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The Bluepenciler

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The Beaten Path

Out one window facing south I see a pile of snow, a dilapidated fence and a gap where the neighbor’s dog comes and goes between our yards. Beyond the fence and the neighbor’s gigantic Engleman Spruce I can see a portion of the Noxon School football field and track and up into Pilgrim Creek, as long as there are no leaves on the trees standing in my line of sight. Out the other window, which faces west, is a brown lawn littered with limbs and twigs from the willow overhanging the front of the house. Beyond the willow is what I hear is called Third Street, though there is no sign at the corner to indicate what its name might actually be. But my address, so I’m told by the property deed, is 110 Third Street. The number 110 is displayed by my front door, so that much seems certain.

Past the street and other neighborhood homes I catch glimpses of the flanks of Loveland Peak, and from some spots out in the yard, when gazing west, I can see Antelope Mountain by Clark Fork, Idaho. It seems, when envisioning the setting in which my humble home is located, I could claim to be a little off the beaten path.

Noxon, by all accounts, is usually thought of as off the beaten path anyway by most passersby. Highway 200 is a mile away on the other side of the river. In this part of Montana, we are located near the road’s beginning. Milepost 1 sticks above the gravel shoulder where the highway crosses Blue Creek about 14 miles west of the Noxon Bridge. Somewhere out by Circle or Enid in the far eastern part of the state is a milepost marker on this same Highway 200 that numbers 600. I guess Circle might be thought of as a little off the beaten path as well.

Maybe just about everywhere along Highway 200 is off the beaten path. Except for Missoula, Great Falls, Lewistown and Sidney, there are no towns on this road with more than 2000 inhabitants. The first town whose Main Street is Highway 200 is Trout Creek. The last is Fairview. It’s a long ways between them - about 680 miles.

Along the way the traveler will pass by or through less than three dozen towns, the vast majority of them just like Noxon or Heron - small and off the beaten path. There are just four routes that go the length of Montana west to east: Highway 2 from Troy to Bainville; Highway 200 from Thompson Falls to Sidney; Highway 12 from Lolo to Baker and Interstate 90/94 from Saltese to Wibaux. These four routes, along with a smattering of north-south highways and thousands of county roads and a few other state highways, connect about 900,000 people in a state that sprawls over 147,000 square miles of prairies and mountains.

I think that’s what I most like about Montana: a lot of it is off the beaten path. It so happens that also makes it difficult to live here. No, that’s not right. It’s real easy to live here. Who wouldn’t want to live in the wildest, most beautiful countryside between the two great oceans? Who wouldn’t want to experience every day the fresh air and clean water we breathe and drink all the time? Who wouldn’t want to brag about all the wildlife like what we have right outside our doors? No, living here is easy when compared to other places one could live. What’s difficult is making a living here. That’s an entirely different story.

If Montana is off the beaten path geographically, then its economy is right off the map. They say Montana pretty much escaped the recession that settled in over the nation after 9-11. That could be, perhaps, but I can’t help but notice people I know and other people I read about who are struggling to make ends meet. I guess that’s the price of living off the beaten path. If it is, then I say the struggle’s worth it, so long as you can make enough of a living to simply be able to live, right here, in this place, where the air is fresh and the water is clean.

My friend Sandy Compton writes a column in this paper called “The Scenic Route” and it happens to be about life along this same road I’m describing as off the beaten path. We all know you can’t eat the scenery, but I have found a great deal of inspiration from a lot of folks who live on this scenic route, and who often show up in Sandy’s writings. He’s a native himself of “off the beaten path,” and in him I see an example of someone who not only makes a living here, but lives here and lives Life to its fullest.

Don’t we all struggle at times! Money, relationships, faith, confidence, courage. They all flag within each of us at points in our lives and we feel beaten or like we have strayed from the path which might have been taking us toward success and fulfillment. The challenge to living off the beaten path is to not lose sight of your personal path’s direction. Out these windows, beyond the willow and down this road called Third Street is a path I need to locate once more.

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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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Noxon, Montana

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