Michelle Clark-Conley believes that some of the greatest gifts of this community are the lasting friendships developed with like-minded people. Some of those friendships led her to the Missouri River, where she caught the biggest trout of her life. PHOTO COURTESY MICHELLE CLARK-CONLEY

Tomboy for life

Michelle Clark-Conley on following her path to happiness

Michelle Clark-Conley admits there are not too many differences between the childhood and adult versions of her. Though her hair has changed, she has remained a tomboy throughout the years.

“With all my family pictures people are like, ‘Oh, you have a brother?’ No that’s me. I was a super tomboy. I had a bowl cut and a rattail until I was 11. I refused to wear long dresses, refused to have long hair and was always covered in mud,” she said.

She grew-up playing on the nearby lake and building snow forts with her younger sister. The girls were rarely inside.

Clark–Conley says nothing much has changed. She still wants to always be outside. She still wants to play games. In fact, up at Scissorbills – where she is the assistant general manager – she made a bar game out of the Lone Peak Lookout crossword puzzle. When the crossword puzzle disappeared for a week, she wrote a letter to the paper, ensuring the return of her game.

She likes what she likes and has no reservations finding ways to bring them into the fold of her life.

The product of parents she describes as renegades, she was raised to pursue her interests, no matter how quirky they may appear to others. That is how her parents live. Her father spent one summer riding his motorcycle to every covered bridge in New Hampshire. Her mother hiked Mount Kilimanjaro in her 30s. She says her parents were most definitely the blacksheep of their families and she and her sister function just like them.

“They’ve always been supportive of me straying off the common path,” she said. “They have always been super supportive of any decisions my sister and I have made: ‘As long as you can afford to do what you are doing and as long as you are happy – that’s all we care about.’”

Originally from the rural, mountainous area White Mountains and Lakes Region off of Squam Lake in New Hampshire, she is no stranger to ski resorts or the small town life.

“I feel more of a sense of community in a small town,” she said.

Clark-Conley transferred to Montana State University in 2008 – halfway through her freshman year – as a construction engineering major. She spent a year and a half in Bozeman before heading to Big Sky and is happy she left that lifepath behind.

“I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing,” she said of her position at Scissorbills and as a server and bartender at Michelangelo’s. Her work in the service industry has always allowed her the freedom to pursue the outdoor treasures out her backdoor – no car drive needed.

She loves that. Mountain biking, hiking, skiing, backcountry skiing, fishing – all easily accessible.

Decade-long friendships have been bolstered by all those outdoor pursuits – powder and pine forests; the meditative joy of fishing on area rivers.

Not only that, but Big Sky has allowed for her to continue to grow as a person and with various hobbies. She learned how to tie flies before ever learning how to fly fish, learned how to raft guide and guided on the Gallatin for six years. She learned a lot about the food and wine industries since that is primarily how she has made her living since arriving in Big Sky. Clark-Conley even learned how to deal poker.

“I think that Big Sky allows you the opportunity to be different and learn things outside of the norm. It’s very acceptable to do that. Everyone here has a very unconventional lifestyle, which is part of why I love being here,” she said. So many different people with different backgrounds drawn by the same call for the mountains.

“Normally I would have graduated from college, gotten married, bought a house. That kind of lifestyle is expected everywhere else. That is not expected here. You get to do whatever works for you here,” she said.

The combination of the sense of community in Big Sky coupled with the opportunity to immerse herself in nature makes her believe this area is about as good as it gets in the world.

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