Headwaters

Contemporary Nomad

Reflections of a seasonal worker.

Illustration by Isaac Passwater

 

BENJAMIN ALVA POLLEY

M ist fell on the river and wet our faces as Mike and I forded the North Fork of the Flathead, with January chunks of ice and slush bouncing off our waders. Once we reached the far side, we post-holed through three feet of snow before reaching the Inside North Fork Road, where we clipped into our skis and headed for lower and upper Kintla Lake to check and replenish baited poles.

Though I’d worked seasonally in the park for years, this winter I was a citizen scientist studying wolverines. I’d invited my buddy Mike along, who at the time was leading crews for the Montana Conservation Corps out of Missoula. As we skied, I looked over at Mike and noticed his gait was a little off. “Everything alright?” I asked.

“Yeah, for the most part. Abrei didn’t want me to go on this trip. We fought about it last night. She thought something could happen back here; there’s just the two of us going. Also, she’s been pushing me to find a more serious, stable job – like a career with benefits so we can raise a family.”

While we huffed the 4 miles to the foot of the lake, Mike’s words resonated with me more than I expected. Part of me was tired of being restless, following one seasonal job to the next. There was an element in me that wanted to settle down and quit being a contemporary nomad migrating with the sun’s position on the horizon. But another part of me felt I should keep spending as much time in the mountains as possible because, like the late great author Jim Harrison said, “Somebody needs to be outside.” I knew out here I was collecting stories that couldn’t be captured in an office, but that might one day supply my other great passion: writing. Out here I felt alive. My life was my own.

“Part of me was tired of being restless, following one seasonal job to the next. There was an element in me that wanted to settle down and quit migrating with the sun’s position on the horizon.”

 

Two hours later we pulled out binoculars and searched the frozen lake for wildlife. Nothing stirred, just tracks on the snow, ghosts of the animals. Beyond the lake, toward the Continental Divide, the summits were socked in with clouds. Every once in a while, though, the clouds would open up, revealing the icy-white rime of a summit and blue sky, making me feel both insignificant and significant at the same time.

Even though seasonal work brought me to these unforgettable places and moments, it had its limitations. I struggled with wanting a long-term relationship but didn’t know how that configuration would work with me camping in the backcountry on and off for six months of the year. Also, I wanted to maybe own a house or retire someday. For 15 seasons in and around Glacier, I grappled with this same train of thought: Do I prioritize work surrounded and inspired by beauty, or settle down? I would watch myself come up with different ideas about what I wanted to contribute to the world. Always, I landed on being a writer.

In my gut, I knew I would eventually have to take some kind of leap away from seasonal work. At the time I was 33. I’d been at this lifestyle for 10 years, piecing together seasonal jobs to get me from one season in Glacier or The Bob to the next. I’d seen what happened to people who rolled with the flow, never seeming to wrestle with the larger questions. Pink Floyd sums it up pretty well: “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you/No one told you when to run.”

This life worked for some people: They figured out how to piece the seasonal puzzle into a career, owned their own homes, had health insurance, children, retirement plans, and goals. But it took me another eight years before I stepped away.

Ultimately, the transition happened when I met Cassidy. After a year of long-distance dating, I moved to Canada, finally pursuing the freelance writing career that had always been my underlying goal.
Writing and seasonal work are very similar; each story I pursue has its own seasonality. It’s kind of like chasing wolverines. I’m happy being a writer and sharing stories, many of which I’ve gathered and collected during the years of my nontraditional lifestyle.

Though I love what I now do, I still long for the days outside immersing myself deep into a place, getting to know it on the deeper levels that tourists aren’t afforded. Now I pick my own adventures, a lot of times with Cassidy, and while I appreciate the freedom of choice, I’m also not in the backcountry for 10-70 days at a time. I miss those long stretches of fresh, pine-scented air, the slight chance of being blessed with a wildlife sighting, seeing the way the light hits the mountains at certain times of the day, and the hard physical labor.

Trail work was more than a job, it was a lifestyle choice that seeped into my soul like sap moving up through a tree. I wouldn’t trade any of those years of living fancy-free from one job to the next, because it was all part of my apprenticeship.

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