Sarah Newell

Big Sky Country

~by Sarah Newell


Streams of pink and grey smear into the clouds that cover the “Big Sky Country”. Tiny towns take space where they can, cropping up where the Rockies fold and cut down to the valley floors. Life in a flyover state looks a lot like this. Breathtaking views stain the sky each summer night, painted over daisy chained mountains and family owned farms. Small roads skirt lakes, foothills, and main highways, tracing out the lifestyle on America’s frontiers. It’s easy to get forgotten here, to get lost, to become a big fish in a small pond. This is a snapshot of a land that’s still unbroken. It’s a place colored by assumptions, lived in by good people, and known by very few. This is Montana.


Mark Mesenko is a talented photographer who makes the North West his muse. He braves the cold, and the strange looks, to shine a light on the hidden beauties of rural America. The view he captured here is from the peak of Jette Hill, overlooking the single lane highway which leads to a small town with small ideas and a big sky. As the hill descends, it creeps over the Polson city limits. It’s a tight knit community, where teachers taught the parents of the kids they teach today. It’s a mixed bag, a town with as many demons as hometown heroes. What you choose to see here will vary; the mountain range which is the closest this place will get to skyscrapers, the seemingly endless plains that stretch across horizons, or the little white crosses that blend into the grass by the sides of the road. For most Americans a place like this is just a patchwork of yellow gray fields seen from thirty thousand feet. For the people that live here though, the land is so much more.

 Polson has a little under five thousand residents, most living from summer to summer while the tourists come and go. This photo would have been taken just before the summer rush, while the grass is still green, and the forest fires haven’t started to crawl across the mountains. This is my favorite time of year and is why I chose this photo. Having taken in this view nearly every day as I drove from home into town, I am constantly reminded of the beauty of where I live as well as the smallness of it all. Polson sits on the southeast coast of the Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the western United States. It’s a billionaire’s playground, an RV parking lot, and a white blanketed tundra for eight months out of the year. This photo is a sun-soaked illusion, something so fleeting it comes and goes like the thousands of RV tires that roll past every summer’s day. This image has a story to tell, a romanticized slice of Americana with literal purple mountain majesties. But every lens has an agenda, and highway 93 has much more to tell.


Most of the people I know get a sinking, lonely, middle of nowhere feeling on a road like this. For me, this road, these mountains, are home. I’ve driven on, and even off this road at times, nearly planting another white cross; another Montana Memorial Marker. I’ve hiked far up into these mountains where few feet have travelled, crossed glacial streams, and etched these views into my memory. The open spaces never scared me. I’ve played my last varsity soccer games here, jumped into the lake with friends, and taken every photo with this scenery as the backdrop. I’ve grown here, and I’m in love with this place and this moment, when the lake is finally thawed and the open sky is clear of smoke, but something like this doesn’t last ─ and if you know Polson Montana, it was never really there in the first place.


Montana was carved out of lands that once, and in many cases still do, belong to Native American tribes. Polson lays in the northern valleys of the Flathead Reservation. Now, when people think of a reservation they might conjure up pow-wows and ubiquitous wilderness. In truth, there is immense importance and hidden controversy around the lands repatriated to the Native tribes. Highway 93 runs down a division between lake houses and clusters of government homes. There’s a stark divide between golf courses and boat docks on one side, and rampant suicide, drug abuse, and poverty just across the street. Wild statistics are bandied about suggesting that seventy percent of children born in Lake County are born addicted, a statistic that only passes lips because it is too frightening to document in any official capacity. After a child’s withdrawals, they’re sent home to underprivileged, underage, and unwed parents. Families are constantly torn apart by Child Protective Services. According to Child Bridge Montana, a not-for-profit agency that helps find and equip foster families, the numbing reality is that ten percent of Lake County’s population has cycled through foster care. Many of these children soon find themselves in county jails cornered by institutional realities that leave them staring at cinder block walls. These problems cross racial, cultural, and economic lines. What this photo doesn’t show is that Montana is struggling.


It is a vicious cycle. Young teens grow up in homes with negligent parents, feeling outcast in the school system, and soon find themselves becoming negligent and addicted parents in turn. Babies born into addiction, spend weeks in the hospital being weaned off a substance they have absolutely no concept of, all while the parents are struggling themselves. These drugs change people; the new mother you see walking down the street looking as happy as ever is shivering a month later in on the corner of Main Street, pleading for extra change, looking frantically for ways to get her child back. Here you’ll see billboards for the Montana Meth Project. “Before Meth I had a Daughter - Now I have a Prostitute” is one of many eye catching billboards posted by the side of the road. On both sides of highway 93 children find themselves bundled in thick coats over their Halloween costumes, staging block-wide snowball fights in the dead of winter. When the battles are done the kids go home. The haves leave their jackets at the door, then sip cocoa or soup. The have-nots go inside and stay bundled, wondering where their parents are today, re-taping the broken windows on their double-wides.


The Montana I know—the Montana I love, is much more than statistics or leading photographs. It is a picture-perfect place that like every other, has its imperfections. This image represents a beauty that’s foreign across state lines. This sleepy little town is home to some of the most grounded and wholesome people I have ever known; individuals of diverse backgrounds filled with so much pride for home and such bottomless hearts for the people around them. These people would smile at a photo like this, frame it, and hang it on a wall at our local hospital. They’re from small towns with small ideas, but the juxtaposition isn’t lost on them. This picture exists in a vacuum, separated from harsh truths that scarcely make it into national headlines. A flyover state looks a lot like this, but no place is perfect, and no photo can be trusted without is context.