29 June 2011

"My Home's in Montana..."

The song goes like this:
My home's in Montana,
I wear a bandana.
My spurs are of silver, my pony is gray.

While riding the ranges,

My luck never changes.
With foot in the stirrup, I gallop away.

That song was sung by chirpy little voices in our elementary school's music room for generations.  I wonder if it still is.  Recently, I sang it to my husband, who had never heard it before - he giggled.  Today, I am sitting in my hometown library, thinking about the stereotypes embedded in that song.  I have never worn spurs, never had a pony (though I desperately wanted one), seldom wore a bandana, and felt like the luckiest girl alive every time I was riding a horse under the "Big Sky".

I am back in Montana for a month, after living for half a year farther away from home than I've ever lived before.  Don't misunderstand - I've traveled, across borders and hemispheres.  But, I always came home to Montana, and specifically to the towns on the Rocky Mountain Front.  They are spare communities on first glance - between 50-2,000 people per town.  Some you can drive straight through without realizing they have the prerequisite institutions - post office, bar, school, church.  Others you may meander through, lingering, romanticizing the lifestyle of cottonwood-lined streets, stone courthouses, public swimming pools, and surrounding farms and ranches.  People actually move to these towns, from far flung parts of the country, after driving through on idyllic summer afternoons.  A stop at the local cafe or ice cream shop, a dip in a nearby reservoir, the looming majesty of the Rocky Mountains, a friendly stranger saying "Hello!" - any of these might have been what compelled them to relocate.

What you don't see just driving through is the reality of life here.  Wind, fierce and incessant, is a way of life.  We know it as a force rushing over the mountains, or blasting down from the north with brutal winter storms.  This may be unimaginable as a pleasant summer breeze lulls you while you drive through town with your windows down.  Most of the time, though, it wicks moisture off of the landscape, leaving contorted trees, parched foothills, fields and inhabitants in its wake.

Many of these towns qualify for assistance from nonprofit community development organizations that offer programs aimed at decreasing poverty and increasing community stability - the kind of programs that stipulate populations under 3,000 people coping with poverty rates of 10% or higher.  Meth - a nasty, highly addictive drug cocktail made by brewing caustic substances like drain cleaners and pharmaceuticals - is a statewide concern.  Not unlike urban areas, not every student finishes high school, and teen pregnancy, suicide, and death due to drunken accidents are not uncommon.

Most kids who grow up here leave.  Sure, some of us come home to visit, but most of us face a serious challenge if we aim to make a life for ourselves here.  A handful per class have done it, but most have come to their livelihoods from angles we never knew about as kids.  One makes GIS maps for the U.S. Forest Service, another is a regional representative for a statewide conservation nonprofit, some are nurses, some do stints as outdoor educators, and a few work in the family business.  Others patch together seasonal jobs, never the same one year to the next, in order to stay here.  A couple of the guys came home to the family ranches, but that only works for a handful - the rest of us move on, all the while "what-if-ing" about the micro-enterprises that might be viable if we ever decide to return here.

On the other hand, there's the unparalleled view of the Rocky Mountain Front, the proximity to the Bob Marshall Wilderness (1 million-plus acres in our "back yard"), the endless horizon stretching north, south and east, and above all, the network of social and landscape connections that run generations deep.  These are some of the factors that keep people rooted here.  Even those of us who leave.

Post Script: The Rocky Mountain Front is an extraordinary place, sometimes referred to as the "Serengeti of North America".  It is still the center of my landscape compass.  However, this post presents an alternate lens.  I don't care for one-sided writing about places that makes them seem like perfect little paradises - there are hard realities almost everywhere.  Without acknowledging them, you  do not fully acknowledge the challenges facing people living there.  This piece was written with all due respect, to the inhabitants and the challenges.

For the "sunshine and roses" perspective, see this post: Montana: The Big Sky Country


Rachel said...

Blessed be. Perfectly articulated.

CarolB said...

I especially liked [this] piece about the challenges of living in small Montana towns. I think in many ways that applies to living in any small town. [...] I think you've done justice to the concept without demeaning the people that do manage to stay and live through the tough times.

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