Living in the Inbetween

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I live in two worlds. Or maybe I’ve got a personality that can’t decide where it belongs.  Either way, there’s a dichotomy to me that I don’t often see in others, although I’m sure there are others out there that feel the same.

I grew up with experiences that seemed normal to me, but I now realize were far from normal for my generation.  Growing up in the Swan in the 80s and 90s, we were out of step with much of society.  Our house was heated by a wood stove, and I helped my parents cut and stack firewood every summer, and split it every day in the winter. I learned at an early age that you could see the tangible benefits of hard work.  If you didn’t split wood, you got cold at night.  We had an outhouse in the backyard for those times when the power would go out for several days at a time.  My mother had a garden, complete with rhubarb plants and raspberry bushes.  She made her own jam, and jarred pickles.  On occasion we even made authentic sauerkraut with cabbage grown in the backyard.  We had a chicken coop, and the birds that lived in it provided eggs and occasionally made it to the table themselves.  As a young kid I learned about life and death at a personal level.  Helping butcher chickens, rabbits, and deer during hunting season gave me an immense respect for life, and an appreciation of the cost of taking it.

Growing up I learned how to safely handle a firearm, how to use a knife, and how to navigate through the woods with a compass and map.  I learned how to paddle a canoe, and how to build one from plywood.  I could start a fire with one match, and could build a shelter to survive a sudden storm.  I was on cross-country skis almost from the time I could walk, and grew to love the many faces of winter in Montana.  I grew up poor, and gained an appreciation of the simple things in life, and how valuable even small things are if you’ve earned them.  I didn’t have access to much in the way of “normal” entertainment, so I developed a keen imagination, and enjoyed small pleasures like music and books.  I read a lot, and developed a love of the written word that has stuck with me to this day. There was no Sesame Street on TV on Saturday mornings, no Muppets or afterschool specials in our house in my youth.

I worked alongside adults in the summer from junior high onward, doing property maintenance, peeling logs for local builders, working as an unskilled laborer at construction sites, and other chores that required hard work to succeed.  I learned that hard work is a part of life, and that hard work deepens the appreciation of what you have.  Although I now see that my family was very nearly in poverty, we had what we needed, and we were surrounded by those who had it worse than we did.

It was almost a two-hour drive to get to “town,” and trips to Missoula or Kalispell were rare until high school.  Going shopping in the big town was a treat, and an expensive one.  Even going to a fast-food joint was a special occasion.  I remember how exciting it was when Missoula opened up its first Target store, and when Costco opened next to the Chevy dealer.  I remember when there was a sporting goods store in the Southgate Mall, and I’d wander through the aisles, daydreaming about one day owning one of the fine firearms that lined the shelves.

All of this experience growing up was more similar to how my parents and grandparents grew up and lived than it was to how my peers grew up.  In some ways I feel more at home in the world of my elders than in the world of the people my own age.

When I went to college, I rapidly started to integrate into the world of my peers.  I adapted my book nerd tendencies to other mediums, becoming a computer nerd and internet information junkie.  I’m now a full-fledged techie, although I do occasionally regret how dependent on technology I’ve become.  I love my iPhone, the ability to stream movies to my TV, and being able to video chat with family and friends who may be thousands of miles away.  I’ve lived most of the past 13 years in towns and cities, and I’ve learned how to drive in traffic in places like Seattle and Sacramento.  I love living where the stores and shops are just moments away, and coffee shops are on nearly every corner.

But I’ve never felt comfortable living in a city.  I love places like Missoula, where you have most of the amenities of a larger town, and yet it’s small enough to not feel like a big city.  I dislike the noise and the hustle and bustle that are everywhere in cities, even small ones like Boise.  I miss the darkness and quiet of small towns at night.  I’m far more comfortable on a trail to a high mountain lake than I am in a busy downtown, although I do occasionally enjoy the culture and interaction with people that I get when I go out.

So there is the dichotomy, the split, the thing that makes me feel awkward at times.  I’ve got a foot in two worlds.  I can program a phone or fix a computer as easily as I can clean a rifle or navigate through a wilderness area.  I can sharpen a chainsaw or an axe, and I can process and print my own digital photos. I communicate constantly using texts, Facebook, and Skype, and yet I occasionally unplug for days at a time, and head into the backcountry.  I chose a job that keeps me outside during the work week, but I usually spend my leisure time at home, nose in a book or playing on my computer.  I enjoy working with my hands, seeing the fruits of my labor, and yet I also enjoy using my brain instead of my brawn.  Sometimes I feel I’m too intellectual for the blue-collar world, and too blue-collar for the intellectual world.  I’m at home in the wild places of the west, and I’m comfortable in the digital world as well.  I’ve felt just as awkward in the remote communities of Alaska and southeastern Montana as I do in the large cities of the northwest.  I live in both worlds, and at times I’m uneasy in both as well.

I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.  I think that fate has given me a  gift in the form of a unique way of looking at the world, and I’m only now seeing that as a positive thing.  I’ve spent the past few years trying to figure out where I belong in this life, and I’m beginning to think that perhaps I’ll never be fully at home in the “normal” sense.  I need to learn to be at home with my feet grounded in two different cultures, and be happy living in both.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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