Montana—are we a red state or blue one? Writer Russell Rowland visited every single county in Montana—covering an expanse of landscape equal to a couple of New Englands—to get a better sense of who we are.
What he produced, the remarkable book “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey” (Bangtail Press), published in April 2016, offers an eye-opening look into The Treasure State. Recently, I spoke with Rowland.
Todd Wilkinson: Former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus walked across Montana decades ago in making his first bid to serve in Congress. Looking back at your odyssey, what are a few things you know now that you didn’t at the start of your journey?
Russell Rowland: I think the thing that surprised me the most from this trip was the optimism. You hear about the high suicide rate in Montana, and it’s no big secret that the rural areas are really struggling right now, but Montanans seem to have this relentless idea in their heads that everything is about to turn, no matter how bad it might seem on the surface.
I’m guessing much of that comes from the fact that we have always been a state that relies on such boom and bust economic structures. There is a certain level of expectation that things will occasionally get really tough for a while. People almost plan for it.
T.W.: Is Montana an urban or rural state?
R.R.: The short answer would be yes—it is both, urban and rural, red and blue. But like most things about Montana, it’s way more complicated than that. It certainly started out as a rural state, although the influence of Butte was pretty pervasive in those early decades. So there’s always [been] a bit of an urban element. But in terms of the mentality and the worldview, I think it’s still very much on the rural side.
I heard this morning at a gathering that 70 percent of our population now lives in the urban centers in the state, which would include Billings, Missoula, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Kalispell and Great Falls. But many of these urban centers are still very much made up of rural people.
T.W.: Author J.D. Vance won acclaim for his book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which delves into some of the fear and angst that resulted in Donald Trump’s election. Did you find Trump’s winning of Montana to be a surprise?
R.R.: I wasn’t surprised at all by the fact that Trump won in Montana, mainly because of the strong anti-government stance that so many people have in this state. Our history suggests that this anti-government was strong from the beginning, and that many people came by it honestly. Hillary [Clinton] represents the very thing that most of Montana has come to distrust about government over a long history. Whether it’s true or not, the fact that they were able to imply that she has been followed by scandal fits right into the narrative that would appeal to Montanans and their libertarian bent.
My fear is that Trump is a classic example of someone who has managed to gather the support of the very people that will suffer most from his policies
T.W.: For rural communities, is there a way to keep them alive?
R.R.: I think that’s going to be the crucial question for Montana’s future. Almost every town east of Billings has declined in population since the 1950s, and it’s hard to imagine that ever changing direction. The small towns that are still showing signs of life in Montana are the ones who embrace different options for their economic structure, especially tourism, which has moved up to second in the state after agriculture.
But there are many towns that don’t have much to attract tourists, and it’s hard to see other options for those places. One thing I found kind of amusing–the main employer for most of these towns is the very government they love to belittle. There’s an odd disconnect there. Many of these counties wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for government jobs.
T.W.: How is Montana a microcosm for the rest of America?
R.R.: It’s a microcosm in that so much of our history follows a very distinct pattern of having big companies come in here and present themselves as saviors to the working class. Starting with the Copper Kings and the railroads, many huge companies have created jobs that brought a flood of people out here hoping to live the American dream. And it seems that the working stiffs are always the ones left in the lurch once these companies either fold or pull out.
Many people have gotten wealthy off of Montana’s resources, without putting much back into the state. And the mess they leave behind often ends up being another huge tax burden on our people, [including] three of the largest Superfund sites in the country.
The thing that makes Montana unique is the strong attraction of the quality of life here. So many people stated that as the first reason to why people come to their county. Montana is a place people fall in love with in a way that seems to be almost unprecedented, even compared to our neighboring states.
Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He writes his New West column every week, and it’s published on explorebigsky.com on EBS off weeks. Wilkinson authored the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. His new article on climate change, “2067: The Clock Struck Thirteen,” appears in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. The New West also appears every week at thebullseye.media.