montana landscape
Sunrise, Helena, MT

The “Trailer in the Alley” Phase: men surviving their 20s and their life

I was walking a sweet old dog named Maya today. Confession time — after scooping the poop, I often duck into one of the alleys behind the grand old houses of Helena and toss the bag into someone else’s trash bin behind a garage.

Second confession — I like the alley view. The backyard and garage are where you see how people really live. It’s like the junk drawer or inside the closets in a tidy home. The front might be manicured and pristine; the back a tangle of possessions and postponed projects. Is tidiness skin deep, or no? Should it be?

As I enter an alley, I pass by a small trailer that looks to be waiting on warmer better days of weekend camping and road trips. A closer view reveals an air of semi-permanence, like a campsite. A dog crate with some items neatly stashed inside, an outdoor grill with a chair, some plastic tubs. I think, geez, I wonder if someone has been staying there this winter?

This winter reminded me of what it feels like to be really cold. The kind of cold that steals your thoughts and breath to get your attention. The chill that reminds you humans are no match for winter so you’d better stay prepared.

The pioneer settling of Montana is a tribute to the power of the human spirit, desperation, and greed. The growing season is short, the winters long and frigid. If, like me, you grew up in some namby-pamby sunbelt state without real winter, staying warm and healthy requires new learning, new clothing, and a mental shift.

Shards of those thoughts go through my head as I picture someone sleeping in the snowbound camper van this winter.

Today, Spring is messing with us. She makes a grand entrance a couple of times in March, only to flirt with wind and snow before finally staying for good. The sun is shining as the landscape thaws out.

After I toss the illicit poop bag into the garbage, Maya picks up the scent of some deer lying in the backyard next door. She can’t see very well, but she knows they are there. She is still and focused, perhaps chasing them off in her mind. I stand and wait with her for a moment, lost in my own musings of past chases, deer in the headlights, unfinished alley business.

Suddenly camper door opens and a young man emerges. Maya looks at him suspiciously, sniffs the air, decides he is not a threat. My gut instinct agrees; I appreciate the backup intel from her rescue dog wariness filter. She turns back to the deer in the yard. I smile at the young man.

He says, “Oh, Hi!”

I say “Hey, how’s it going?”

He responds, “Good! Nice day, eh?” Eh, with that Montana accent that drifts down from Canada. He’s a 406 local is my guess.

He says “I finally got a chance to do some outside clean up around here!” He sounds chipper and expectant of judgment.

I say “Yes! Finally getting warmer, right? Have a great day!” We smile.

As Maya and I walk away, tears fill my eyes and I can’t swallow.

He didn’t have to say anything to me, let alone mention how he is going to clean up his little alley trailer campsite. I’m just a goofy lady walking an old dog, picking up poop, overdressed in a heavy ski jacket on a day that is shirt-sleeve weather to the locals.

Maya and I can both see that he is trying to work with his life, as opposed to the vibe (or lack thereof) I get from people who are checked out and hiding.

He’s paddling upstream, caught in spinning currents of confusion. He’s been judged, likely told he’s a loser more times than he can count. Yet there he is, choosing to do the best with what he has. He could be sleeping, hunkered down online in the dark in his sweats, smoking weed, or any manner of hiding lifestyles that he likely saw growing up, that are in full swing all around him today.

When I arrived here from NYC, I realized that in a big city, it is not surprising to learn that many young people are struggling. The city is gritty, expensive, and crowded, grappling with generational inherited poverty.

In Montana, the presence of suffering feels more dissonant — how can this frontier with its stunning mountain ranges, nature, and low population numbers be the backdrop for a thriving meth industry and poor public education? It’s as if Disneyland had a red light district. I’m not saying that it’s rational to expect a place like this to have fewer social problems, I’m just saying that is how it feels.

This gorgeous state is home to many thousands of well-off retirees, veterans with pensions, and wealthy seasonal second homeowners. Modern yuppies, unchained from the cubicle lifestyle, flush with cash from the coasts, are moving here in droves and sending the real estate market into a tailspin.

The locals like to tag the newcomers as a net negative when in reality, they might bring a new current to flush out the stagnant self-interested blockages enabling many of the problems here. Or they might settle in and close ranks with the powers that be, or be gerrymandered into oblivion. Time will tell.

For those already here, Montana is a hard place to be young if you don’t grow up with a cushion of material or emotional resources. The meth industry that plagues the US West is especially hard on young people in the Treasure State.

What I really want to say to this young man is you don’t have to be ashamed or explain your situation, living in a trailer in an alley. You are leveling up by showing up to what you have and working to improve it. I imagine that is hard to believe sometimes, as rents skyrocket and no one on Instagram is posting cool selfies from their trailer in the alley.

I want to tell him that as crappy as this feels, as much as you must have frozen your ass off this winter, what you are practicing now is already seeding a strength you didn’t know you had.

The key right now is to rise above the voices and people that tell you to deserve to stay in the trailer in the alley. The ones who live there in their mind.

The 20s is a treacherous decade for young people and American society does a really terrible job of initiating young men. For the most part, we don’t know how to do it anymore. Even with education and money in the bank, I clumsily felt my way through this process with my son. I wish I knew then what I know now. He’s an amazing man but I could have helped him more.

I’ve been an advocate of women’s rights for decades, yet we are not the entire answer. It is limiting to focus on one side of the equation. In an era of #metoo, #menneedhelp, too. The future is not female so let's stop with that lame hashtag. What are boys supposed to think when they see that? On notice? Put in their place?

The future is everyone. We resist this obvious truth because our species has tribalism in our DNA and touchy egos in our consciousness.

The future is much more about mental health than we want to admit, too. Something is missing from the current narrative. Divisions solely based on race and gender are part of the equation, yet they also mask a core issue, maybe the core issue. I think the real culprit is the dark side of ego, power, and selfishness.

Case in point: Middle-age white men, with advantages of access and race stacking the cards in their favor, should be doing well, right?

Wrong. White men kill themselves at rates much higher than the rest of the population.

At first, this was my hypothesis:

In a consumeristic society based on capitalism, white male value, identity, and masculinity are synonymous with output and money. The entrenched patriarchy perpetuates this materialistic construct because it benefits the men at the top of the food chain.

We lost the wisdom chain, the social signaling, and even the initiation rites that teach men that their value does not start and end with much money they make.

So in theory, the cultures closest to nature, vision quests, and elder wisdom should be doing a little better, right?

Wrong again. Poignantly, especially for states like Montana, I was surprised to learn that the second-highest national suicide rate is among Native American men.

White and Native American men are the two ethnic groups with polar opposite standing and opportunity in US society. The only thing they have in common is they are killing themselves at the highest rates. Chief Joseph would not be surprised.

The suicide rates for Black and Latino men are a bit lower. I wonder if that is because they spend more time in our legal system — black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, Latinos 2.5 times. Maybe their subconscious responds to some sense of connection as better than nothing.

Unfortunately for all men, US culture is an equal opportunity minefield for healthy masculinity.

So if you are, or know someone — a he, a she, or a them, in the “alley trailer” or “van down by the river” stage, here are some ideas:

  • Stay focused on 1–3 things at a time. The rest can wait.
  • Say nice things to yourself
  • Distance yourself from the wrong people, you know who they are
  • Guard your headspace against negativity and junk media
  • Move closer to the right people, even if you have to get to know them in books or podcasts
  • Move your body or go outside and focus on nature for a few minutes when you feel like crap
  • When your gut says no, it's a no
  • Forgive yourself, effing up is normal
  • Expect a lot of yourself and almost nothing of others

Recommended reading or audiobook:

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. A man with a very hard childhood who overcame adversity mostly by himself, without much support or money.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.


Kala is a writer and author who wrote The Way of the Tigress to help adults of all genders use travel to navigate change and up-level their life, available at
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