I always have to laugh at how we define big towns vs. small towns. One person’s Salt Lake City is another person’s Salt Lake Traffic Light. (I was informed of this by a friend from Tokyo who was very disappointed when his airplane to SLC touched down in “the middle of the countryside.”)
That said, the following story takes place in the largest city in the state of Montana. Billings is a bustling metropolis of 100,000 people built on the industry of cattle shipping. So, you know. Town. They even have an Olive Garden, so for all the country mice gathered there for a wedding a couple years back it was bound to be one heck of a hoedown. For City Mouse big sister, it was an adventure into the untamed wilds of the West!
I was living in Provo, Utah when I found out that my little sister was getting married to her handsome cowboy beau in the summer of 2009. My chances to go back home to Montana were too few and far between so I was happy to hear that she was planning to hold the wedding at the Billings, Montana LDS (Mormon) temple. Mormon weddings often take place in our temples, where we believe that we can perform sealing ordinances that bind families together not just for this life but after death as well. Because it’s a religious ordinance it’s not like the stereotypical wedding in a chapel with bridesmaids and photographers and lots of guests. It’s a private ceremony with typically only a few friends and relatives and is very simple. Because of this, most of the festivity parts of the wedding center around the photographs on the temple grounds and then, of course, the reception.
With all of this in mind, I excitedly planned my trip to Montana. I commute by bike and haven’t owned a car in years so long trips mean I get to rent a car and renting a car usually means one very important thing: new fancy stereo system. It’s very exciting for the first couple hours.
I had my iPod connected and was rocketing down I-15 in my shiny little blue rental car. I had all of my favorite music playing as loudly as I could as I sailed through the landscape of northern Utah and into Idaho. Right south of Pocatello, the landscape starts getting all scrubby and surreal, like you’re slowly driving onto Mars. It’s that landscape where they film action movies now to make you think they’re in Afghanistan. The rocks grow into spiky, bizarre shapes and textures and the trees can’t decide whether they’re trees or short, angry animals. Listening to my wacky eclectic music as I looked out on this landscape got more and more disjointed. I have a lot of world music in my collection – I especially love African, Arabic and Spanish music – and I’m pretty sure these songs were written without the inspiration of the sagebrush of the American West. I started thinking how funny it was that these same landscapes had been seen by so many different people who had sung such different songs. This used to all be Shoshone country, but I’m sure they weren’t the first ones to move through the valleys on their way from summer to winter camps. What were the songs they sang as they journeyed through? The early white settlers who came to these areas were probably first Mountain Men, maybe French, and later the Mormons and then the homesteaders and cattle ranchers spreading out across the American West. They would have all sung their own songs. I turned off my African jams and drove in silence for a while.
I drove up highway 20, leaving the flat, quiet plains of Southeast Idaho and climbing up into the Yellowstone area. The geothermal forces rolling beneath the road spun me northward up the narrow Gallatin river valley and into Bozeman, Montana, where I’d lived for five great years getting my undergraduate degree. I was happy to see the familiar foothills leading up to the Bridger mountains, and more songs came back to mind. I turned on the FM radio and let it scan around through stations as it scanned through my memories, from classic rock to country to NPR, and I happily re-lived the times of my life that those sounds had defined. But it was the good old wacky independent college station that served up the happiest tunes of the trip: I tuned to it just in time to hear the first chords of a familiar song. And this time the song reminded me of where I was going and who I was going to see, and I broke out into a giant grin as I sailed over Bozeman pass into Livingston.
“I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I’m a hopin’ for Raleigh
I can see my baby tonight
So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey mama rock me,”
The summer that my little sister had worked as a camp counselor in North Carolina she left with a a guitar and came back with a guitar full of songs. This was one that she would always sing – an Old Crow Medicine Show song that she’d sung with her campers night after night. And she and I had lived together for just a few months in Missoula before I’d left for grad school and of all her songs, this was one of the ones that I loved to hear her sing the most. Let me tell you about Country Mouse, that little mama knows how to rock you.
When I finally got to Billings I was tired and stiff, but getting to see the family and the family-to-be made the long drive worthwhile. I got busy with my mom and my sisters helping to set everything up for the big day. My sister had plenty of need to catch up on her sleep but she was there in the gym of the nearby church building with us, directing us on how to set up for the reception. I was touched with what she’d done with her time, creativity and limited resources. I know a lot of brides-to-be get hung up on spending money they don’t have to make a party memorable for all the wrong reasons. But Country Mouse was a classy girl who didn’t complain for a second that she didn’t have a party planner and a team of professionals to roll out the rented linens and the miles of twinkle lights and tulle that too many people deem necessary for a wedding. She had some adorable orange gerbera daisies, some teal ribbon and some sticks she’d gathered from the ranch and we turned them into adorable centerpieces in a warm, inviting room.
The next morning came too soon. I put on the “brown dress of destiny,” the polka-dotted brown shirt dress that I knew was meant to be as soon as I’d seen it there on the 75% off rack in exactly my size and exactly my sister’s wedding colors. I joined my mom, sisters, little brother and our grandmother outside the temple after the sealing ceremony as we waited for the bride and groom to emerge.
When I saw my little sister, my rockin’ mama, come out of the temple the first thing I noticed was her radiant smile. She was happy. I know we like to say that brides are beautiful, elegant, memorable, and she was all of those, but more important than how she looked was how she was. I saw her hand in hand with her cowboy man and I knew she’d made the best possible choice she could have. Most importantly, she knew that. She was confident that this was a good man, a good match for her, and being with him forever filled her with complete, comprehensive joy.
She was in a re-tailored version of our mother’s wedding dress, and the lace around the neck and sleeves lay perfectly. As she smiled for a nearby camera, though, she winked conspiratorially and lifted up the hem of her dress to reveal ornate teal cowboy boots. This classy lady was not keeping the cowgirl completely under wraps.
It was a clear, beautiful day. It was a small but happy group that had gathered. It was really touching to me to see a thread in my life continuing forward. I have these little threads that start and I never know whether they’re going to end up somewhere and then years later I come back and find them again. This time it was about this place – we had come as a group of teenage girls from my church group on a summer trip through Billings and had stopped to see the temple grounds that had recently been purchased, before any building began. Later, as a freshman in college in Bozeman, I made the two-hour drive with my friends to see the temple dedication and felt a special connection to this place even though it was far from my hometown and wouldn’t be the temple that my family visited regularly. And now to find myself back here with my little sister and the love of her life on a lovely August day was really touching, and really heartening to me. I looked up over the rimrocks – the rocky outcropping that frames Billings and sets it off from the endless plains that stretch into forever beyond it. The sky was bright and criss-crossed with contrails that looked like lonely cattle paths that centuries of animals and their keepers had followed as they plodded on, not realizing they had walked off the prairie, over the edge of the horizon and right off into the sky.
I looked back to my radiant sister, surrounded by the friends and family that loved her, and felt privileged to be here, even though I felt like the strange wanderer roaming through the town and these were the kindly homesteaders letting me stay a few nights in their hospitality.
After the wedding, we headed over to the chapel for the reception and a hearty lunch, and were joined in the parking lot by a herd of antelope. You can make the Billings-is-a-city argument, but antelope do not attend city weddings, my friends! I’m pretty sure they were trying to sneak in and get in on the cake.
And my sister being my sister and my brother-in-law being my brother-in-law, there was music. There was musical music for as long as everyone could sing. There were acoustic guitars and harmonies and breathtakingly beautiful melodies. Country Mouse and Mr. Mouse wowed us with acoustic duos of old Gospel songs, and it’s not just any wedding where the newlyweds outshine anyone you could have hired as musical talent.
We waved goodbye to the couple as they drove off into that prairie-horizon and we got to work getting everyone packed up and safely on their way. And we had songs humming under our breath and strumming in our hearts for days to follow.