Recently my family and I, in an effort to explore this great nation's Western heritage and possibly get eaten by bears, visited Montana.
Montana is a very large Western state located near, or possibly even north of, Canada. Not a lot of people live there. I would estimate that I met two-thirds of the population right at the airport car-rental counter. The population is so small, in fact, that Montana is about to lose one of its two congresspersons. This works out to a 50 percent reduction in congresspersons. We can only hope that more states decide to take this kind of responsible action.
Another nice thing about Montana is that it has a low crime rate. We spent some time in the state's largest city, Billings, which is about the size of a standard shopping mall, but with less traffic. The night we arrived, the local TV news had a segment called "Crimestoppers," in which they re-enacted a local crime. The crime depicted in this segment was -- get ready -- carpet theft. I am not making this up.
There was a scene of the re-enacters cutting through a chain to get at a roll of carpet, then loading it onto a pickup truck and making their getaway. The announcer, in a grim voice, said that the carpeting was valued at over $3,000. We have crimestopper-style shows in Miami, too, but the crimes are different. Our announcers are always saying things like: "Police found the victim's head in this toilet."
Once you get out of the crime-infested Billings area, Montana mainly consists of humongous stretches of beautiful scenery being munched on by cows. Occasionally you come to a small town, usually consisting of a post office and a bar that is in danger of collapsing from the weight of all the animal heads hanging from the walls. For research purposes we went into several of these bars. One of the most striking, decor-wise, was the New Atlas bar in Columbus, Mont., which features a giant wall-mounted herd of deceased animals, including a mutant two-headed sheep, which looks at you with all four eyes as if to say: "Either I have two heads, or you have had a lot to drink."
Patronizing many Montana bars are actual cowboys wearing actual cowboy hats and dirt-intensive Western-style clothing that was not manufactured by Ralph Lauren.
In addition to cowboys, Montana has actual Indians. One of them, a member of the Crow tribe named Henry Real Bird, took us on a tour of the Little Big Horn battlefield, the site of Custer's Last Stand. Henry used to be a rodeo rider, but now he's an administrator for Little Big Horn College, on the Crow reservation. He's also a poet, although he's modest about his literary ability.
"I just think in Crow and write it down in English," he said, "and white people think it's poetry."
On a cool but sunny day, we sat on a hill overlooking the battlefield, eating sandwiches and listening to Hank tell us about the battle. As he talked, he tended to swoop, poetically, from subject to subject, getting animated, standing up, gesturing, telling us not only what happened to Custer, but also how to smoke an Indian pipe, how the seven bull buffaloes ended up in the Big Dipper, how the water bird mixed the mud and the water to make the Crow people, and how he knew a guy who could cast a spell on your IRS return. You had to listen fast to keep up with Hank.
"When you get older," he'd say, very significantly, "you know what's under the table, and who has the grapes."
We'd all nod.
Hank said that this summer, when the tourists are there, he plans to stage three re-enactments of the battle.
"We're going to let Custer win one," he said. "That should get some publicity."
Nobody knows for certain exactly what happened to Custer in the end. Hank said that one time, in a bar, he met a guy who claimed to have a tape recording of Jesse James' granddaughter stating that the International Bankers Association hired Jesse James to kill Custer. (Are you listening, Oliver Stone?) My own theory is that Custer somehow survived the battle and is now in charge of strategic planning for the Democratic Party.
As we dropped Hank off at Little Big Horn College, I asked him how he felt about the controversy over sports teams using nicknames like "Redskins."
"I think it shows a lack of perspective," he said. "But I have been pushing to change our team nickname from 'The Fighting Rams' to 'The Fighting White Farmers.' "