The Forty-First State

I have never been to Montana, but I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve always wanted to witness the acclaimed sundowns. They tell me one Montana sunset can cause people to spontaneously believe in heaven.

I almost had a chance to visit the 41st State as a teenager. I was supposed to help my friend’s uncle work on his cattle ranch. Sadly, his uncle passed away before I got the opportunity.

But I wish would’ve visited. I know exactly what I would have done. I would have spent every evening sitting on a log, watching the sunsets over the windswept plains. Or walked the famous Going-to-the-Sun-Road at dusk.

A few years ago, Montana residents reported that the sky was having some highly unusual sunsets. In some regions, the skies were turning electric purple and indigo. This mystified many, including multi-generational Montanans and meteorologists.

(Cue “Twilight Zone” theme music.)

Finally, science discovered the reason for these sunsets. The answer lay across the Pacific Ocean with the Raikoke volcano, between Japan and Russia, and the Ulawun volcano in New Guinea.

Both volcanoes had recently erupted, sending volcanic material 60,000 feet into the stratosphere. When volcanic aerosols drifted into the stratosphere above Montana, they scattered blue light particles, which mixed with the reddish sky colors to produce deep purple sunsets.

The effect was heaven-like. No wonder they call it the Big Sky Country.

Montana is also where an old man named John once lived. You’ve never heard of John, he wasn’t famous.

At the start of John’s adult life, he was your average Montanan. He had an okay job, three happy kids, loving wife. Theirs was a good life. They attended a clapboard church. The family was a tight-knit one.

John’s wife died at 39, leaving him with three children, and it was like having his limb amputated.

John’s adult son recalls, “My dad became old overnight. His hair literally went white in a few years.”

John’s kids would often find their old man crying in the kitchen, head tucked in his hands. Sometimes, John’s children would overhear him uttering prayers to the ceiling. These were not necessarily PG-rated prayers, either. They were prayers of a hurting man, spoken in frustration. “What the blank-blank am I gonna do?”

He was lonely. He was scared. This world is not a fair place, and nobody knows this better than someone who grew up among the most diverse ecology in the U.S. This world does not ask permission before it steals from you.

But this is not a sob story. This tale is about how John became Super Dad.

Over the years, John never let his children know how scared he was; he never let them see him struggle; he never once said “uncle.”

John’s kids have memories of their father cooking breakfasts, making pancakes shaped like hearts. They recall seeing him clean an entire house in a frilly apron.

They remember the way their father became half mom, and how he packed school lunches with sweet notes. They remember how their father was unashamed to kiss his children in public.

He attended every ball game. Every high school musical. Every event between. He was there to patch up skinned knees, he refereed disagreements, and when his children had broken hearts, he always knew how to mend them.

The old man became sick last year. His adult children were at his side within 36 hours of the terminal diagnosis. During the final moments before John exhaled his last, they were gathered nearby.

“My dad went peacefully,” says John’s son, Hunter. “We were with him, telling him we loved him.”

Weeks later, John’s ashes were delivered to his porch in a cedar box and it didn’t seem real. How could a superhero just up and die?

Hunter was charged with the task of spreading the remains according to his father’s wishes.

“I didn’t want to let him go,” said Hunter. “But we all knew it’s what he wanted. He wanted to be scattered in one of his favorite places.”

And so it was, a few days ago, John’s sons and daughter crawled into the cab of a faded pickup and drove into the smooth plains of Montana, into the white capped mountains. When they arrived at a particular place the old man loved most, Hunter opened a plastic bag and let his father go.

“I expected Dad’s ashes to fly around in the wind, like in movies, but… Ashes just sorta fell out of the bag. It was a big let down.”

Life once again proves that it is not scripted by Hallmark screenplay writers. Life can be unforgiving, indifferent, and sometimes filled with the kind of pain that makes you forget the reason for life altogether.

But there is a reason. An important one. And John’s children believe their father accomplished his “reason.”

They believe this not only because he was a good dad. But because just as they were walking away from their old man’s remains, the wind picked up.

A sudden gust carried the old man’s remains somewhere beyond the mighty Missouri River, and turned John’s memory into a cloud that was soon hovering in the Western sky. Then, as if on cue, the sunset changed from golden orange to a wild purple.

I asked John’s kids to describe the color.

“It was just like looking at heaven,” they said.

Yes. One day I hope to visit Montana.


  1. Dolores S. Fort - March 26, 2021 6:23 am

    What a beautiful story, Sean. I definitely can relate.
    I lost my husband in January 2016, I was left feeling empty. We had talked about what we would do when we left (our plan was to go together, but God had other plans). We would both be cremated, our ashes would be joined together and scattered on our property. His ashes rest now waiting on me. Our children know what our wishes are. I am anxiously waiting to join him. I miss him so very much.

    • PK - March 26, 2021 7:15 am

      Bless you, Dolores. 12 years today for me and it’s like yesterday at times. But one day I believe that it will be as if our loved ones never left us.

  2. stephenpe - March 26, 2021 9:51 am

    I named my oldest son Montana. His middle name. When he was two we visited North Dakota with a group of WW2 veterans. I purposely drove over to Montana to say I had been there and held him up in front of the State Line Sign. I want to go back one day to look around. Till then I travel with Sean on his daily visits to ordinary people like the rest of us.

  3. eliz - March 26, 2021 10:20 am

    oh Sean….excellent, once again. Thank you for making sure my feeler is working.

  4. Julie Patterson - March 26, 2021 10:39 am

    When I was 24 I followed my childhood dream and moved to Montana. Every square inch is beautiful, from the prairies and badlands of Makoshika on the eastern border (Mondak) to the western mountains. Last summer my daughter and I paddle boarded part of the Missouri. My husband’s cancer required us to move to NC for treatment, and I miss Montana, my home of 35 years. I like NC, but I am deliriously and passionately in love with MT. Go to Montana, Sean. But know that it will deep into your soul.

    • Julie Patterson - March 26, 2021 10:40 am

      seep, not deep. I do my best editing after I post!

  5. Leigh Amiot - March 26, 2021 10:41 am

    Reading “Montana Sky” by Nora Roberts is as close as I’ve gotten to Montana. Single parenthood…I remember my young widowed mother closing her bedroom door and weeping. I have wept tears in thanksgiving that my children grew up and did not lose a parent while minors. Like you, I know the size of the hole that leaves in one’s heart, and I didn’t want my children to experience that. Life’s hardships aren’t dealt out equitably. Makes me think of Elvis Presley’s gospel singing, “We’ll Understand It All By and By”. We aren’t given explanations, but the stories you share inevitably touch someone every single day who has been or is going through something similar, and that usually gifts another with strength to persevere.

  6. Leigh Amiot - March 26, 2021 10:47 am

    The song I mentioned is actually entitled “Farther Along”.
    Anyone not familiar with Elvis’ gospel, look it up on YouTube!

  7. Becky Kaufman - March 26, 2021 11:42 am

    I can’t wait to understand why! but fortunately both my husband and I are fully vaccinated and so is our son, since he is the mapmaker for for the SCEMD.

  8. Phil (Brown Marlin) - March 26, 2021 12:40 pm

    What a story. What – a – story!! Thanks, Sean. That’s all I can say.

  9. Mary Beth Patten - March 26, 2021 1:23 pm

    I moved to Montana thirteen years ago at the age of 58, after wanting to be there since early childhood. It is known as “The Last Best Place” and I love it more each day I am here. In addition to the glorious sunsets which we view from the front of our house, we have incredible sunrises that we see from our deck. The sun comes up behind the mountains, trumpeting another wonderful day. My ashes will be scattered over the Mission Mountains and the graves of my horses, uniting me forever with this wonderful land.

  10. Christina - March 26, 2021 2:06 pm

    Glorious land and beautiful people! Can’t wait to visit!

  11. Tammy S. - March 26, 2021 2:26 pm

    Yes, yes to a visit to Montana. My husband and I visited last summer. We were suppose to go to Greece but Covid changed all that. And honestly, we are so grateful! We did a four state tour, just the two of us, for 10 days, and it is so hard to describe adequately with words (although you did so perfectly, Sean) the views in Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Our favorites were Grand Tetons, Jenny Lake, Yellowstone and the free roaming buffalo and Old Faithful in Wyoming, and our most favorite was Glacier National Park and a beautiful hike to Hidden Lake at Logan’s Pass in Montana. And a boat ride at Coeur d’Alene and staying at the resort there that we woke to views of the lake every morning. It was magically. And we did not miss Greece. We could have taken 10 days just in Montana! Just all so breathtaking and beautiful! I couldn’t stop saying, “Oh wow!” And we definitely want to go back.

  12. Cheryl Buchanan - March 26, 2021 3:33 pm

    Goosebumps moment!

  13. allisvant - March 26, 2021 4:58 pm

    Wow, Sean! The account of driving to the mountains to dump the ashes of one’s father struck a chord, didn’t it?!?!

    • Larry Wall - March 26, 2021 5:34 pm

      Replying to allisvant – that was exactly what I was thinking. Even the description of dumping of the ashes was strikingly similar to Sean’s description in ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. I feel reasonably sure that wasn’t serendipity.
      Now I find myself wishing to take a trip to Montana. No time like the present.

      Beautiful story, Sean. Enjoy the everlasting view, John.

  14. Linda Moon - March 26, 2021 5:15 pm

    I thought of Heaven and also heard the “Twilight Zone” music while reading your descriptions of Big Sky Country. John’s LIFE story makes me want to travel to Montana for another adventurous road-trip and listen to the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Montana” on the way there. Super Dads can become half-moms, and John was good at both. I’ll be thinking of Him and Heaven when I’m on the road again….to visit Montana.

  15. Rebecca Souders - March 26, 2021 7:10 pm

    Yes! Visit Montana …. take your time and see it all: prairies, farms, rangeland, battlefields, soaring mountains, rushing streams, meandering rivers… all of it! Collect some stories and then tell us those stories!

  16. Sheri K - March 26, 2021 7:53 pm

    Sean, I was blessed to live in Montana for three years and I totally agree – you HAVE to go to fully appreciate its beauty!!! The people are sooo friendly and the weather is gorgeous! Scenery is amazing, no matter what part of the state you’re in. Please go, Sean, so we can enjoy it thru your eyes.

  17. Christopher Spencer - March 26, 2021 8:50 pm

    Video of Going to the Sun Road.

    Thanks Sean and adding another place to my Bucket List.

  18. Kate - March 26, 2021 9:12 pm

    Love Montana, and Wyoming. What a wonderful story. There are so many strong, wonderful, giving “ordinary” people who do extraordinary things like choosing to be giving, loving, and responsible. Thank you Sean for bringing these people to us, seems no one else does. We are thankful for you.

  19. Chasity Davis Ritter - March 27, 2021 1:43 am

    I was fortunate enough to see Montana when I was 23. I kept wanting to take a picture of how beautiful it was and the friend I was with kept telling me wait it gets better. I remember crying most of the way home on the plane ride back to Oklahoma but my Dad was there to pick me up at the airport. Now when I think of how heaven might look I just picture my Dad there and I know it’s going to be the most beautiful place I’ll ever see….. thanks for sharing this one.

  20. Tom - March 27, 2021 3:55 pm

    Don’t wait- GO NOW. Montana is a majestic country. If my grandkids did not live in Alabama, I might just move out there.

  21. Suzi - April 7, 2021 6:17 pm

    Thank you God for simple lives lived and storytellers who keep them alive~


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