In Missoula, Montana, you can drive 20 minutes in any direction and arrive at a mountainside woven with dirt trails and pine trees; a tapestry that holds promises of mystery and exploration around every curved stitch.
As a high schooler I spent hours walking through these mountains. I could watch the seasons go by through the changing landscape: The spring brought Cabbage White Butterflies disguised as snowflakes, flying through newly bloomed flowers that scattered across hillsides like flecks of paint on a canvas; The summer grew miles of huckleberry bushes and dense collections of Tufted Hairgrass that tickled my knees as I walked; The fall collected a cascade of pine needles that coated the earth in a warm blanket, as if to prepare the soil for the deep snows of winter.
My favorite trail system was Pattee Canyon, partially because the foot traffic always stayed pretty close to the trailhead —so I never had to walk far before the silence of nature surrounded me— and partially because it felt like no matter which direction I went, eventually I would find somewhere I hadn’t walked before.
When I dropped out of college from South Dakota this spring, right after my 21st birthday, I first thought about going back to Montana. I dropped out because I felt unbearably lost, and Montana was home, after all. Yet the thought of going back caused anxiety to swell around my throat. Despite knowing that I would be comfortable there, the small-town life also made me feel trapped.
I was naive. Hardworking, optimistic, and sweet, but incredibly naive. I had my ass handed to me in college again, and again, and again. Then the pandemic came, and then I was in a horrific accident (see Break your broken bones – Brain Butterflies), and then my entire world crumbled.
It felt impossible to try to move on while living in a town where every place reminded me of the person I thought I could be. Where everybody knew who I was. So Montana was out of the question. And there was no way I was staying in South Dakota.
I decided I needed to get out of the Midwest. I couldn’t fly internationally because travel restrictions still barred Americans from going almost anywhere. Then I thought about where I could go in the United States… and I had always wanted to visit the East Coast. One of my best friends lived in Boston, and a combination of curiosity, impulsivity, and desperation led to me taking a plane across the country less than two weeks after choosing the city.
I recognize that my experience so far has been an incredible privilege, especially in the middle of an international pandemic that has sent our country through a rigorous economic crisis. And although normally I could never have pulled off something this drastic on my own, I got lucky and had come in contact with a decent amount of money that I wasn’t forced to spend: I had just gotten my stimulus check, a refund from the rest of my empty semester at college, and I still had leftover money from my insurance that I didn’t spend on hospital bills.
When I first arrived in Boston, city restrictions on businesses had just started relaxing and shops began opening up again. For the first month I lived here I only did part-time jobs and spent most of my time exploring.
For a while, I could thrive in this exciting historical place. I could try various restaurants, meet new people, and travel anywhere on a whim. I visited all of the essential parts of Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, Bunker Hill, the Common. I wandered through the cobbled streets along the North and South End, spent late nights in Dorchester watching the deep blue, starless sky, and sat reading for hours in front of the Boston Public Library in Back Bay.
One of the first facts I learned about Boston after arriving here was that in 1919 a molasses flood swept over the North End. Purity Distilling Company used the 2.3 million gallons of molasses stored in the steel drum to make ethanol, and of course, they ignored proper safety protocols. Whenever the drum leaked, they simply painted over the cracks with brown paint. Then on a cold winter’s day, the pressure of the mass and the fragility of its container caused a 25-foot tidal wave of boiling molasses to come crashing through the city. Although the concept of a molasses flood might sound humorous (or even delicious), the accident was a terrible tragedy that killed 21 and injured 150. A Boston Post article described the incident:
Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was …. Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.
There’s a rumor that when you walk around the North End on a hot summer day, you can still smell the sickly sweet molasses that once terrorized the city.
As time went on I decided I wanted to take the next step and settle down here. Which meant I had to find a job. Which meant I’d have to exist, for the first time in my short life, as a fully independent adult. No sort of structure enforced by the school nor easy meals at the cafeteria nor quick walks to the post office. Everything became a part of my day I had to plan for. I thought this was what I desired. I thought I wanted complete independence. But I didn’t realize how depressed I had become until I began fully living on my own. And now I was alone, thousands of miles away from my family and friends.
As the weeks kept slipping by, I stopped exploring. I settled into a routine, going outside only to go to work and then to immediately come home at the end of my shift. The newness of the city began to fade, and I crept further and further into a state of numbness.
Soon every single day, every single second, felt like a chore. How could I go do the things that I wanted to do like work, cook, clean, or explore? And even on a more minute scale, how could I eat, drink, bathe or brush my teeth, when even breathing felt exhausting?
I tried to keep up my positive persona, forcing myself to be productive by a sheer force of will, but it continually became overwhelming. One day I’d be smiling and laughing with friends and the next day I’d be adhered to my bed with a hopeless glue.
I kept thinking about the Molasses Flood and the sticky river that swept dozens up in its unrelenting torrent towards the Boston Harbor. I kept thinking about the line from the article, “the more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.”
I began to see myself as one of the victims of the tragedy, watching helplessly as molasses covered my body. I was living in slow motion, trapped by the exhausted whirrings of my own mind.
After I realized I felt like this my instinct was to move away again. To go to another city, to become part of a different community. But I was so tired of moving, and I knew in my heart that I wasn’t fast; Running from place to place to place, it would only be a matter of time before my depression caught up with me.
So I braced myself and stayed, letting the syrupy wave finally roll over me.
I was scared at first. Suffocated by coagulated nihilistic and self-destructive thoughts that had built up since I started college, I ended up having a complete mental breakdown at work, and quit my job soon after. Without my job, I stopped having a reason to eat and a reason to socialize.
Thankfully, I have been going to therapy since I arrived in Boston, and my therapist has helped me learn how to cope by going back to the very basics. By appreciating the smallest of details and celebrating the tiniest of goals. She also helped me get started on two new types of medications, one for my depression and the other for my ADHD.
Because of my therapist, my ever-supportive friends and family, and my optimistic fire that can’t seem to die, I’ve started pulling myself out of the molasses. I created a new daily routine that I (mostly) can complete. I finally can begin to move on from the painful memories, with freshly gained self-assurance and confidence that I never knew I could have.
I’ve also started hiking again.
I weave through the forest of brick, following the endlessly winding roads —roads that once carried carriages— for hours on end. Each building is as old and towering as the Ponderosa Pines. At least once a week, I leave my phone at the house and just start walking. No matter which direction I go, eventually I find somewhere I haven’t walked before. A playground high on a hillside that makes the nighttime skyscrapers look like they’re glowing, a corner barbershop filled with loud happy customers, a colorful mural halfway hidden behind an abandoned warehouse, a neighborhood cat who lovingly rolls onto its belly.
The puzzle I’m piecing together feels intimate, slowly and intentionally built from my wondering, wandering miles.
Although by now I’ve visited all of the essential parts of Boston, walked through the MFA half a dozen times, and eaten my heart out with freshly baked cannolis, I have finally found a way to experience the city that grows and shifts with the changing seasons. My new home.
- The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 – New England Historical Society
- Dark tide : the great Boston molasses flood of 1919 : Puleo, Stephen : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive