DISPATCH FROM A DIVIDED STATE
Driving Across Montana, From Old West to New
Friday, August 4, 2006
SWEET GRASS COUNTY, Mont. -- Speedometer nudging 90 on a freshly paved two-lane, my rental Ford swooped past swells of deep-green prairie grass. To the west a searing afternoon sun was laying into the Crazy Mountains, still pimpled with snow despite triple-digit temperatures down here on the plain.
It had been a five-hour drive, angling southwest across Montana from the dwindling town of Malta to the vital city of Bozeman. I crossed the Missouri River, not far from where a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition wrote that there were so many beasts, they had to be clubbed out of a traveler's way.
They can still be a problem.
I ran over a snake (a big rattler, it seemed; I was afraid to stop for a postmortem), narrowly missed a kamikaze antelope, swerved around the bloated carcass of a mule deer and came to a screeching stop for six cows on a mid-morning saunter.
Montana still amazes -- with beasts, with distance, with its famously big crystalline sky that doesn't get all soupy in high summer heat. Yet, as a morning in Malta, in the plains of northeast Montana, and an evening in Bozeman, in the mountainous southwest, clearly show, this iconic Western place has been reformulated: cut into separate and unequal parts, cleaved along a fault line of wealth and bankruptcy, growth and decline, ebullient newcomers and aging descendants of the homesteaders.
At breakfast in Malta in the luncheonette of the Great Northern Hotel (the only hotel), I had bacon, eggs and hot cakes. The waitress was chronically scarce, so I followed the lead of stone-faced elderly ranchers in feed caps and went behind the counter to fetch my own coffee.
The grown children of these ranchers live, in most cases, somewhere else. A quarter of the people in surrounding Phillips County have disappeared since 1960. There were once more than 100 country schools in the county; now there are three, according to Troy Blunt, a rancher and county commissioner.
A hundred years is a long time to die -- but that is what one reads in the history of Phillips County, which has been losing population nearly that long, as has much of eastern Montana, as has much of the Great Plains.
There is no mystery about the reasons for this exodus: farm mechanization and farm consolidation, low birth rates and stagnant crop prices, drought and heat, blizzards and boredom. And no one has come up with a way to stop farm kids from fleeing.
All of which leads me to my supper in the so-not-dying city of Bozeman, the heart of Gallatin County. It is the fastest-growing county in the state, a place where residents -- compared with the average Montanan -- are richer, better-educated, more likely to have been born in another state and much more likely to be living off investment money.
I ate chicken at Boodles on Main Street in a noisy dining room full of tanned, youngish people with sunglasses shoved up on their thick, shampooed hair. From a menu as fussy as any in New York or San Francisco, I read at length about my chicken:
"Maker's Mark Bourbon glazed free-range Hutterite Statler chicken with twice baked cheddar and chive Yukon Gold potatoes and grilled broccoli."