Finding Home in Montana

words and photos by MAX LOWE

The moon plays an eerie game on this snowy world. Sitting high in the sky, it lights the landscape in a mantle of white, streaked with long shadows reaching out of the the darkest black you could imagine on the forest’s edge. In the distance, a lone great horned owl calls out and the soft sound of his hoot carries clear across the snow. Below me—nestled into the hillside where it has stood and been lived in by five generations for nearly 150 years—is my family’s cabin. It’s warm and aglow with candle light, filled with the laughter of my friends, and the smell of burning cedar and an welcoming hot meal.

Also inside this cabin are memories that extend back into my past as far as I can recall, nurtured by my parents Alex and Jennifer Lowe’s love for their home in Montana and spending time out in the country with the people who made them. I have taken this creed up as my own as I grow and continue to expand my understanding of life, becoming more and more aware of the fact that exploring your own backyard, the place that embraces you as a native son and where you feel most comfortable, is one of the most fulfilling stories to tell.

Their story is now my story.  The things you value in life stem from the very beginning, and so I feel that a great deal of credit for where I am now can be traced to my youthful wanderings at the heels of my parents. Those moment have grown into my continued love for wild places, both here in my home state of Montana, and out across the globe.

Growing up in Montana, the outdoors was our playground. We spent weekday afternoons tearing through the back alleys and side yards of my neighborhood, making up games that strained the imagination and earned me my fair share of scrapes and cuts. On weekends, I would accompany my parents and brothers up peaks in the Bridger and Gallatin mountain ranges. We would camp on pristine mountain lakes, where I learned to fly fish and climb vertical rock. Come winter we would visit remote Forest Service cabins in the dead cold of the season to huddle around a wood stove and go sledding.

Starting when I was six years old, our family would move for the summer from our little home in Bozeman, Montana and into the tight-knit community of Renaissance climbers who held court at the Exum Climbers Ranch in Teton National Park, where my dad worked as a climbing guide. This was when my indoctrination to adventure began. Armed with a curiosity to follow my dad into the Tetons, I built forts in the deep aspen grove beyond our cabin’s front door, a backyard in one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. I lived out my Huck Finn fantasies, launching homemade log rafts onto the lazy bends of Cottonwood Creek and finding deep, clear fishing holes. While my dad guided clients to the top of the Grand Teton, I would follow my mom far into the backcountry in search of huckleberries and elusive cutthroat trout that hid below the mirrored surface of the lakes far out in the secret valleys of this, our wild and rugged home.

Over the years, my dad moved on from guiding in the Tetons and took his passion for climbing to the far reaches of the world. Forging a career doing what he loved most, exploring the furthest and highest points our world has to offer, he brought my young self into the world beyond our backyard. He opened my eyes to the endless potential for exploration that can only be capped by one’s tolerance for dedication (ok, and a little suffering here and there).

The month before my 12th birthday, I returned to the Tetons alongside my dad and my friend Jared and his father to climb the Grand Teton for my first time, a monumental step up in mettle in my then young eyes. Looking back, this trip seems like a pivotal point in my life. It was my first major mountain climb with my father, Alex, and it was to be my last one-on-one experience with him.

In late September that year, my father Alex Lowe was lost in the white ghostly plume of a massive avalanche in the Tibetan Himalaya, and my life was forever different. Losing a parent at a young age changes your world. My dad was superhuman to me. He led a life of mystical adventure that I looked upon with wonder, and when he didn’t come home, the world became infinitely larger and less insulated. My fairy tale of childhood dissolved, and the world gaped open wide in front of me.

Despite life's changes and losses, the family cabin is always there.
Despite life’s changes and losses, the family cabin is always there.

Now, I travel the world on my own, and even get to  call my exploration of distant shores and peaks my work. As a storyteller, I see infinite potential in travel. The complex, beautiful and unbounded narrative of human interaction within each of our unique environments across the globe is a story that ignites my creative passion. Immersing myself in things I know nothing about so as to understand the world around me more deeply, and then sharing that with those who care to listen, is something I want to explore as long as I can.

As I travel more and more though, I have found myself looking back to where I began. One of the best perspectives you gain from travel is seeing the value in your roots, the place and people that shaped you. Looking in on the world you know so well at home from the outside allows you to see all with new eyes, and look at everything that seemed commonplace with invigorated curiosity and wonder.

Standing here now looking down on my cabin in the Grasshopper Valley on a freezing cold winter night, I barely notice the temperature. My friend and fellow photographer Eliot Ross once told me, “If you want to truly refine your craft as a photographer and tell a story that fulfills you, delve into a story that you think you know and dig. You will find something wonderfully larger than you ever imagined was there.” I have come to our cabin more often over the past six months than any year before, and it feels grounding. This place that ties me to my young life gives me a peace that I haven’t been able to distill in any other aspect or corner of my life. I can dig here.

It’s a strange phenomenon that seems to be very human, in that we develop inexplicably unique emotional value from things and places. A song that takes you back to a particular moment in your past, or a place that reminds you of the comfort of a parent. The landscapes that we tread in our childhood take on something beyond their mere physical elements. The places that we call home and the routine exploration we discover right off our back porches holds immense value to each and every one of us in creating that warm glow of belonging, the feeling that you are a deeply rooted part of something greater than yourself.

Dawn breaks and the smell of burning wood and sizzling bacon permeates the little wooden homestead, thickening the air with moisture from the windows that are veiled with rime from the night’s frost. My friends Adam, Sam, Kelley, Maya and I set out for an afternoon of skiing when the low-tide winter sunlight finally hits the cabin around 11 a.m. We head for Maverick Mountain, the tiny mom-and-pop three-lift resort at the head of the valley. The skiing is some of the worst we have ever experienced—winter hasn’t quite kicked in enough to cover the minefields of rock that blanket the slopes—but the sun is shining and the view down the Grasshopper Valley, dotted with haystacks and lazy cattle is beautifully quiet. Our laughs echo through the trees as we dodge core shots en route to the base area.

Striking our skis in the quiet of the parking lot, we drink beers as if they were our first, and head off for an evening hot-springs soak. Some of my first memories are learning to swim at Elkhorn Hot Springs when I was just a sprout, and in the last twenty-some years, the place hasn’t changed much. Under a single flickering light pole, hot water pours out of a pipe that runs from the hillside beyond, filling the old outdoor bath that was dredged by my great uncle with a team of horses in the late 1800s.

As we sink into the steaming mineral water, feeling the familiar gritty concrete floor of the pool with its thin layer of algae, I know this is the only place I want to be at this moment in time, home in my own backyard, re-exploring that which I thought I knew and finding so much more than I ever thought possible.

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