The first thing that hits you about Montana, other than the ubiquitous Rand Paul signs, is its size. When we first began summering in Whitefish, I mentioned to a friend, who had a ranch 100 miles east of Billings, that perhaps we could visit some weekend. He said, “George, that’s a 600 mile drive.” I made the same mistake visiting Europeans make, i.e. misunderstanding the scale. When looking at a map, Europeans believe they can drive from Whitefish to Chicago in one day; it really is 1,600 miles distant.
A few years ago Montana’s population surpassed one million for the first time. Instead of happiness and gratification, the news was greeted throughout the state with unalloyed dismay, bewilderment and consternation. Until recently, it was tough to find a national newspaper in Whitefish. We once stopped at a large general store to inquire if they carried USA Today. The perky 16 year old young lady who waited on us instantly replied, “We do not consider ourselves to be part of the USA.”
Once I was beginning a round of golf along with three native Montana friends when the starter permitted a group of women to go ahead of us even though it was our turn. When questioned about his louche behavior by one of our group, the starter replied that one of the women had cried and he felt sorry for her. One of my Montana friends said, “There is no crying in golf“. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the other two Montanans exclaimed in unison, “There is no crying in Montana“!
In nearby Kalispell there are big box stores with alarms that go off when customers fail to remove anti-shoplifting tags. The alarms go off constantly and the explanation always is the same. The customers are packing heat and they forgot to leave their guns in the car. Despite the ubiquity of guns, the gun homicide rate in the Flathead Valley is less than one every four years. When police make a traffic stop, they expect to see a gun inside the car; it is no big deal. The local PTA recently raised money by raffling an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. You read that right; the school raised money auctioning an assault rifle. Of course, the local community college offers a course in gunsmithing.
A local man whose daughter was murdered (by a former boyfriend) with a gun blames the killer, not the gun. He remarked, “Having a gun is pretty much just a normal thing.” He went on to say that his daughter had her own .270 hunting rifle and that she recently got two bucks and mounted them herself. This leads to something my son (who moved to Whitefish four years ago) often says, “The girls here all know how to skin a deer, but they don’t know which fork to use.” That may not be all bad.
Eastern Montana is part of the great plains where large farms proliferate. People there vote Democrat due to a populist tradition and huge agricultural subsidies. The mountainous western part of the state is conservative except for a liberal enclave in Missoula – home to the University of Montana. Locals are fond of saying that the best part of living in Missoula is that it is only ten minutes away from Montana.