The motto on the Montana licence plate is Big Sky Country. I went to Montana before I knew the true meaning of ‘big sky’ — I was raised on the slope of a mountain in the narrow-valleyed interior of British Columbia.
I had a déja vu-like inkling of the meaning, though. The Pacific Ocean gave it to me. I had stood on the edge of North America and wondered about the edge of Asia; that foreign continent became close to me in that moment.
I wrote in my diary, then, of possibility. I vowed to motorbike across the world. The Pacific Ocean initiated me to the tingling premonitory sensation of long horizons.
The motto on the licence plate brought about a version of that feeling. Big Sky. Driving into America from a cool, deep, green corner of southeast B.C., my expectations loomed.
Turns out, everything in Montana is big. The stars, the night, the lakes, the trees, the opinions and the personalities. Amusement parks, meal sizes and lawn chairs. Everything is big; the sky is proportional.
The notion of a big sky became a secret myth I carried in my subconscious. It gradually faded into an unthought-of memory.
The size of the sky was the last thing on my mind when I moved to Nova Scotia. I wanted to go to a clam bake, I wanted a job, I wanted people to talk to in the massive Dalhousie classes.
Those things happened, as they do. When I was settled, the Atlantic sky revealed to me its fickle nature. In the narrow-valleyed interior of British Columbia, weather sets in. Clouds hide the tops of mountains for days on end, the world shrinks, becomes monochromatic.
Not so on that rock on the edge of the Atlantic, where the tempestuous sky makes up for the lack of hills and big green trees.
Cumulus clouds march across the horizon on most summer days, sharp gusts of North Atlantic wind belie the bright blueness of the air.
Floors sweat during hurricane season, hair stands on end, time stops. It’s not raining, there are no clouds, but the birds, and all the other creatures, know something is coming. It hits in a fury, wind-whipped rain causes those stuck in it to declare, this rain is wet, as if some rain is more dry.
Some rain is more dry than Nova Scotian hurricane rains, which end in a whimper. Time resumes, water runs in rivulets down storm drains, and the from-aways wonder if it was really necessary for the entire city to shut down for a 10-minute bout of rain.
Winter in that place is luminous pastels. The sky throbs zebra stripe-like grey streaks with blue between, rays of the slanty winter sun don’t warm. They glow.
When I flew directly to Whitehorse from Halifax for a summer visit three years ago, I sat in the Whitehorse Public Library and composed too-long emails to friends, lauding the glory of the big Yukon sky.
It unlocked the memory of Montana’s motto, and a lingering childlike hope escaped with the mythical quality of the memory.
The glory of the Yukon sky is everyone’s glory. It is what attracts the artists and the fools, and keeps them coming back. For what? It’s not easy to put into words.
Go outside. Look up. It is.