Montana: The lost best place?

This isn’t the Montana most of us know

An old map of the state of Montana in the USA scanned from a XIX century original .

I am one of the lucky Montana kids. I was born and raised in Yellowstone County, as had three other generations of my family before me. And like so many kids growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, I believed Montana was too small, too old-fashioned, and left for college, thinking L.A. was more my style.

I loved college – had a blast from what I can remember or what I have been told. Yet, it didn’t take long to realize that I would love to come back home. Other places were great, but I missed the Rims, hiking in Red Lodge, and being able to drive on virtually any road and have my breath taken away. Not so much for the flat prairies of scenic Fargo, where I began my newspaper career.

I am lucky because I got the opportunity to come home to a state I love, to be close to family, to live in the place that feels like me. Yet, I tell people all the time: I moved back because it wasn’t the same place in which I was raised. Like me, it had changed and evolved. Hopefully like me, it had gotten better.

I was impressed by the culture Montana attracts in its artists, writers and even things like food. Billings wasn’t the boom-and-bust city it had been, thanks to visionaries who insisted it needed to change to attract more business. The same could be said for most of the state which realized that its economic future couldn’t forever be tied to taking, taking, and more taking of natural resources, despite our moniker as the “Treasure State.”

I moved back because it was different. We still had the wide open spaces, all four seasons, and great neighbors, but there was a distinctively Montana feel that is hard to define, but easy to sense: We tend to collect individuals who want to live life on their own terms; who value not being messed with; who want to make up their own mind, and will thank you to let others do the same. Be who you are and respect who I am, and everyone succeeds. Diversity isn’t just a cultural aspiration, it was an acknowledgement that a Big Sky could fit a lot of different and divergent viewpoints beneath it.

That has always been part of the allure of Montana – that it attracts characters and individuals. That attraction has made Montana a bit of an anomaly. Other surrounding states are more monolithic, more stubborn in their way of doing things. Yet, Montana has managed to take the best of places like Oregon or Washington and still keep the western ethos of the Rocky Mountain rugged individualism.

SK Rossi, a person who has been doing so much good lobbying in Helena, trying to speak on behalf of those marginalized, oppressed and misunderstood, summed it up beautifully: “What sets Montana apart from nearby states that also have mountains and rivers and hunting and fishing? Our lack of regressive, backwater social policy. That’s about to change, and so will Montana’s economy because of it – not for the better.”

After one half of one legislative session, it feels like Montana is making a marked shift. We have lost the live free aspect of our state and seem to be replacing it with heavy-handed social policies which are anathema to the spirit that drew me back home.

If I could give one example, it’s a state that puts conservatives in office en masse and also votes repeatedly for legalized marijuana.

As I voice my concerns, many conservative people may respond with the tired old rejoinder I’ve heard a million times in Montana: If you don’t like it, go back to wherever you came from.

But this is where I came from. And, I am too damn stubborn to believe that my values and the things I admire most about this state are somehow any less Montanan just because I am not a legislator. I am also dubious that the election of a more conservative legislature meant a mandate to radically reshape our state.

As I listened to folks talk about what they wanted from our state leaders, I didn’t hear much about transgender youth. Instead, I heard worried parents talking about getting kids back to normalcy. I didn’t hear people worry so much about where they couldn’t carry guns as I heard them talk about where they couldn’t shop because COVID-19 had shuttered businesses.

Our way of life in Montana – from enduring freezing cold to driving 12 hours just to get to a child’s sporting event – has been forged by generations who realized that if you really, truly love freedom, it means giving people enough of it to choose something you wouldn’t necessarily select for yourself.

I hope my kids are luckier than I was. I hope that if they want to stay in Montana, raise a family here, hire me for cheap babysitting labor, that they can make a go of it, like their family before them. I hope they can find affordable housing. I hope they are as enamored with the mountains and sky as I am.

Yet, as a gun owner, a concealed-carry permit holder, and a parent, I don’t feel good about having them consider a state university where any of their drunken friends can tote a gun around. I am probably not the only parent who thinks that way. And, I fear for them being bullied if they are different. Leaders at the Capitol are giving cover to kids and parents to fear and discriminate against LGBTQ folks, and I fear there aren’t enough white, straight old males like me to say, “Enough.”

You see: Montana will likely always be easy for me. Yet my love for this state stems from the belief that Montana should be easy for everyone. That’s part of our secret, and it’s a part of our heritage.

Several friends have privately contemplated moving somewhere where they believe elected leaders are not so hostile. I get that. You don’t want to stay in a place where you feel unwelcome. And that’s exactly the problem: The Legislature is speaking for Montana by its actions, but that’s not the Montana many of us know and love.

When friends from out of state read about the abortion restrictions or the gun laws, they ask: What’s wrong with your state?

I rush to defend Montana, saying, “We’re better than this.”

Yet, those conversations always leave me a bit unsettled.

What if we’re not?