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Tucson Weekly Montana Madness

When The Tea Houses Outnumber The Taxidermists, You Know This Places Is In Trouble

By Jeff Smith

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  LIVINGSTON, Montana--Ah, it's a tonic to be wiring dispatches with foreign datelines again. Up here in the land of the Livingston Saturday Night (for the discography, check your Jimmy Buffet collection; he is, or was, given the transitory nature of marriage in contemporary American culture, novelist Tom McGuane's brother-in-law, and McGuane was among the pioneers of the show-biz invasion of Montana--but I digress), not only is the atmosphere virtually foreign, the climate is alien--it's autumn up here--and even time works differently, with echoes of the 19th century persisting, even as the rosy fingered dawn of the 21st lightly streaks the eastern sky with red.

Those of you who move your lips when you read may take a 30-second break to rest your facial muscles. The rest of you catch your breath: I realize the foregoing was quite a long sentence, even by my generous standards. Incidentally, did you ever notice how similar in style and tone the works of Louis L'Amour and Homer are? It was always a contention of mine that what L'Amour's detractors argued was lack of variety and imagination in his prose, was simply an extension of the oral tradition of the Homeric epic. Again, I digress.

But not entirely: The epic traditions of Homer and L'Amour are apropos in the context of my odyssey to the not-quite-frozen tundra of the nation's northern border states. I came here in search of several things: a long-shooting black-powder rifle, a guy named Mike Venturino, the Old West, and my own soul. Is one out of four acceptable outside of the American League? Actually, my batting average could go as high as a thousand: I found Mike, and he may have a rifle for me, but the Old West may prove elusive, if not utterly lost.

Which would be a damn shame.

I realize that in the current mania for revisionist history, the Old West of American legend has come to be regarded by many--the Eastern Establishment principal among them--as a time and place of shame; but for kids like me, who grew up dreaming of cowboys and Indians like Roy Rogers and Crazy Horse and Cochise and Charley Lattimore, it will always be the home of heroes...where men are men and sheep are nervous.

And it wasn't too long ago that a kid like me could move out into the country and buddy up with a few old survivors of the cowboy bidness, and give up a few of the urban amenities, and live an approximation of the lives of our childhood heroes.

Until L.A. took over from Hollywood. Bear with me while I unravel this seeming oxymoron. Y'see, even during the 19th century, the West was romanticized by the media--not the movies yet, but the penny dreadful popular press. Even the cowboys of that era got into emulating the media image of themselves, so life imitated art, which was trying to imitate life. We'll call this Hollywood.

L.A. symbolizes the invasion of today's West by real-estate-rich and excruciatingly politically correct weekenders who are taking over every picturesque corner of the countryside and turning it into a goddammed boutique. A high-priced bed-and-breakfast where families whose roots are five-generations deep are being priced right out of their ancestral homes.

Well, it happened to the Indians.

But Jesus, to see Ted Turner and Hanoi Jane take over Montana and tell the folks who've actually spent every one of their winters ass-deep in snow in Bozeman in the years before video rental that they can't fish or hunt elk in the Gallatin Valley any more...well it gives me the red-ass.

I figured that if I drove far enough north, where the climate is sufficiently nasty, the roads poorly maintained, and the distances to four-star restaurants long enough, I could find a place where the Californicators hadn't gotten a stranglehold, or even a toe-hold. Easing down the southern slope into Red Lodge, Mont., from the Wyoming side, I thought I just might have stumbled onto what I sought. The two-lane I had just traveled was frost-heaved and chuck-holed and posted for local traffic only. It was a wreck, and there was not a sign the county crews were making any attempt to fix it. Bear Creek, the last wide spot in the road, was an almost-abandoned squalor of rust and dust and no real-estate signs. And in the last significant town I'd come through there'd been more taxidermists than tea houses. And here it was, the first week of September and already the locals were stacking wood in anticipation of snow that could come any day, and keep them forted-up until the middle of next May. Surely Red Lodge was too tough a place for anything but the real deal.

My ass.

The main drag through the middle of town is a gauntlet of fern bars, herbalists, cute little awnings, girls with big hair, guys behind the wheels of Range Rovers, and business establishments with signs that say stuff like "Wind River Tea and Scone Company, Est. 1996."


Whoopi Goldberg has a ranch in Montana. What does that tell you? Michael Keaton is one of her new neighbors, and he's got this ersatz cowboy chalet that's featured in a current issue of Architectural Digest and cost something in the umpty-million-dollar range and looks like it was dreamed up by the hermaphrodites who designed the Frontierland part of Euro DisneyWorld. It's enough to make a real Montanan cry. Of course real Montanans don't cry.

Except when Ol' Yeller dies.

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