Short Visit to Montana
I entered Montana from its south-east corner. The grassy well-kept Wyoming fields abruptly changed into sagebrush-covered shallow pyramids, with occasional cows and even more rare cars. The overcast skies and gray slow rain made the landscape even drearier as I drove through the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian Reservations and towards Billings. I stopped in Billings for a night: industrial views and a skyline of refinery smokestacks. Billings is the biggest city in Montana and apparently the wealthiest one, partially due to the oil, natural gas, and coal industries. Later when I mentioned to some Montana people that I didn’t like the city much, everyone immediately replied: “oh, nobody likes Billings”.
The next day on my way to meet Whitney - a friend who lives in north-west Montana - I stopped in Bozeman for a bit. As I’ve been told Bozeman has become more trendy and expensive, with the university attracting students and faculty, creating a hip vibe, followed by California and Colorado people moving in. There was indeed a feeling of hipster/outdoorsy wellbeing, drastically different from the rough and rugged feel that I got from Montana so far. I didn’t stay long and continued driving north.
That night I randomly camped in a tiny spot by a Missouri river reservoir; I wasn’t really looking for a spectacular camping spot, just a place to quickly pitch a tent. Bullet-hole speckled road signs and some beer cans lying around made me slightly uncomfortable, but having my bear spray with me and seeing that no cars are pulling up I relaxed. It was good to sit there in the twilight, watch the birds come out, pelicans flying right above the water along the river down to the dam and then back again to catch a fish. The only unfortunate thing was the train tracks right across the river. At night I kept waking up and hearing the half-mile-long freight trains pass. What are they carrying? Where from and where to?
The next morning I stopped for a coffee in Helena at a funny Beatles-obsessed coffee shop (a few degrees less hipster, possibly owned by some old beatniks) and went for a hike in the Helena mountains. Having heard all the bear and cougar stories I felt that before I understand things better I’d rather hike somewhere not too wild when I’m on my own. After the hike I stopped for a bouldering session in a local gym (it was good to move and stretch after all the days driving), got back in the car, and continued to Whitney’s place.
Whitney is a good friend who I haven’t seen since grad school. Originally from Montana she felt the urge to return home, although for a young artist the desolation and the limited art scene may be major drawbacks. Nevertheless she feels that Montana, its wild lands, mountains, and open spaces are the place for her. When I asked her if it gets too desolate for her, she laughed and told me that this is not desolate, on the farm where she grew up one couldn’t see other people for miles. ”I just feel like hiking in the mountains with my dogs, and sitting on the ground”. Whitney’s work is potent and touching, while being delicate and reserved. Her photos, videos, and objects beautifully merge the physicality of a natural space with the poetry of its perception.
From the address I assumed that she lives in a town, but when I followed Google Maps directions to her place I was surprised to see the scenery changing: suddenly I was driving on a gravel road, turned onto an even smaller gravel road, and eventually found myself on a farm! I realized with some amazement that this was my first time on a farm in the US.
Whitney and her partner’s house stands amidst fields that are used primarily for growing barley and ranching. The day was coming to an end and we immediately left for a twilight walk. Whitney’s dogs: Bear(she) and Stella ran around us at a distance. I thought “these are the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen”, especially as I remembered the city dogs, walking on a leash and waiting patiently while their person picks their feces. We picked bunches of fresh juicy grass and went to visit the neighbors’ horses. The dogs picked on the horses for a bit, but then their attention was distracted by a pond and they bounded into the water.
Later that evening we had dinner and a long chat with Whitney and her partner who is a multi-generational farmer. Most of my knowledge about farms and farming comes from newspapers and Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book is a fascinating research into the pathways in which the food we eat arrives to our plates, and although I have the sense that the picture of modern farming drawn by Pollan is somewhat limited, it gave me enough information and insights to ask a lot of questions. I wanted to know what chemicals are used to treat the land and the crops, who buys the crops, what is the situation with government subsidies, what happens to the cows after they pass through the farmland during the pasture period, how are the prices determined, who owns what, are there any conflicts between conservation agencies and the farmers in the area, what are they, and how are they resolved, and much more. I will eventually collect the notes of this conversation in a separate post, along with a series of conversations with farmers, ecologists, conservationists, and more.
In the morning Whitney and I drove to Glacier National Park. Late May is still not the prime season for the park, and the Road to the Sun, the main road leading into the park, was still partially closed due to the snow. In a way this was very lucky, as we were spared the high-season crowds and traffic and there were a few good trails that we could walk on as a day hike. It was dark and rainy as we drove in, but as we parked at the trailhead the rain stopped and in half an hour the day turned into a beautiful sunny spring day, proving to me once again that not being discouraged by the weather, usually results in a wonderful outdoor time.
It was the waterfall season at Glacier, we hiked around Saint Mary lake, saw its colors change from stormy to pristine, walked by a few beautiful and freezing-cold waterfalls. The biggest one of them, as we got close, made us feel the incredible force of falling water mass, pushing cold air and spraying us with cold mist. We marveled at the fiercely red and tenderly lilac rocks, and a variety of wild flowers in bloom. The freshness of the awakening forest and the lively, powerful energy of the place were incredible. On the way out we saw a black bear playing with a cub fifty feet from the road. The little cub – no bigger than a poodle -- climbed a tree with the grace and speed of a squirrel. Then we saw two moose at a distance, and a few smaller animals.
The next morning we went for breakfast. Whitney’s town seems not to have anything other than farms, which totally didn’t fit my prior understanding of what can be called a town, but the next town had a diner (and possibly a post office and a couple other public buildings). I was very excited to see a real rural small-town diner. The place was tiny, very cute, and packed with locals (all the five tables!). At the table next to us four middle-aged guys dressed in Montana uniform: plaid shirts, jeans, work boots and baseball caps were enjoying their meal and chat. I thought that although it should be an absolutely normal sight, in Brooklyn it’s rare to see a group of middle-aged guys having breakfast together outside of a business-suit setting. I felt like I’m in one of these old Americana movies, and a feeling of nostalgia to a place that has nothing to do with my past came over me. The menu was quite diverse, however nothing there deviated from the white/yellow/brown palette. When in Rome do as the Romans, so I put my vegetarian diet aside and this is what I had. (My mom would never believe it). It was a great meal, I think I’m becoming American.
This time we decided to go on a walk in a National Forest near Augusta instead of driving to Glacier. I am beginning to develop some understanding of the differences between National Parks and National Forests, the policies and the politics involved. National Forests are less regulated than National Parks and their land has a variety of functions apart from wilderness conservation and recreation. In many cases this also means that the place is less designed for tourist access, often making it more- rather than less wild. According to Whitney, this is where more dangerous encounters with animals often happen. In the first ten minutes we saw some fresh grizzly footprints, but decided to continue with caution. Apparently in grizzly country, “with caution” means making a lot of noise as often as every fifty feet. At first this yelling disrupted my enjoyment of the walk, but gradually I got used to it and stopped feeling stupid, and so we kept up hiking and yelling all day.
On the way back we stopped at a local bar to meet a couple of Whitney’s friends. It was another surprise, as the bar, differently to what I’m used to, had more children than adults. No, they weren’t drinking beers, but it seemed like their customary hangout and overall a very family-oriented establishment where adults of all ages drink and socialize, kids play together, and there is a nice sense of community.
The next morning I said goodbye and continued my journey. I was heading south to Boise, Idaho. I was happy to be on my own and have time to think over my impressions from the past few days. The scenery was wild and beautiful but what especially caught my attention was the Missouri River Canyon that I saw from highway 90. This area is part of the Adel Mountain volcanic field that was created between 76 and 73 million years ago when erupted blocks of congealed lava and volcanic ash interspersed with lava flows. The Missouri river slowly eroded a valley through this volcanic field, washing away the volcanoes themselves and masses of softer rock, while the harder basalt that constituted the volcano plugs and ridges, formed when lava flowed in cracks between rocks, remained.
This short visit to Montana left me with much to think about. Encountering industrial agriculture from up close, learning a bit about the mining and other industries of the state, I was left with an impression that this is a place where things originally come from. In contrast, I have always been living in places where things go to. Staying on a farm for a few days gave me a sense of what “living with the animals” feels like and I was still trying to comprehend this lifestyle. A piece of a conversation with a farmer stuck in my memory. When he was describing the difficulties of a farm yearly cycle and explaining how, although he has many acres of land and expensive machines, it is hard to make ends meet, I asked why not just sell the farm, buy a house in a bigger town and get a stable job there (with a college degree, which he has, this shouldn’t be too hard). He said “you know, farmers are a bit like artists: we love the land and we love this lifestyle and its independence, so we stay here and farm for the same reason that you prefer to make art and not get a full-time job.”