Big-sky country grows big ideas about independence Montanans don't want anyone or any agency, particularly a government agency, to tell them what to do. Maybe that's what's in the air.

July 30, 1998|By Mike Bowler

Mrs. Bowler, my mother, always gives good advice.

When Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was arrested a few miles northwest of our hometown, Helena, Mont., and the Montana Freemen holed up against the FBI for 81 days near Jordan, Mont., Edeen Bowler did not panic.

"You'll be all right," she said in dead earnestness, "if you stay on the interstate."

Two related incidents make a coincidence. The third event of last week, however, makes me wonder if something is in the water, or maybe in the air.

Incredibly, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., the suspect in last week's Capitol shooting rampage, has lived part-time for some years in Rimini, even closer to Helena than Kaczynski's cabin.

Maybe it is the water. My sister Bonnie, the Latin teacher in Helena, reminded me that the snow in Rimini was always blue. A couple of watercolors my mother painted years ago along the scenic Ten-mile Creek (pronounced "crick" in Montana) confirm this oddity. Never, I learned long ago, eat or drink anything blue.

Then there were the loners who lived in old mine shacks near Rimini. I used to see them when I drove my first car, a two-wheel-drive Jeep, to Rimini on summer Saturday afternoons in the mid-'50s.

We called them "hermits" for lack of a better word. They picked over abandoned gold mines in hopes of discovering an overlooked lode. They were not inhospitable. Indeed, they seemed to welcome company, and we didn't find them threatening.

They were archetypal -- bearded, smelly. They'd give us vacant stares, as though not seeing us. We didn't think of them as crazy, but our hormones were in such commotion that we thought it strange that a man would choose to live alone in the mountains when he could be necking at the drive-in.

Montana then, as now, could accommodate lots of loners. It's the fourth-largest state in area, with nearly 900,000 people, one U.S. representative and 3.4 million cattle. Gov. Marc Racicot (pronounced ROSSco) was saying shortly after the Capitol shootings that many more people visit Montana yearly than live in it. He called my home state "a place of mythical proportions."

It's also a place where people are cussedly independent. They don't want anyone or any agency, particularly a government agency, to tell them what to do. Maybe that's what's in the air.

Back in the '80s, the federal government imposed the 55 mph speed limit on the Treasure State. Even on interstates, a travesty when you can drive 20 miles on a four-lane without a curve and without seeing another vehicle.

Montanans, with the complicity of their state troopers, found a way of defiance. In the rare event that they were ticketed, they paid the $5 fine at the window, got a receipt and a wink, then floored it while the cop waved.

Today, there's no daytime speed limit in Montana, and Montanans like it that way.

I got a face full of this defiance one day last April in the Checkerboard Bar in Martinsdale, deep in the heart of ranching country in the southwest part of the state.

It seems Ted Turner, who owns two huge ranches in Montana with his wife, Jane Fonda, had been trying to persuade fellow ranchers to switch from cattle to buffalo. "None of his damn business," said a rancher who had dropped by in his "outfit" -- his pickup -- for a cup of coffee.

Mr. Turner and Ms. Fonda are widely resented, as are "the Californians," a term that takes in everyone from out-of-state who has bought Montana property. The Californians are believed to have run up the cost of everything.

Then there are the environmentalists. All Montanans have to do is look out their windows to see the rape of their land, but that doesn't stop them from railing at the snot-nosed greenies. The Checkerboard Bar sports a sign reading, "Earth First. We'll Log the Rest of the Planets Later."

None of this is to suggest widespread looniness in Montana. That my sister is a Latin teacher indicates that conventional folks are procreating, at least in Helena. Nor do I fear that a crazed Montanan will shoot up Mr. Turner's Atlanta Braves or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the atmosphere of defiance is there, and it exists in a state with a history of vigilantism. The biggest event of the year in Helena is the student-run Vigilante Parade, and the elite society at Helena High School is 3-7-77. That's for 3 feet wide, 7 feet long and 77 inches deep -- the dimensions of the graves dug by the men who, in Montana lore, took the law into their own hands.

Mike Bowler is an education writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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