It’s been said that the Chinese visited a curse upon the world by condemning us to live in interesting times.
Much like every Chinese restaurant fortune cookie’s message should be completed with “in bed,” the “curse” in my case is completed with “in Montana.”
Montana is a popular destination for travelers from around the globe, including New Jersey. The recreational opportunities are vast—from fishing and hunting to hiking and camping, and myriad other activities that take place in the great outdoors. We have golf courses and scenic wild rivers, two national parks (Glacier and Yellowstone) that are full of bears, wolves and mountain lions; and bison who would just as soon gore you as look at you.
There is also drinking. Lots of drinking. Bars—most of which have casinos—tend to outnumber churches—few of which have casinos. (Clergy folks should take note of this.) We also have several ski hills, with a day on the slopes typically celebrated at a bar with an only-in-Montana apres ski six-shot throw-back. (See photograph above.)
A lot of the bars have live bands with fiddles and washtub bass, kazoos and whatnot. And there’s line dancing to country songs by local bands who like to argue the merits of Hank Williams, Sr., and Garth Brooks. For that reason alone, guns are not allowed in several of the better bars.
But rock bands are in plentiful supply, as are jazz and classical. We also have live theater, great book shops and libraries, several universities and colleges. We’re a little short on art museums, but there are plenty of private galleries that feature local artists who do not paint bugling elk on black velvet.
I’ve lived here for twenty-seven years and have met a lot of tourists, most of whom want to move here. Because they are on vacation, they see Montana for all its fun stuff. Because many of them seem incapable of crossing a street without directions, they assume that Montanans must spend every waking moment with either fly rod or rifle in hand. At the very least, they think we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around waiting for the next spectacular sunset over some nearby mountain while we knock back a whiskey ditch with a micro brew back.
They grow apoplectic when we inform them that mostly we work.
“Sort of like you must do back home,” we explain.
“I sell insurance,” Captain Tourist announces.
“OK, then, not like you do back home.”
Writers of almost every stripe have captured Montana in print, perhaps none more eloquently than John Steinbeck in his 1962 book, Travels with Charley.
“For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection,” he wrote, “but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
My love affair with Montana began when our little family bid farewell to Los Angeles and trekked north. Our quests to find someplace new that we could call home were mere flirtations—playful tugs at the senses. Montana was love.
Having spent the first twenty-five years of my life in the Midwest and East, I had grown accustomed to the change of seasons. I always favored autumn, when change is at its most visible—the brilliant hues of ever-changing color that tell you winter is just around the corner.
Montana has four seasons but I never expected one could experience all four of them in a single week. Granted, the leaves only turn once a year, but the temperatures vary without regard to the wall calendar. A 50-degree drop or rise is commonplace. A few weeks of minus-20 is to be expected. “It’s good reading weather,” a rancher once told me. “Curl up by the fire and read.” It can snow in any given month—and will.
We have winds that blow as hard as a Category 3 hurricane. We just don’t get the television coverage. When a Category 3 hurricane threatens Miami, the entire focus of the evening news is people nailing plywood to their windows. If a freight train gets blown off its tracks up here, there might be a picture in the local paper.
Politically, Montana is a solidly red state, with Trump having had a 21-point advantage over Hillary in the last presidential election. In keeping with our odd political history, we have had 16 years of Democrat governors (Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock, the latter of whom is wasting his time in the current presidential race). Both chambers of the state legislature are solidly Republican.
We have a centrist Democrat in the U.S. Senate (Jon Tester). Senator Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte are stupendously wealthy men whose idea of public service seems to be hiding from the public. Both are staunch Trump supporters who like to bring the Trump boys here to shoot rodents. “Little game hunting,” you could say.
Montana’s political past includes sending the first woman to the U.S. Congress. Jeanette Rankin was elected in 1916 and was one of 50 who opposed our involvement in World War I. In 1940, she ran for a second term and won. She was the only representative to oppose declaring war on Japan in 1941.
And then there was Mike Mansfield, arguably the most progressive congressman the Beltway had ever seen when he took his seat in the House in 1943 to serve the first of five terms. He then spent 16 years as a Senator before becoming Ambassador to Japan.
We love Montana on many levels, not the least of which are the politics—which are always entertaining—and the accompanying sideshows like the Freemen, a group of malcontents who claimed to be pretty much against anything that reeked of government except, of course, for the farm subsidies they received.
Then there was the state legislator who had run on the anti-government Tea Party ticket and sponsored a bill that would have banned the wearing of yoga pants. Seems like a long way from thinking the government is too involved in our lives.
And no Montana story would be complete without the mention of the Unabomber. Ted Kaczynski lived in Lincoln, Montana, in a cabin without running water. People who knew him said he smelled bad. He bought lots of pipe from the local hardware store. Nobody asked why.
We seem to have it all here in the Last Best Place, the Treasure State, Montucky. We have traffic jams with cattle, and drivers who seem to have learned to drive on a two-track—kind of a rutted, unpaved driveway that pass as rural byways. They have no idea what a turn signal is and they will park anywhere.
Geri once wanted to buy some pajamas for our son and was told that Montana boys sleep in their underwear. Her quest for some feathered mules at the local discount store was met with “We don’t sell livestock here.” And she was pleased that somebody had complimented her on her outfit, until she learned the outfit was the vehicle she was driving.
And what makes Montana a very treasured state are the people who seem to always care for each other.
But if you should come to stay, please close the gate behind you. Thank you.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska