Did You Hear The One About…
Eureka, Montana. We rolled in hot and thirsty to a convenience store on the outskirts of this high country town where the land around gives definition to the term, Big Sky Country. The owner was, mid thirties and athletic. He greeted us with warmth and questions about our travels. He was a mountain biker, too busy running his new business to get out on the trails in the beautiful weather.
He told how he had just this spring bought the store and a small bakery and a motel. Moved his wife, and the two small children playing around his legs, to this northern Montana town from San Diego. Sold a thriving business there and left the white beaches for the hard winters and the hard work of small-town business. Fled the crime and the illegal immigrants he feared and came to a place he hoped would allow his family a life free of fear and full of rural pleasures.
He is young, full of energy, and a sense of civic participation had led him quickly into town life, particularly the local baseball league. I sense he will do more, volunteer and plunge fully into his new life.
But some here resent him just because of where he comes from, California. But, if he lives a lifestyle consistent with theirs he will be assimilated quickly. If, on the other hand, he decides to bring in summer rock concerts to generate business for his motel, or builds a house out of line with local standards (too big, too expensive), he will become the symbol for the locals of all that is wrong with growth.
We decided to spend a rest day here to get the flavor of the place. After awhile people got accustomed to our comings and goings on that funny bicycle-built-for-two we ride. We rode north to Canada through a rolling prairie valley with a 360 degree view of spectacular western landscape. Houses were few and far between, nestled here and there in groves of pine and cottonwood, unobtrusive. The dominant human presence in the landscape was a few narrow roads, lightly traveled, fences and cows.
This side trip into the country roads helped prepare me for what we would encounter at The Ranch Hand, where we stopped for a tall sweaty cola. After inquiring about Zippy and our trip, where we were from, we were offered our first Californian joke: Three men are drinking in a bar, a Russian, a Californian, and a Montanan. The Russian slugs down his vodka and slams his glass on the bar. “We have lots of this where I come from,” he says. The Californian copies him, drinking down his glass of white wine and slamming his glass on the bar. “We have lots of this where I come from,” he says. The Montanan shoves his cowboy hat back on his head, tosses back his whisky with nary a grimace, slams his glass down on the bar, pulls his six-gun and shoots the Californian. “Why’d you do that?” says the Russian. “Cause we got too much of that where I come from.”
Mind you this is all in good spirit, but the message of cultural stress is clear. People from other places are threatening to change this place and it is not going over well. There is a lot of confusion. Californians are easy targets. They often cash in down south and come here with more loose change than the locals could hope to save in a lifetime. There are bound to be conflicts.
What I found here was an unexpected interest in the concepts of growth management. This in the home state of the Montana Militia, among the strongest of supporters of private property rights. Here, as elsewhere in the West, the two ideas are in conflict. These people, who have been used to doing whatever they “damn well please” with their property, are now seeing the other side of the coin. Their neighbor just might damn well please to break up the ranch and sell it off in little pieces to people who will change the way these men have lived all their lives. They are confused, but the ones I listened to in that feed store wanted some control of the growth.
People here don’t hate growth and they don’t hate Californians. But, both are happening too fast for them. The ranchers and loggers here want to keep the traditional land uses intact for future generations. That may be hard to do.
At Olney, Montana we stopped at Dog Creek campground. It was raining, and looking like it had settled in for the day. The family that runs the place is friendly and we spent most of the day hanging out in the camp store talking to them. They have a Newfoundland dog named Ethel Merman who weighs 140 and likes to lie on visitors.
The son, about 19, red-headed, good looking and funny, is fascinated that anyone would do what we’re doing. I mentioned that we planned to be in El Paso by Christmas, and I thought he would fall off his chair laughing. I guess it does sound funny to anyone but us. Fact of life for us. Life on The Road is becoming normal now, just the way things are and are going to be for a long time.
We took a walk and paused to watch an inexperienced stallion try to get it right with a mare. She was doing all she could to help him, but he failed repeatedly. It struck us both, at that moment, just how lucky we are to be doing this together. The horses stopped to stare at the two laughing humans. There was a picture on the store counter of a grizzly in the road right by where we had been watching the horses; from about a month ago. They have been seeing lots of them. We would love to see a moose, but will pass on the grizzlies! Hanging our food high in trees, away from grizzlies, coyotes and such, has become second nature for us and we worry less and less.
It rained for three days, and we got stuck in Kalispell, Montana. It appeared we would miss the Going To The Sun highway in Glacier, something we were looking forward to riding. It wasn’t going to open until June 10 at the earliest, before the recent snow. An avalanche dumped a D-9 Caterpillar over the edge, and the workers abandoned the mountain. Don’t blame them. We decide to get over Marias Pass as soon as possible.