Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Mary Cochenour. I grew up in the greater Detroit area. I left Detroit with my sister, my brother in law and their dog, Freebie. We were looking for an adventure so we loaded up the Dodge Omni and headed to Southern California. The four of us lived in that car for about a month, until we found a place to live and my sister and brother-in-law found jobs. We slept in the parking lot of Denny’s and took showers at the free stalls at Huntington Beach. When we found a place to live, I enrolled myself in Irvine High School. My first day of high school, I sat next to a girl whose name was Sandy Sea Shore. She was a child model. I felt woefully out of place in So Cal and asked my sister to drop me off at Lake Tahoe after I graduated high school. To my surprise, she agreed. And on Labor Day weekend in 1988, we made the 10-plus hour drive to South Lake Tahoe and she dropped me off there. I had no money, no car, and it was before the days of cell phones and Internet. I opened the classifieds section of the newspaper and found a room to rent for $200/month. I stayed in Tahoe for 15 years, and with all that skiing, it took me that long to get my undergraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. I desperately wanted to be a travel/outdoor writer. For a short time, I wrote freelance for magazines and then landed a beat at the Reno Gazette-Journal. In 2002, I moved to Missoula to attend law school. I had never been to Missoula and selected the school sight unseen. I never want to leave Montana.
I am married to Matt Cochenour, who is truly my best friend and partner in life. We have this family that I never thought possible. Our daughter, Kennedy, is 8 years old. She is confident, independent, and is guided by her own internal compass. Her little brother Cameron is 5 years old. He’s witty, competitive, and athletic. I’ve done some wild and crazy shit in my life, but these two – they are the best two things I have ever done in my whole life.
Matt and I both work as lawyers for the Montana Attorney General. People laugh at us, because we seem inseparable – dropping kids off at school together and going to work together. Most of that is a function of working in the same office. But once inside, we have very different jobs and we rarely see each other during the day. Matt works in the civil division, practicing mostly constitutional law. I am a prosecutor, and have been for almost the entirety of my legal career.
And, oh yeah, I am 45 years old. I am proud of that fact. Aging is a privilege and wrinkles make a person more interesting.
Your photo here is taken steps from the courtroom where one of the biggest trials of your career took place. What drew you to a career in law, and in particular, prosecution?
When it came time for me to put my money down on a career, I opted for writing. I started out writing freelance for a few outdoor publications. Living on a freelancer’s budget was tough. I moved into newspaper journalism for the steady paycheck and health insurance benefits. I wrote a lot of features about the outdoors and recreation, but was offered to cover the courthouse beat at the Reno Gazette-Journal. I knew nothing about courts but it sounded like an adventure, so I accepted the position. Next thing I knew I was covering a month-long murder trial that was also being covered by national media. I watched the female prosecutor give her opening statement. It was a compelling, passionate performance. I was gripped. As I watched her, I literally made a promise to myself to follow through with this vision. And now here I am doing just what I saw that prosecutor doing in the Reno courthouse. Earlier this year, I gave an opening statement in a murder trial and it reminded me of that prosecutor in the Reno courthouse. I realized then that I did it. And I am still doing it.
You have such a high-stakes job which I’m sure is quite stressful at times. How do you unwind after a particularly hard day?
There is only one way I deal with stress: I go home to my family. I shut the doors. I turn off my phone. I hide out with the people I love. It brings me to the “now” moment where past and future is completely out of sight.
Tell us about a movie, TV show or book that really impacted you and why?
There are two books I read when I was a teenager that impacted me greatly. These books are not literary masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination but they shaped my attitude and philosophy of life, even to this very day. I mean I read these books more than 25 years ago, and I still call on them when I need direction. And maybe they are cheesy books, maybe they are ridiculous. But I cannot deny the impact they have had on my life. They were read at just the right moment in my development as an individual. Timing is everything right?
The first book, Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, is a biography of an 18-year-old girl from New York City. Aebi’s father saw that she was headed down the wrong path and he gave her the ultimatum of college or sailing around the world solo, becoming the youngest woman ever to do so. Her father expected Aebi to take the easy route of college since she had little sailing experience. To his surprise, she chose the sailing adventure. She got in the damn boat and sailed that thing around the world. Alone. The book brims with tales of first-time experiences, adventures, trouble shooting, loneliness, self-reliance and discovery. I read that book when I was 18 years old, at the time of my own “maiden voyage” so to speak, having just been dropped off in Tahoe by my sister. I applied Aebi’s lessons and discoveries to my own life on the dry land. After reading the book, I was so inspired by Aebi that I saved all my money from being a river guide in the Grand Canyon and bought a sail boat. The boat sat in a cradle in my backyard at Tahoe for 10 years, until I sold it to pay for law school. That I never sailed the boat is one of the only regrets of my life.
The second book, actually series of books, which changed my life was The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. This is a series that chronicle Castaneda’s apprenticeship with a Yaqui Indian from Northern Mexico. The books explore ideas of alternate realities, spirituality, and philosophy. The books have later been recognized as a hoax with questions circulating as to whether Don Juan ever really existed. I read these books after Tania Aebi’s Maiden Voyage, when I was about 19 years old. I was like a clumsy puppy growing into my big feet. You can call the books cultish and cheesy, but the take away lesson for my young adult mind: YOU create your own reality by the decisions you make every day. You do this by becoming what Castaneda coined an “impeccable warrior.” An impeccable warrior is not afraid of change, or challenge. They face their fears and forge ahead even into danger, relying only on themselves, their instincts, their skills, and no one else. At the time of reading, I was learning a bunch of sports outside my comfort level: kayaking class V rivers, rock climbing multi-pitch routes, and solo backpacking. Fear sometimes was all consuming. Fear of drowning; fear of falling to my death; fear of being attacked by some crazed mountain man when I was alone in the backcountry. I got through it all by reminding myself to be an impeccable warrior. Twenty-five years later, when I get nervous, when I get scared, when I have a bout of self-doubt, when I stand up to do a closing argument, I whisper to myself “I AM AN IMPECCABLE WARRIOR!” And I get through it.
Those two books have shaped my life.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“PUNCH IT IN THE FACE!” No, it’s not deep. It’s not eloquent. And I have no idea who said it first, but it’s a quote that I use several times a week. Try it. If you’re coming up on some daunting task, tell yourself to “PUNCH IT IN THE FACE!” I told this to my cousin last week as she went in for a round of chemotherapy. “PUNCH IT IN THE FACE!” It applies to almost everything.
Need I say more?
What about author? Do you have a favorite author that you come back to?
The two books mentioned above are not from my favorite authors. I love authors of the American West genre. John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, Ivan Doig, these are my favorites and I can’t pick out just one. If I had to put my money down on an all-time favorite book it would have to be Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I love that story of discovery, adventure, and human connectedness. I could read it over and over again. And I do.
Describe one of your happiest memories.
There are so many happy memories it is difficult to pick just one. Of course, the birth of each of my children. I mean, how do you top that memory? I feel silly even trying to describe anything other than that.
Tell us about a person who’s had a big impact on your life.
Matt Cochenour. Unconditional love, support, friendship, closeness. Yet complete freedom to be myself. I didn’t really grow into my full, true self until I realized his unconditional love.
What are some words your friends would use to describe you?
I subscribe to the philosophy that what others say about you is none of your business. So I don’t know how they would describe me, you’d have to ask them. I am really not sure what they would say.
What do you value most in a friendship?
Authenticity. My friends are all so different. Some are outstanding athletes, some are artists, most are democrats, however, some are republicans, some are gay, others straight, some devout Christians, some atheists. I genuinely appreciate these friends as their true, authentic selves. And I value friendships like these most when people show me their true colors. Because then I feel compelled to let my own freak flag fly. Because aren’t we all freaks in some way or another? Really. I mean that.
What’s a piece of advice you’d give to your twenty-year-old self?
One day you will by 45. Remember that. Live every day in a way that is most fulfilling to you. I generally followed that principle. And I have zero regrets.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee. Black. Punch it in the face!
Chocolate or vanilla?
Chocolate, the darker the better.
Introvert or extrovert?
Introvert all the way. I recharge my batteries with alone time. Although, I can fake extrovert pretty good.
Rural or urban?
Small town urban, like Helena. I come from a big city, and don’t care to go back – ever.
Dress up or dress down?
Down. Way, way, way down.
Cats or dogs? Big dogs.
Sunrise or sunset?
Sunrise. It’s the start of a new day and with that comes so many possibilities.
Detailed or abstract?
Abstract. I see the big landscape but someone else has to fill in the details. Details make me crazy.
Classic or modern?
A little of both. They mesh so well.
Call or text?
Text. I hate talking on the phone.
Fiction or non-fiction?
Salty or Sweet?
Saltier the better.
What do you love most about Montana?
The mountains. The prairies. Rivers. Wilderness. The people. My community. My neighbors. Friends. All of that and more.
What’s one of the hardest things you’ve ever done?
End a relationship with someone I loved and cared for deeply for many years. So very hard, but necessary to turn the page. Sometimes, you have to go down in a deep, dark hole to come back out into the sunshine. I did that. I had to do it. It sucked.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I am most grateful for my family, the unconditional love of my children, Matt. Those are the easy and immediate answers. If I dig a little deeper, I see that I am most grateful for the ability to trust myself. When I was 17, I told someone I wanted to be a ski patroller at Lake Tahoe. They told me I couldn’t do that because ski patrollers were tough guys who handled dynamite, not little girls like me. When I was a ski patroller, I told someone that I one day wanted to be a lawyer. They told me that I couldn’t do it because it required seven years of college. I am grateful for having had the confidence to follow my path, this path that led me right here to where I stand today. The whole thing – all of it – has been pretty cool.