are exhibits, a ‘keeper kids’ program (that took kids into an empty bear enclosure to hide food for the bears to later find), a museum, a gift shop, caring keepers, and my favorite part, animals. If my camera wasn’t digital, in the small amount of time we were there, I’m not sure there would have been enough film in the entire town. Some of the animals at the center have been rescued, and none will be able to be reintroduced to the wild. Here they get a second chance at life. The center works hard to recreate that natural habitat for the all of the animals in their care. None are ever alone. They constantly change up the bear habitat so animals have to use some of their natural-born skills. Keepers hide the food so the bears can hone their hunting and tracking skills. When you see a ‘bear tested’ label on certain camping products, these are the bears that do that ‘work’. They play with coolers for hours trying to find ways to get to the prize inside. If after an entire hour of being flung, flipped, and thrown around by one of these giant grizzlies, the cooler is still fully intact, it’s given the bear ‘seal’ of approval. Here you can learn about the lives of grizzly bears and grey wolves and find ways to share their stories while learning how to ensure both human and animal safety so these gorgeous creatures can remain ‘wild forever’. Adventurers, animal lovers, budding veterinarians, and anthropologists will love it here.
For two nights, we had the pleasure of finding out why a special part of this landscape-filled state is called Big Sky. Whether you’re there for the winter or summer activities, nothing welcomes you quite like the blazing blue skies or the starlit nights. Although it’s a bit further to access the park’s entrance than we first thought (another great lesson to learn by doing), the drive to and from the West Yellowstone entrance is filled with beauty. There are ranches along the roadside. There are all sorts of animals roaming in your field of vision. With a handful or restaurants, shops, and lodges filled with local kindness, Big Sky envelops visitors in more ways than one. Visit a ranch, chat with the locals, and check out the stories of those who constantly return to this sleepy town of epic views…there’s learning here. A quick drive from Big Sky to Bozeman is otherworldly. Cattle, ranches, natural magic, and constant color changing landscapes find their way into the mirrors of drivers until you arrive in Bozeman and feel as if you’re Dorothy approaching Oz for the first time. All of a sudden, this massive town filled with big name box stores, restaurants, and giant companies pops into view. Beating to their own drum, the people of Bozeman have all aspects of modern life at their fingertips with access to the beauty of nature in their backyard. Cafes are quirky and delicious, people are friendly and open-minded, and the character of this city springs off of every street. A perfect blend between modern and natural, ranch life and city life - this unique spot is more than a stopping point. For a coastal lover and her partner who grew up on an island to look at each other and say, "we could live here," – that’s got to say something, right? Experience teaches while travel provides the lessons.
Headed north, we stopped in Missoula, Montana. After our experience with many government agencies that helped the city of Long Beach, New York after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the Smoke Jumper Visitor Center. Set on the largest smokejumper base in the entire country, visitors get an opportunity to take a look into the inner-workings of the world and lives of smokejumpers. Taking you through the process of how to become a smokejumper, what their equipment looks like and how it works, where and how they get ready, and the national memorial, a tour guide provides heaps of detailed information about this elite unit. According to a federal government website, ‘A smokejumper’s primary job is to suppress wildfires in remote mountainous terrain of the western United States’. Although the free tour takes about 45 minutes to get through, we spent about two hours asking questions, looking at specifics, and learning about the safety, skills, and responsibilities of these heroes. Hurricane Sandy’s devastation introduced us both to some incredible people working for the Forest Service and the Wildland Firefighters. Because of our interaction with these spectacular people, when the opportunity to learn more arose, we took it. People change people – experiential learning is truly priceless.
The main reason we added Montana to our travel list was for the wiles and wilderness of Glacier National Park. Although our journey to the park was at the very beginning of their summer season, the park was open, the people were kind, the waterfalls were welcoming, and the Going to the Sun Road allowed us a glimpse of her beauty. I learned this park existed. I learned that June in northern Montana meant tank tops, sunshine, and snow-covered glaciers. I learned that if you want to see more of the wealth of magic of this park, you’d need some time on the Canadian side. I learned that the area between Canada’s Waterton National Park and Glacier National Park is known as the International Peace Park, showcasing so much of the kindness that can exist when two nations or sets of people work together. I learned that nature (even in a form of ‘winter’) had more wonders than I expected. I learned the people of Kalispell spend their lives a short distance from a gorgeous national park, visit it frequently, respect the beauty of Glacier, can’t believe some of the insanity they’ve witnessed from tourists, and are genuine and kind. I learned, that although it continues to shock me, I would love to return to Montana.
Learning only ends if you choose it too. Learning is an ever-changing practice whose doors do not shut upon graduation. Meeting new people, finding new lands, enriching new joys, and discovering new parts of you never gets old. Start young or continue later in life to spend some time in a place you never thought you’d enjoy and it might change your mind completely. Journey to a place you could never imagine would bring you joy and find your perspective shaken. Get outside that comfort zone, embrace Uncle Lou’s statement in Indian Summer - “there’s nothing quite like a good moose,” and check out a new spot you might learn to love. Test the waters. Join the conversation. Learn something. Find a new part of you. The biggest surprise won’t be the weather or the food. Jump into a world of travel, experience, and education – with that leap, you will be truly changed.
Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand. Check out her website at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com for more of her travel musings.
All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert