Published Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wild west wimps out

I once dreamed of what America was like back when the giants that built this country packed everything they owned in a covered wagon—or a croaker sack—and set out walking from St. Louis or Kansas City to that promised land known as the American West.

Hardy folks, I figured, willing to brave wild beasts, raging rivers, sky-high mountains and anything else that stood between them and a new life in a wild, unexplored piece of a brand new nation.

By the time I finally visited California, Washington and Oregon, those places were so civilized you couldn’t tell them from Anywhere Else, USA. So a few years ago, in a last ditch effort to find some lingering traces of America’s pioneer spirit, I set out for Montana.

I wasn’t disappointed. From Bozeman to Missoula to Glacier National Park, I spent days talking to folks who still laughed at bitter winters, caught their breakfast in the fast-flowing streams coursing down out of the Swan Mountains and laughed about having to fight the local bears for the apples growing in their yards.

I left Montana believing I’d truly found the spiritual descendants of those early pioneers.

By then, Whitefish was becoming a glitzy ski resort and Big Fork was a tarted-up tourist trap, but I saw a man riding a horse through downtown Kalispell, and pickups still outnumbered cars 10 to one in every parking lot. I felt good about the place.

But a night or two before I left, a group of men told me if I really enjoyed the pioneering spirit of Montana, I’d better get my fill soon because city folk were moving in and bringing their nanny state notions with them. I didn’t believe them. By then, I had filed Montana away as a place where people were still stout enough to handle their own problems, from plowing snow out of a neighbor’s driveway to skinning an elk on opening day of hunting season.

These days, I’m not so sure.

I still read a couple of Montana newspapers, and some of the recent arrest reports reminded me just how far some current Montana residents have strayed from the state’s pioneer roots.

According to incident reports from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and Kalispell Police Department, once-hardy settlers are such wimps that in a single week in early May:

One man called the cops to say a neighbor’s cows were running lose. Twenty years ago, he would have helped round them up.

Another resident called to say a neighbor’s dog was chasing his chickens. In frontier times, that problem would have been solved with a single bullet and no questions asked.

Some of the reports were even more disturbing. For instance:

A Hungry Horse resident called 911 to complain about his neighbor’s loud car exhaust, a man on Gunsight Loop complained about a neighbor’s loud music, and a Kalispell man called 911 to report that he was offended by the smell of his neighbor’s uncollected garbage.

One man even called to complain about a neighbor walking their dog without a leash.

Loud music? Smelly garbage? Unleashed dogs?

These are now considered police problems? In Mon-by God-tana? The men and women who pioneered Montana must be spinning in their graves.

Especially one.

On June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer drew his last earthly breath on a piece of Montana prairie near the Little Big Horn River.

Custer’s Last Stand was a lousy piece of soldiering, but when things turned tough in Montana, at least Custer went down fighting.

Today’s Montanans would probably call 911.


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