By Karen J. Coates
October 3, 2016
As a kid, I was a straight-A student who followed the rules. College was a given: there was never a thought—in my mind or in my parents’—that I wouldn’t go. My choices were wide, but I applied to only two universities: Marquette and the University of Montana. The former was an attempt to appease my family of Marquette alumni; the latter was an instinct I felt in my belly. I longed to climb mountains where bears lived. I’d lived all my life in the Midwest, and I wanted to experience something new. The first time I visited Glacier National Park, the summer before I started at UM, I felt a cold summer wind ripping across Swiftcurrent Lake with lightning shocking the Montana peaks all around, I stood mesmerized by a natural world I needed to know.
When my high school guidance counselor—I’ll call him Mr. D—learned of my westward yearnings, he shook his head. “Try Boston,” he said. “Boston is full of opportunity. If you go to Montana, you’ll never get anything out of it.”
I left his office in a huff. In 10 minutes, he’d shot down everything I knew about myself at 17. I wanted more than the secure bookish life he envisioned; I wanted a bit of grit and uncertainty. Mr. D’s words goaded the contrarian in me. It was the audacity of his directive—proclaiming to know my needs—that compelled me to reject his recommendation. Vigorously. I went west and found opportunity.
Mr. D died several years ago. I think of him from time to time—no longer with rancor, but with a hint of gratitude. He made me realize that I could choose the life I wanted and that authorities didn’t always know better. I sometimes wonder who or where I would be, had I followed Mr. D’s advice. Would I live a better life? Would I make bigger bucks?
Would I have found my Montana-raised husband? Or worked at a newspaper in Cambodia? Or turned my childhood dream of writing into a career—as I did, after a jump-start in journalism at the University of Montana?
I don’t know.
But right now, I watch a palette of pastels spreading across the evening sky in New Mexico, where I live, as sunset hits the Manzano peaks to the east. And I know I was meant to choose the mountains in life.
Karen J. Coates is an independent journalist and a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her most recent book, with Jerry Redfern, is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.