We are shaped by the places we inhabit

By BAY STEPHENS/Montana State News

The way humans change the places they inhabit has been a constant topic since the West began to be settled by Europeans. Towns were built, rivers were dammed, native tribes were pushed out. What tends to be thought of less is the inverse: how the environments we inhabit shape and mold us.

Each individual is shaped and molded by family, community, physical buildings and the wider landscape as a whole. All of these influences contribute to what Mark Hufstetler calls “a sense of place.”

Hufstetler is a historian and Montana adventurer who carries a sense of indomitable optimism. Despite being fresh off a four-hour drive from the Flathead region, he was chipper and conversational as the din and bustle of Bridger Brewing carried on around. The Acony Belles string trio playing bluegrass ballads behind him.

“It’s not necessarily always fashionable to say that you are a product of your environment,” he said between sips of his McTavish Scotch Ale, “but in a lot of ways, you really are.”

It can be seen in his own life. Born in Ogden, Utah, Hufstetler’s father worked for the Forest Service living mainly in Idaho and Wyoming. “I grew up in a series of small towns in the West, basically,” he said.

He studied the history of the American West for his undergrad at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Every summer, he worked in Glacier Park, a place that he came to fall in love with.

Now, he is based out of Bozeman, and he often takes multiday trips to the various wilderness areas around the state to backpack and take pictures.

Hufstetler has an extensive photo collection online with albums of austere mountain ranges, sweeping prairies and scenes from various travels beyond the American West.

He’s travelled to 65 countries—not for work, as one might expect—simply for the experience. “I decided about 20 years ago that I didn’t want to be an old man and not have had done anything,” Hufstetler said with an emphatic shrug of his shoulders.

Istanbul was his first trip and he had no plans, save one. As he was flying to Turkey with his roundtrip ticket, he decided he would purchase a ticket on the next flight out, take it, then find his own way back for the return flight to the United States. This took him to Budapest, then he made his way down through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Up until about five years ago, he did one to two trips like that every year. Eventually, though, the reality set in: “I do need a little bit of money to retire on,” he laughed, “It sucks but it’s true.”

Hufstetler aligned himself with the fact that he will never be rich, though. “I’d rather have some experiences instead of having the trophy home in Aspen,” he said, “I’d rather have the airplane ticket stub to Zambia instead.”

Hufstetler has seen place and its effect on people all over the world but wherever he’s travelled he’s felt lucky to live in Montana.

He has been a large part of the preservation for historic homes in both Bozeman and Billings, preserving the sense of place that these buildings collectively impart to and imbue locals with.

Preserving history is important, in Hufstetler’s mind, because it helps explain how the places we inhabit shape us.

The historic homes that still stand throughout the city of Bozeman leave their marks on the psyches of locals in some way, maybe just as a reminder that there is a story behind how Bozeman came to be what it is today.

Most of Hufstetler’s career has been doing what’s called cultural resources management, in which he works independently. He does historical research for people who want to put their properties on the National Register of Historic Places, or helps agencies comply with environmental laws related to historic preservation.

“There are a lot of books that try to convey a sense of interaction with place,” he said, “and that’s the sort of thing I enjoy.”

He mentioned writers such as Norman Maclean, Richard Hugo, Ivan Doig and Joseph Kinsey Howard, all of whom delve into place as a formative entity, especially in relation to the land itself.

“There are different ways to build a sense of what your personal context in the universe is and one way to do that,” Hufstetler said, “is identifying you’re a part of this piece of earth, of these people, these landscapes. That’s something Richard Hugo did really well.”

Part of Hufstetler’s identification with place involves volunteering at a fire lookout tower on the northern edge of Glacier National Park for two weeks every summer.

There used to be 600 of them, he said, scattered with their watch over Montana wilderness. Today, there are only 50 still standing, three of which are still in use.

The Glacier area was Hufstetler’s first taste of Montana, so being up there is a special thing for him. “There’s a place that you find that you feel is your home,” he said, “There’s a vista or a landscape or a river running through it … it gives a layer of meaning to things that you might not get through the creations of man.”

While at the tower, he does a lot of his reading and writing, between the work of radioing in a daily weather report, scanning the area hourly and keeping the tower up to snuff.

Sometimes, though, he just sits, his feet dangling from the catwalk, and looks over the valley.

– edited by Tim Stover

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