|SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: MONTANA.|
They call it the Treasure State. (Less boosterish sorts used to call
it Montucky, until Kentucky started complaining, but that's a different
There are a couple of ways to look at this treasure business. We could be talking about hidden treasure, and that would ring true in the sense that Montana is one hell of a long way from just about anywhere people congregate (there are only about 900,000 of us in the entire state). It's hard to get to (the only bands that ever play
here, for instance, are those without enough gas money to get from Minneapolis to Spokane without pit-stopping in Missoula), and once your truck breaks down and you take a good look around at these mountains, it's correspondingly difficult to leave.
But more likely the state motto refers to buried treasure, the metals under the mountains, the gold and the silver and the copper that made now-struggling Butte so powerful in the copper-desperate days of World War II that it dropped its Montana affiliation altogether and started advertising itself as Butte, U.S.A. -- only appropriate, considering that the profits drilled out of the hills went largely to east coast industrialists and investors. So if we're talking about buried treasure (and let's cut the coyness: it is buried treasure we're talking about), then historically the world has been Montana's pirate, raping and running, leaving us with our strip mines, our clear-cuts and our Kentucky complex.
Still, we call it "The Last Best Place," nursing our wounds with a salve of defiance and pride. And then we sell guided tours to visiting flyfishermen, even as we make them grind the barbs off their hooks and put the trout back in the river. And hey, no lead on those sinkers, OK? We're trying to keep this place clean.
#1. Nobody Here But Us Chickens.
No, we're not all survivalist freaks. Plan a move -- or even a visit -- to Montana and the first, second and last question anyone will ask is if you're off to become an anti-technology right-wing hermit/gun nut in a rundown log cabin somewhere
Yes, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski assembled his pipe bombs and manifestoes from the comfort of his shack in Lincoln, otherwise best-known as the home of Hi-Country Jerky. And yes, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant in the Paradise Valley made Montana its home base for the long, slow slog into End Times. And yes, militant members of something called Project 7 are soon to go on trial for allegedly plotting to kill county cops.
And yes, come to think of it, last month's paper included the following classified ad: "A survivalist enclave is being organized based on the cataclysmic earth changes outlined on the coast to coast AM radio show."
But honest to God, most of us don't even know what that means. No, most of us are perfectly nice folks who just want a little space to breath, a little room to roam, and, you know, the privacy to clean our guns in peace. So back off.
#2. The Sky's Not the Only Thing That's Big.
We've also got the country's largest Superfund site, and it's so big that to call it a "site" doesn't do it justice. It's more of a Superfund superhighway, encompassing 120 miles of the Clark Fork River from the 19th Century mining boomtown of Butte to Milltown Dam in Missoula. Upstream in Butte, the site includes the infamous Berkeley Pit, a 1.5 square mile, 1,780-foot-deep, 30 billion-gallon open pit lake that's not-so-slowly filling with poisoned groundwater seeping through a century's worth of abandoned mines. The pit is perhaps best known for a 1995 incident in which a flock of some 350 snow geese landed on the surface of the highly acidic pond and promptly died. More recently, the pit has become subject to a scheme to transform the toxic contents into -- wait for it -- municipal drinking water.
Downstream near Missoula, 6.6 million cubic yards of arsenic- and metal-contaminated
sediment is piled up behind a 97-year-old stone and timber dam. The dam,
however, is scheduled for removal over the next several years, at the
end of which Missoula will get a restored confluence of the lovely Blackfoot
and Clark Fork rivers, and Butte will get 6.6 million cubic yards of dredged
mine tailings shipped back upstream whence they came.
#3. This is God's Country -- Please Don't Drive Like Hell Through It.
Yes, Virginia, Montana does have a speed limit! After the gasoline-conserving federal speed limit of 55 mph was lifted in 1995, Montana officials decided to err on the side of leniency and declined to set any daytime interstate speed limit at all. Montana opted instead for a toothless (but grin-inducing) "reasonable and prudent" standard that made the state something of a shining light for Sammy Hagar types nationwide. Since Montana has miles of scenic and sparsely populated open road under its proverbial big sky, and since those roads are good ones (Montana's congressional delegation having since time immemorial been little more than a gaping siphon for federal road-building dollars), it seemed like a pedal-to-the-metal paradise.
Alas, it couldn't last. In 2000, bowing to pressure from all the hell over the place, Montana instituted its present 75 mph limit. But a lot of newcomers still don't get it (news takes a while to get from here to the rest of the world -- not so much because we don't have the technology to get the word out as because nobody's listening). Thus the bumper stickers on every other commercial truck on the road: "There is a speed limit, dude."
Not that driving in Montana is all buttoned down and boring now -- we still don't have a law prohibiting open containers of alcohol on the open road, leading to an idiosyncratic manner of measuring travel distances. Missoula to Glacier National Park, for instance, is a six-pack drive -- just as long your speed is, you know, reasonable and prudent.
#4. If This Were Your Trophy Home, You'd Be Home By Now.
Think of Montana as your home away from home. If you're rich, anyhow. With one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country (there's a reason we used to call it "Montucky"), most Montanans can hardly afford to live here. Especially the state's only statistically significant ethnic minority, American Indians, from whom much of Montana's lands were, well, stolen. But with most regular Montanans shoved into overpriced housing in the cities or trailers in the hollers, there's plenty of room left to enjoy what we've unfortunately come to call "viewsheds," and celebrities and semi-celebrities from the wealthier states have made a cottage industry of colonizing our less accessible vantages. There's David Letterman in Choteau, former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and a raft of others up on Flathead Lake, and down in the Bitterroot Valley you can find the likes of financial guru Charles Schwab and erstwhile rocker Huey Lewis, who, much to the consternation of longtime locals, has fenced off a section of the Bitterroot River for his own private trout fishing preserve. This land is your land, this land is my land, but let's be clear: that land over there, behind the fence with the No Tresspassing sign? That land is their land.
#5. It Takes Brains and Balls to Live in Montana.
Never mind that "last frontier" crap -- we put that myth to bed way back when Jim "Gomer Pyle" Nabors bought a place up near Whitefish's Big Mountain ski resort. But it does take a tougher-than-standard-issue sort to call Montana home, not least because of the ubiquitous gripe that you have to pay to live here -- in the sense that if you have a salable skill, you'd almost certainly get paid more for it if you were living somewhere else.
And so there remain, like the tingling of ghost limbs, residual rites
of passage required of newbies, and these tend to revolve, Fear Factor-style,
around the eating of nasties.
Depending on your phobias (or your fetishes), the nastiest might be bull testicles, also known as Rocky Mountain Oysters, and the ritual consumption of these has been consecrated by crowds upwards of 10,000 for 21 years running at the Rock Creek Testicle Festival (aka the Testy Fest) with mass drunkenness, compulsory nudity and competitive ball swallowing.
If that doesn't gag you, you can always swing by the 100-year-old Oxford Bar & Café in Missoula for a plate of "He needs 'em," the time-honored local euphemism for scrambled eggs and calf brains. Some people say they're wonderful for hangovers, but then some people will say just about anything.
What do they really taste like? I can't tell you. Some of us don't much like taking tests -- we'd rather eat crow. For us, there's still the standard Montana diet, summarized a few years back by a local newspaper's Thanksgiving dining issue, headlined: "Deer, Beer and Ranch Dressing."
#6. We Got Your WMD Right Here, Buddy.
If Montana were to secede from the union to become its own sovereign nation (and don't push us, man, we'll do it), we would instantly become the world's fourth-largest (known) nuclear power. Innocuous white concrete bunkers sprouted in fields and valleys across 23,000 acres of central Montana contain some 200 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads and watched over by 55 "missileers" of the Air Force's 341st Space Wing. Don't mess with Texas? We've got three words for the Lone Star State: Bring. It. On.
Brad Tyer, once a young boy in Texas, will always remember John Steinbeck's line in Travels With Charley: "Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans." He edits the Missoula Independent, an alt-weekly in Missoula, Montana, and like Steinbeck, in this way if no other, he is in love with Montana.