Return: Listening to “Big Sky Country” by Leif Vollebekk

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This song hits me where I live. I grew up, moved away from and back to Montana, Big Sky Country. I love this place. It is filled with huge space, fierce independence and fiery devotion. There is room to roam, valleys and mountain peaks. The “last best place” for solitude and time tested relationships. It is untamed, surrounded by pine forests, grasslands and abundant wildlife. Wild fire fingers reach up to rake the starry, starry night.

I listened to Leif’s album Twin Solitude over and over when it came out last year. At the same time I returned to writing. I had turned away from the one thing that defined me. Over it, I chose security, a good career and marriage. Adulthood. It had been a selfish, childish thing. I shoved it into drawers and plastic bins. Walking the maple tree lined streets and wooded trails in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of my childhood and adolescence I was reminded of who I was, who I am. The spark took hold.

Dusting off old stories, memories of the life I thought I had left behind I found myself in a manic fever dream. I fell in love with writing again. I stood in the middle of a room staring at bare limbed trees and frosted windows, a cold November, a stack of unfinished stories, an echo chamber of things undone. A short story I’d written decades before became the first draft of a novel. I was home.

In it, a scene where one of the protagonists, a woman on a long run in early autumn, the air is crisp, trees are draped in scarlet and gold on the verge of dropping their robes to carpet the forest floor. The woman dressed in running clothes, ear buds in listening to this song as she reaches the end of a familiar trail, a parking lot at the edge of a river. Her lover has left, moved to North Carolina with her husband, choosing him and all that he implies. She’s gone.

It is a place revisited in the novel. Earlier at the onset of the affair, the lover surprised the runner at this trailhead, initiating the slide of attraction into action. The moment lives forever in this memory in the drumbeat and piano, the moan of Leif’s voice and lyrics in her ears.

I make playlists, road trip playlists, hiking playlists, must hear lists for friends and of course writing playlists. Each project has its own mix for mood and motivation. I lived with and fell in love with the characters and their story while listening to the playlist that included this song. I play it now as I work through another draft, transported to the space of creation, the place where this novel lives.

I wish I had the word or phrase that describes the emotion that overtakes me when I hear a song, the opening hum of notes, rhythm and words that swirl me into time travel. The pit in my stomach, skin rising, wash of color sliding down the walls of my amygdala.

You know the feeling when you hear the song that was playing as you sat across from the object of your desire picking at a pastry, circling a ring stain on the table, the whoosh of an espresso machine, the aroma of fresh ground coffee beans, the clang of porcelain and silverware. Maybe the tune in the background when you glimpsed the sunrise as you crested a mountain pass or the record that was playing when you got the call that your father died or when love walked out the door, closing it not with a slam but a click the tune tattooed on your chest, the seconds seared into you. Every time you hear the song you are there. You know it right?

Big Sky Country” puts me into this moment of the story whenever it plays. I will never be able to hear it any other way. The intro instantly takes me there. The emotions are as raw and real as any I’ve ever known. The sadness and resignation are palpable. I am with this woman as she slows her steps to stare at the empty parking lot. Her hope just under the surface washes away in the current of the river as she accepts that it is over. She’s enveloped in memory, accompanied by a song that captures the intangibility perfectly.

“I wish my tears were in your eyes And your eyes were on me Meet me where the Land of the Living Skies Meets Big Sky Country…”

Written by

Writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry in Missoula, Montana.

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