Anyone who has listened to me talk about Montana has undoubtedly heard the story of my falling-in-love-at-first-sight moment atop Thompson Pass. I rounded a curve at the summit, crossing from Idaho into Montana, and there lay a vista that took my breath. As far as I could see, miles and miles of mountains and trees. I was filled with a sense of openness and freedom unlike anything I’d known and I descended into Montana feeling like I’d found a new life.

I spent two weeks riding Montana west of the Rockies that summer, and two years later returned to spend five weeks wandering east of those majestic mountains. And I loved it all! So, early this year I decided to head back and once again bask in the joy I had found there. And of course it was mandatory that I enter the state via Thompson Pass, which is how it came to be that a few days ago my bike and I once again climbed toward that memorable summit.

We rounded the curve at the top and found…no endless view of mountains and trees.  No expansive, verdant grandeur to set my heart singing! Instead, there was one huge, tree-covered mountain dead ahead, obscuring my view of anything beyond. I couldn’t make sense of it. How could my memory be so wrong? Was that cherished view just a little further down the road? I looked for it all the way into Thompson Falls but it just doesn’t exist anywhere along that descent. The only true part of my oft told story is that I fell in love with Montana during my first trip there, but I can’t rightly say when because nothing during my ride into it that day even inspired me to stop and take a photo.

Now of course there are awe-inspiring, soul-lifting vistas in Montana. They abound, especially west of the Rockies, and I have photographed many of them. But the one that so changed my life doesn’t exist apart from my story of it—and that realization requires me to think about how the stories we tell subsequently shape our lives. I consider this worthy of contemplation because our memories are incomplete at best…and sometimes just plain wrong!

So what’s your favorite story about your life—the one that many of your friends have heard? And what remains in its wake when you tell it? Joy? Remorse? Peace? Pain? Or any of a hundred other emotions common to us all? It’s important to look at this because what we tell ourselves sets us on a particular path, evoking behaviors that correspond with the story’s emotions and thus producing consequences. And the next thing we know, this process has changed us (and quite possibly others) for good or ill.

Now in my own life, I am not too obsessive about the veracity of stories that uplift me and generate good vibes all round. But I have, in the past, clung to stories that damaged me and my relationships before I wised up to how I was creating the unhappy sequels to the story. So let me ask again, What’s your current “favorite story”? Think about that with this in mind: Your story is just that. It is not reality and, in fact, may wander so far from reality that someone else present in the story might not recognize the event based on your telling of it. Nonetheless, your story has been and may still be shaping your life.

What’s also true is that because our stories are stories, we can choose what kind of story to tell ourselves about any given event. No matter what’s going on, we can find in it a story that will improve our well-being. We can also stop a wounded, angry story from turning us into a howling, tear-stained victim by understanding that it’s our story of it, not the actual event, that is trashing our life. At any moment we can choose to replace a destructive story with a generative one. Honest. It takes persistent (sometimes painful) practice, but it works. I know this from personal experience!

One more word to the wise. If a story makes you feel genuinely good about yourself and others, leave it alone! It may not be totally factual but it’s bringing good energy into your life. Hold it dear and tell some new ones that do the same. As for me and Montana, I’m still crazy in love with her and expect to stay that way, no matter what she has in store for me during the rest of this ride.

I confess. “Instant” is tempting. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to get rich quick, lose twenty pounds in one month eating gallons of ice-cream, and write a best-seller next week? Maybe not; I can’t think of anything fast and easy that changed my life for the better long-term. Years ago, a brilliant jazz drummer friend summed up the secret of his own success like this, “Ya gotta pay your dues, babe.” It sounded onerous but he was right! And thankfully, it turns out that once you bring a dream into focus, those payments can be fun to make, even as they challenge and scare you. 

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