Tag Archives: culture

For Those Who Suffer for the Trust…

Check out that look of concentration as I asked questions and scribbled down the answers into my narrow reporter's notebook. Photo, I believe, by Scott Martin, one of Montana's delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

I’m sure you’ve had this experience—you catch a lyric in a song, and it suddenly embodies your struggle. This was my line: “They don’t pay me enough to suffer for the trust, I’ve got to take what’s mine before the cause gets just.”

The song was “Suffer for the Trust,” by a Chicago band called the Ike Reilly Assassination. It was the summer and fall of 2006. Early the next year, I quit my job as a reporter at the Missoulian, a job I dearly loved.

I don’t know what the musicians meant with those lyrics, but I sure as hell know what those words meant to me. “They” was Lee Enterprises, and “the trust” and the “cause” were daily journalism. That summer, I had learned that my annual raise would be something like half a percent, all and more of which would be eaten by the rising cost of our middling health insurance, even though the Missoulian had taken more than $5 million in profits that year.

The painful truth—that Lee Enterprises bled me every day because of my love of journalism—became like a bit of grit in my heart, an irritating piece of something that never gave me peace. I had a vision that my future was slowly being taken away from me. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. Instead of getting closer, my dream that I could raise my family and someday help my kids through college was slipping away.

You need to understand just how much I loved being a reporter. It’s deep within my blood. Before I could write or spell, I drew pictures and dictated stories to my mother, who then bound the pages into books with her sewing machine. And, believe me, I could bore you all afternoon with polemics about the importance of narrative, of accurate language, of the stories of a community.

I loved reporting and writing in Missoula, a town where I had spent much of my childhood and where two of my grandparents were buried. In those days, I taught a class each fall at the University of Montana’s journalism school. At that newspaper, I was able to do my life’s work….

The Missoulian is one of five Montana newspapers owned by a publicly traded company called Lee Enterprises. The company is based in Iowa, which gives an inkling of its small market roots. In 1998, with a fresh master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s journalism school, I got my first reporting job at the Billings Gazette (which I had delivered every morning during junior high school). Back then Lee owned a couple dozen daily and weekly newspapers mostly in the Midwest and the Great Plains. Rumor had it the Gazette‘s annual profit margin was an ungodly 40 percent, or at least the high 30s.

You’ve got to remember that by the late 1990s, pundits had been declaring newspapers “dead” for years, but nobody told Lee. If you retain one truth about this company, make it this: It’s leaders know how to squeeze dollars out of its papers. A lot of dollars.

For decades in smaller markets across the country, newspapers practically printed money. Prudent stockholders saw them as wise investments, with steadily rising stock values and generous dividends in good times and bad.

Yet almost every newspaper also held a special trust—a balance against its function as a business—as a community’s public record, the Fourth Estate. And publishers often felt that trust personally, its obligation. During the 1980s, that dynamic began to change.

Interestingly enough, Lee Enterprises—this chain of smallish backwater newspapers—helped lead the trend on the national media landscape toward a profits-at-all-cost approach. For instance, Wayne Schile, the publisher of the Billings Gazette in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, dramatically cut staff, raised subscription and ad rates and produced ballooning profits. The stories I heard about him… how he sacked the newspaper’s long-serving and dedicated librarian and then sent her life’s work of file cabinets and carefully cataloged clippings to the landfill… how he’d call one group of reporters into one meeting and fire the remaining, were moves that seemed designed to trash morale and heighten reporters’ innate paranoia.

This model of the no-frills newspaper spread throughout the Lee holdings, and across the industry.

Media was diversifying fast. The Internet was becoming a part of our everyday lives. News delivery seemed to shift overnight. And yet Lee continued its incredible profits, even as other newspapers in the early 2000s went dark in markets like Seattle, Denver and San Francisco, despite a real estate bubble that buoyed overall media incomes.

In June of 2005, Lee was the minnow that swallowed the whale when it purchased the venerable and ailing Pulitzer chain of newspapers. The purchase transformed Lee from an unknown, insignificant chain into one of the nation’s largest. It now owned the St. Louis Post Dispatch, one of the nation’s premier newspapers, and dozens of others, including some which had probably not been profitable for a decade.

The purchase was amazing because it was entirely financed, all $1 billion.

What was going to repay that debt? The incredibly profitable newspapers in Missoula, Billings, Helena and other places, like Sioux City, Iowa.

The logic was, if Lee could make such major cash in these small towns, just imagine what could be done on a larger scale!

And yet the opposite was true. Lee Enterprises thrived in isolated markets against little or no competition. In a market like Missoula, the newspaper has a handful of competitors for ads. In major urban areas, a newspaper has hundreds of quality competitors.

The summer of the Pulitzer purchase, I had been working as the business reporter at the Missoulian for a year and as a journalist for six or seven. My Lee stock, which was my retirement plan, was almost $50 a share. I remember checking the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission that June or July, and seeing a filing that said the Missoulian publisher had sold something like 100,000 of his own shares. That didn’t seem to bode well…. I wondered about that….

The details of the Pulitzer repayment plan required huge balloon payments to Deutsche Bank. Each of those payments seemed really big, as I recall, like a hundred million dollars or more. To amass money for those payments, our already austere paper got even tighter. Nobody could clock overtime. Reporters drove their own vehicles, and got reimbursed at less than half the government rate even as gas prices went through the roof.

Companies can only pull this kind of crap with an insecure workforce, and we were. I knew back then that the only way we’d have a fair shot at a decent life was by joining together. Without some leverage, none of us could negotiate for jack. Yet after only a few evening conversations with my fellow reporters about the nuts-and-bolts of forming a union, I got a wave from my editor Mike McInally (a man for whom I somehow still have tremendous respect and affection) calling me into his office. After asking me to close the door, he said, “I’ve heard you’ve been talking to people about unions. If I ever hear that again, you’re fired.”

His words (a textbook example of illegal workplace coercion) stunned me, my shit-eating grin frozen on my face. To save my job, I shamelessly disavowed my intentions, while my editor insisted that he loved my news stories and positive attitude and didn’t want to get rid of me. A few minutes later, humiliated and furious at myself, my heart pounding and my hands shaking, I returned to my desk and stared at my computer screen. I promised myself that I was done trying to help anyone else. From then on, I would do for me.

So maybe it’s no wonder that “Suffer for the Trust” became my anthem, that I left my job a few short years later, that wonderful job that didn’t feel like work at all, for a high-paying gig at a hateful little boutique communications firm where I didn’t last a year.

Later, as I bounced around in search of a new way to follow my calling, Lee Enterprises hit snag after snag. Each time it punished its workers—several of them my closest friends, and many for whom I have tremendous admiration and professional respect—with layoffs and benefit cuts. Still, Lee’s stock value kept dropping until it reached its nadir, a few cents over a quarter. My retirement portfolio—and more importantly, the portfolios of my friends and former co-workers—had become basically worthless. In late 2011, the corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

So it came as no surprise early this year when rumors foretold of more job losses. The news hurt, last week, when 10 of the company’s Montana employees confronted the sudden prospect of unemployment in this bleak economy, especially as word of the latest bonus of $500,000 for Lee’s CEO Mary Junck came out at almost exactly the same time.

It’s easy and appropriate to blame Junck and her thuggish clutch of publishers, including my old editor Mike McInally who served as publisher for a pair of papers in Oregon, last I heard. That class will never do right by journalism.

And yet the reporters and copy editors, the support staff and press operators continue to do as much as possible. In fact, I think the Billings Gazette, which has a fantastic editor and incredible writers, has been producing better journalism, including thoughtful and provocative editorials, than it ever has.

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Filed under News and Commentary, Raw Material for a Memoir

The Re-Introduction of Bill Foley

Back in 2007 and 2008, rumors swirled around western Montana of a billionaire from the financial industry who had purchased a massive, storied cattle ranch near the town of Deer Lodge.

The billionaire’s name was Bill Foley, then the Chairman and CEO of Fidelity National Financial.

Some of the rumors were typical, the kind you hear about rich people with more money than sense. For instance, Foley had supposedly hired a golf pro and former manager of a hot dog cart to oversee the construction of a new complex of buildings on the ranch. (Had he been the manager of outside vendors at some California golf course? That’s what someone told me.)

Other rumors had a sharper edge. I wondered what reality might lie beneath them. One story had the construction manager first hiring and then blithely firing a bunch of Deer Lodge locals for the construction crews.

That’s not all. Later, at the Deer Lodge rodeo, some of those hired-and-fired construction workers supposedly spotted the construction manager where he sat in the stands with his wife, and then tossed pebbles at him to get him to come down to get his ass kicked!

There were other tales that skewered Foley and his pals as out-of-touch outsiders or truly sharks with hearts of stone, but curiously I sometimes heard a competing storyline, one that surfaces from time to time about characters like this. This is it… that Foley was “down-to-earth” and a “regular” guy.

I enjoy a thorough, well-reported profile as much as the next guy, and Foley seemed to present an interesting case study, so I geared up to write about him. I wanted to find out as much as I could. I studied Foley’s businesses. I talked to business analysts. I called his old friends and acquaintances. I interviewed Foley by phone and in person, and I called a number of people who he directed me to. I did my best to be fair, and to sort through the bullshit to find the truth.

In the end, my research revealed a portrait of a man who managed to consolidate an industry and make a massive fortune for himself on the strength of his trend-spotting abilities and his unscrupulous heart. The thing that really struck me about him was the way he talked about firing thousands of hard-working employees. It was necessary, he said, to strengthen the company, which paid him hundreds of millions for his cut-throat business sense.

Still, I don’t believe Foley gave a damn for wrecking the livelihoods of the people who actually did the work at Fidelity National Financial!

Is that wrong? Who am I do say? But I can tell you that I would never be able to behave like he did. Or if I did, I’d probably struggle, as he appears to, to present myself as a “down-to-earth” “regular” guy.

Also, I thought it odd that he apparently missed the deep irony behind his business actions: His company made fortunes on housing transactions but in the process wrecked the ability of tens of thousands of employees to be home-owners. How will companies like Fidelity prosper if fewer and fewer people can buy homes?

Plus, Foley’s a tool. He actually tried to buy me off by offering me the carrot of a fat contract writing his authorized biography.

With that introduction, I think you’ll probably enjoy the heck out of this piece.

The excellent photography was by Anne Medley.

P.S. Is Bill Foley really a billionaire? Actually… probably not. At least, not according to Forbes and others who track the net worth of rich individuals.

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Filed under 2008, News and Commentary, Old News Stories and Columns

Good Fun With a Simple Smoker

I idealize cool stuff like smoking my own meat, but the truth is that I owned a red Brinkmann smoker for years before I even understood how the parts fit together.

And then, last fall, after promising to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving, I watched some wonderfully simple and informative youtube posts that taught me how the thing fit together and how to use it. After that bit of online education, a successful gobbler experience, and several subsequent and decent attempts to smoke fish and beef, I began to think of myself as “one of those guys who smokes meat.”

I believe pretty much anything is a good thing that gets me into the backyard for the better part of a day (except for doing actual yard work like raking or mowing or cleaning up all the toys and detritus back there), so I was in a great mood last week when a guy at work made me a present of a Styrofoam cooler imprinted with a simple red, white and blue map of Texas. Within the cooler sat two bags of wild goose breasts, dark red and frozen rock hard.

At home, the goose meat thawed in the refrigerator, then soaked in a brine. (One cup salt, some soy sauce, the juice of an orange, a couple garlic cloves, and a generous dose of Worcestershire sauce and enough water to make it work. )

I’ve learned that birds soaked in brine prefer to sit uncovered in the fridge overnight. It helps them develop a skin, tacky to the touch, that keeps them moist, even after hours in the smoker.

On Sunday morning, I started a charcoal fire in the base of my no-frills smoker. I filled the water pan, and made sure there was plenty of apple chips for the smoke.

These geese didn’t have an ounce of fat, and I worried about them getting over-dry, so I piled them together and draped bacon strips on top.

Goose breasts, brined and baconed and prepped for the smoker.

And… after about five hours during which time the simplistic thermometer on my smoker read “ideal,” the breasts were done, tender and smoky.

It’s the best meat there is. No preservatives. No hormones. No antibiotics. Just wild game, the ultimate free-range organic meat. Absolutely delicious.

Oh, but this story has an addendum. I brought about half the smoked meat to work, chilled and sliced thin. I sent out an email alerting people to the meat, and the email found its way into the hands of a local politics-and-media blogger, who posted an item about it.

Under other circumstances, I might have been irritated with the blogger’s behavior. (He emailed as if he were interested in a bite, without disclosing his intent, and so I told him how to get a few slices.) But his post seemed so harmless. Plus, what are you gonna do?

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The Decemberists light a child’s imagination: A boy and his parents awash in tales of the sea

This column is about the unlikely love of a landlocked Montana family with sea shanties, and how that love grew to embrace an indie band fascinated with the same genre. This first ran in the Missoulian in 2006, a short year before our daughter was born. With the exception of a few edits, the essay below remains faithful to the original.

One of my 8-year-old son’s favorite songs is a gruesome sea shanty about the British Admiral John Benbow, who got his legs torn off by a cannonball in 1702.

We love that sweet and lilting air.

At bedtime at our house, imagine me lying in the dark of my son Josiah’s room, singing about brave Benbow or the sailor who sunk the Turkish Revelee or the wonderful tune about the sailors in the waters off Greenland.

In the dark it’s easy to imagine, encapsulated in the magic of those old lyrics about heartbreak and loss and sailors buried at sea, that we’re rocking in the cozy belly of a wooden ship on the high seas. The feeling between us is one of the things the bland word “love” is supposed to mean. But that word can hardly convey the power of that nighttime ritual.

Yet it helps to explain why the trio of our family will be at the Wilma Theater on Thursday at 8 p.m. to hear the Decemberists sing “bloody and gruesome” numbers about, well, “crazy, weird, exotic imaginative themes,” to use the words of the group’s lead singer Colin Meloy.

We’ll be in the balcony, according to our tickets, and we may be the only couple bringing a second-grade child who ought to be tucked into bed about the same time the show will begin.

Our relationship with the Decemberists began last spring, long after the group– which I know almost nothing about–had begun performing modern songs that echo those classic melodies.

Do you know the term “shantey?” I’m not talking about a ramshackle hut built of cardboard and scraps of tin. Sometimes written “chantey,” it’s a song that sailors once sang while doing work or, I imagine, to while away the awfully long and endlessly boring hours at sea.

As a kid in the 1970s, I listened to “Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick” by Paul Clayton. At bedtime, I’d sneak into the living room in our apartment in family housing at the University of Montana beneath the looming hulk of Mountain Sentinel, crouch next to our enormous wooden stereo and lean against the barely audible speakers to hear Clayton’s versions of those lively and, I later learned, often ribald tunes.

I’ve never been on a big wooden ship myself, except once for about three minutes in 1997 when one docked in Oakland, Calif., when I lived there. The tall ship that day seemed rather banal, the volunteer crew too obsessed with trivia about the old whaling and sailing days. I felt like an outsider in a club too lame to join.

Truth be told, I’m an amateur compared to dedicated shantey-ists. I’ve never dressed in flowing shirts to perform at festivals.  If I went to sea, I’d probably lay in bed seasick the whole time, groaning. I don’t know how to tie any fancy sea knots. I’ve never read much about maritime history, except for the liner notes on the Clayton’s yellow and faded album cover.

Really, though, Clayton lays out all you need to know.

“Boney the Warrior” tells the story of Napoleon. “Blood Red Roses” is a prosaic reference to the red outerwear favored by British soldiers going around Cape Horn. (You remember the Redcoats from your school lessons about the American Revolution, right?) I’ve just never understood why soldiers would have been hunting for whales, but never mind.

Most of the remaining shanties are self-explanatory, if you can make out the lyrics, but why bother; the melodic range of Clayton’s renditions are absolutely some of the most beautiful I’ve heard.

Not that I would talk about all this publicly. That’s why it was a revelation when the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” came out in 2003. Turns out there’s tons of us closet, old-timey sea story lovers.

I enjoy “Pirates” as much for its goofiness as for its sailing ships and story line.

That, too, is why the Decemberists’ “Mariner’s Revenge” made me grin.

The ballad is fantastical, ridiculous, really, and it has logical gaps, which is why it’s so fun.

It begins in the belly of a whale: “Its ribs our ceiling beams./ Its guts our carpeting,” I believe the lyrics go.

The narrator then tells his companion, also stuck inside the whale’s belly, why he’s going to kill him. He explains that long ago connection, the companion seduced and defrauded his mother, which led to her death and his life as a desperate urchin in the streets.

And now, trapped with the object of his lifelong hatred, the narrator is poised to wreak his revenge.

This is the perfect sea music for me and my family. It draws from and looks back with a smirk to those wonderful songs of the sea. It’s funny. It’s not too serious. It doesn’t require us to join a nerdy club.

Well, I should qualify that last statement. I don’t think we’ll join any nerdy clubs. The balcony may be crammed with moms and dads and 8-year-olds. If that happens, who knows? Maybe I’ll form the club.

 

Here’s an incredible, unofficial video of ” The Mariner’s Revenge Song.

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Filed under 2006, Family, Old News Stories and Columns

What’s Up With ‘Brokeback?’ My Relatives Got Pissed

You can gather from my earlier posts that I have a lot of family in Montana. I can name all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, even a few second cousins, but after that it gets fuzzy.

Those relations jumped into focus when I drew comparisons in a newspaper column a few years ago between my grandfather George Meakins and a gay cowboy.

My grandfather, George Meakins. Taken at my Aunt Della’s home in Hall, Montana, by my father in the early 1970s.

One of my mom’s cousins–a woman I don’t know but who clearly lived in the Missoulian’s circulation area–mailed an outraged letter with the clipping to my grandmother.

My mom told me about what sounded like a furor among her cousins. One of her sisters joined the detractors. My uncle and another of my aunts rushed to my defense. It was actually kind of intimidating to learn that distant relatives were lining up against me, some of whom I wouldn’t even recognize on the street!

On the other hand, I do understand that family members can get worked up over representations of our shared history. Yet the letter, with its obvious homophobia, bothered me.

For some people in my family, a column about gayness obviously crossed the line… even though the column itself wasn’t about sexuality at all, but about the hard life of a ranch hand and his family. Yet to an ignorant reader, I had apparently insinuated that my grandfather was gay. Or maybe it’s just that my family’s bigotry couldn’t accept any association with “Brokeback Mountain.”

Additionally, I know some family members expressed outrage at my forthright descriptions of their poverty.

And yet it pained me to think the column might have bothered my grandmother, Lillian Meakins, who came up in a time and place so different from our own that it’s difficult to fathom. She was born in 1914. She grew up on a homestead on the Missouri River in eastern Montana–forty miles by horse or wagon south of Malta. She killed chickens with her hands. She could bake a cake on an open fire. My grandmother was a tough lady, but also soft and somehow uncertain of herself.

Some months after the column had appeared, I sat on the couch in her trailer home near Billings. For years, she and I had had a careful relationship, by which I mean that we avoided anything like a sensitive subject. We talked about regular things, like the weather. Or else I asked her about her life, questions she answered gruffly, as if the answers should have been obvious. “What dances did we do? Well, the two-step!”

It was time, I thought, to be straight-forward. I asked my grandmother if the column had bothered her. I reminded her what it said. I described the movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” including that it was a love story about two men.

She surprised me with the strength of her response. No, she said. It didn’t bother her. She thought I should write whatever the newspaper would print.

I believed her. It was one of her sweetest, most grandmotherly moments.

Here are some things I know about my grandmother. She rejected racism against black and Indian people. About a neighboring Indian family, she said they “had the cleanest laundry in town.” For my grandmother, it was not only a high compliment, because it meant they worked hard.  But it was, in her mind, a direct counterpoint to the common slur of the “dirty Indian.”  She didn’t only tell me that anecdote, or my mom, I imagine, but her coworkers at the cafe and nursing home, or the elderly neighbors for whom she drove errands.

I understand, now, that her acceptance extended to gays.

What a lady.

With my grandmother behind me, I didn’t care about the fuss.

My grandmother, Lillian Meakins, was  more irritated than amused when I used the “Photo Booth” feature on my new computer to capture her image. She was 92.

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‘Brokeback’ Brings Back a Grandpa’s Tough Roots

I wrote this column while working the city government beat at the Missoulian.  It’s about my family and about the film, Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by the same name. I don’t particularly enjoy the writing of Annie Proulx, except for The Shipping News, but the movie had a big impact on me.   She meant to explain, I suspect, and somehow understand the seemingly contradictory  lives of some westerners, lives that are at once beautiful and self-destructive, limited and limitless.

Here’s the column, not quite as it ran in March, 2006.

Forget the din about the gay cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the Ang Lee movie nominated for eight Oscars.

For me, the film was less about unrequited romantic love and more about the beauty, poverty and isolation of some lives in the rural Rocky Mountain West.

That’s the part of the story that got me thinking about my own family. I caught a glimpse of my own grandfather, George Meakins, reflected in the life of ranch hand Ennis del Mar, the main character hauntingly portrayed by Heath Ledger.

For Ennis, as for every ranch hand, life was hard. The pay was marginal. The future held no promise but a shabby, rented trailer on a desolate, windswept piece of land.

But what a beautiful life!

My grandfather was born in 1899 in Mobridge, S.D. As a boy, he worked and lived in a livery stable in Great Falls. As a teenager, he searched the train tracks for coal and delivered milk and eggs to a brothel.

My grandfather spent almost his entire adult life, between stints on the railroad and in the mines, as a ranch hand. He never owned much more than what could fit on a horse or in the back of an old Ford.

Married and divorced once apiece, George and my grandmother Lillian met in the late 1930s. In 1949, when my mom was born, George worked for a cattle rancher in the Flint Creek area.

The life of a ranch hand is transitory and tough. Even the smallest cattle or sheep ranchers seem fabulously rich by comparison.

And yet die-hard ranch hands like Ennis and my grandfather hang on to their odd place in the menial labor pool with a stubborn, tough-as-nails love.

It’s a love maybe something like the one portrayed in the movie, a love that bound together Ennis and Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

After one short summer herding sheep together in 1963, the two characters drift apart but always hold onto that clinching love.

The Ennis character displays the  same level of ambition that my grandfather had — basically none. Ennis marries a local girl and starts a family and finds work helping a rancher.

At one point in the film, Ennis crouches in the bed of a slow-rolling pickup as it crosses a snowy field, throwing hay to eager cattle. The scene is lovingly shot, the stark landscape clean and pure.

But the idea that Ennis can support his family with such a job is a cruel joke. His family lives in desperate poverty. It’s the mid-1960s. Other families watch TV in carpeted split-level ranch homes, but Ennis’ wife scrubs their babies’ diapers by hand on a washboard.

This story sounds familiar.

My grandmother used a wringer-washer, not that she complained. (She never thought washing machines got the whites white.) But the constant labor of that life wears hard on a person. For the most part, the homes my mother grew up in had no plumbing. In the worst times, mice ran over them at night. Some of those shacks were fit only to be burned.

In “Brokeback,” Ennis’ wife reaches a point where she’s had enough. She takes her kids and leaves him, ostensibly because she saw Ennis embrace Jack.

But think about it. After the divorce, Alma marries a salesman who can afford to buy her a house. The fact of Ennis’ gayness is just one more reason why his future sucks. Ennis might have been tireless during calving season, but Alma worried about being able to buy groceries at the end of the month, never mind who would pay for health care and college for the kids?

Similar stresses must have torn at my mom’s parents, who divorced in the summer of 1963. My grandmother was 45 and, I imagine, tired of chopping kindling every day. There was no change in sight.

Like Ennis, my grandfather was a kind and charming man. He had an old-fashioned manner. He never swore in the house. He had a terrific work ethic and told funny stories.

But the idea that he might change to make life easier on his family? It wasn’t in the cards.

When I was a kid, my mom would tell stories about her horses and various adventures on the ranches where her father worked. I liked hearing how she and her sister Dolly would go to the bone pile sometimes, to have a good cry over the remains of a favorite dog. The sisters performed tricks on their ponies before imaginary audiences.

Some of the stories have faded, leaving behind mere impressions. One is the summery feeling of newly cut hay on bare feet, the individual stalks soft as hair, stalks that dry and stiffen into sharp and stabbing stubble.

At the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” a scene between Ennis and his daughter, who had beautiful long hair like my mother, touched a nerve.

In Ennis’ remote trailer, father and daughter talked with an unstated affection. Also unspoken was a share of hopelessness and loneliness.

I don’t imagine it’s easy to be the daughter of a ranch hand, when his love for his hardscrabble life doesn’t leave much room for you.

But still, what a sweet dad.

My grandfather lived his hand-to-mouth existence until his death from cancer in 1975 in a hospital in Missoula.

On his deathbed, he talked in his delirium about my grandmother and his saddle horse. He’s buried in Valley Cemetery on a hill between Hall and Drummond.

Note: My grandmother died in 2010. I miss her.

My grandmother Lillian Meakins (then Johnston) on a motorcycle, probably near Sidney, Montana.

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Filed under 2006, Old News Stories and Columns

Misfits and Why We Love Them

2-11-08

Robert Struckman

Back in 1981, some weeks before the start of grade school, a tinker of a man walked out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness with a backpack and dirty clothes and asked me how my luck was.

That summer, like most others of my childhood, my father worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Five of us lived in a one-room, bathroom-free shack on the outskirts of the town of Seeley Lake, Montana.

My luck, as it happened, was great. I was fishing on a bit of a stream no wider than a ditch, yanking brook trout from the water with grasshoppers as bait.

The mountain man sat down beside me. Soon he set up a tent a few hundred yards from our shack, caught a few trout of his own and cooked them in a quick, flavorful stew with reconstituted carrots and powdered vegetables. We wiled away the day, eating and philosophizing. I fished with him for days until he packed up and hiked off.

I had that bearded and thoughtful mountain man in mind in 1999 when I telephoned libraries around the region for an informal survey of hermits and other self-styled castaways for a daily newspaper feature about the culture of the West.

It made my heart swell with regional pride when the doughty librarians in towns like Red Lodge and Casper responded defensively to a call from a reporter about their quirky customers. (I had called public libraries because Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, maintained an epistolary relationship from jail with a librarian in Lincoln, the small town near which he holed up in the years before his 1996 arrest.) All of them knew of soloists who, although presumably not murderous, shared superficial traits with the Unabomber.

The hermits of the West don’t all live in the wilderness on old mining claims. My uncle, who suffered from schizophrenia and died of a heart attack in 1997, lived more than 20 years in a small rental house near the railroad tracks on Missoula’s north side. A sardonic woodworker and a phenomenally patient gardener, he existed in an insular world, guarded by his family and neighbors.

One of the great strengths of the Mountain West is our propensity to attract and shelter loners. The sparsely populated crags, windswept plains and river bottoms of this region have given refuge over the years to a special brand of misfit. Those oddballs, mostly harmless, have exerted an anti-homogenizing influence on the region’s culture, which is one reason this area has retained its ethic of individualism so attractive to the rest of the nation.

This attractiveness, manifesting itself as lifestyle, has joined metals and agriculture products as one of our most valuable commodities, and fed a massive growth industry, growth itself. A commodity, though, is a uniform product – all sheets of plywood are basically identical – and that’s exactly what our cities and towns and mountains and forests are not.

For long decades, while the rest of America ordered food from coast-to-coast restaurant chains, local drive-ins in the economic eddies and backwaters of Wyoming and Idaho and Montana and Oregon continued frying fries and serving burgers, blithely unaware of their own obsolescence. Once common, they’ve become jewels you stumble onto sometimes, when driving long hours to visit relatives.

The Mountain West, in this respect at least, is now catching up with the country, and there is plenty to be said for that. Roads get upgraded. Big box stores sprout along newly broadened commercial corridors. Upscale retailers reveal themselves in formerly dilapidated downtown storefronts. Incomes are rising.

Yet the ethic of idiosyncrasy is one that’s worth preserving, even as we grow. That means maintaining privacy for those who seek it, as well as keeping open the access to our vast tracts of public land and funding our public libraries, those migration corridors and refuges of the loners.

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Montana’s Cash Cowboy

Billionaire Bill Foley has bought a ski resort, a cattle ranch and a couple of restaurant chains in Montana — and the self-described “serial acquirer” may be just getting started.

5-14-08

If you didn’t know any better, you might think William Patrick (Bill) Foley II was just another retiring baby boomer looking for golf courses, open spaces and the chance to recapture an idealized childhood of summertimes on the family ranch. A frank man with an almost goofy charm, he speaks of his love for Montana, his concern for the landscape — and the joy he gets bombing around the backcountry on an ATV or a snowmobile.

But the truth is, Foley isn’t very good at leisure. He’s got the fancy log home on Whitefish Lake, five West Coast wineries, the huge cattle ranch near Deer Lodge, and the requisite private jets, but he can’t seem to help turning everything into a business.

He bought Big Mountain, the Whitefish ski hill, and is busy turning it into a more elaborate entity called Whitefish Mountain Resort. He’s transforming the 90,000-acre Rock Creek Cattle Company into a gated, luxury vacation community with 240 home sites. He bought the Glacier Jet Center at the Kalispell Airport, where he parks his planes, and has big ambitions for that, too.

He enjoyed a couple of local restaurants — Ciao Mambo and MacKenzie River Pizza Co. — and added them to his portfolio, with plans to build a substantial casual eatery chain. And then there’s Fidelity National Timber Resources, which owns extensive forests in Oregon and Washington that Foley thought had a lot of value for real estate development.

“I’m a serial acquirer,” he says. “I can’t seem to stop, whatever flaw that is. And then I can’t stand it until it is perfect. I have to keep on fooling with it. I wish I could figure that one out. My golf game would get a lot better.”

RICH MAN’S RANCH:The Rock Creek Cattle Co. near Deer Lodge, Mont. will keep the cows — event as it adds several hundred luxury houses. Photo by Anne Medley.

Don’t be fooled though: He’s no slouch. Golf Digest named him one of the world’s top five executive golfers in 2004. And if his record at Fidelity National Financial, the Fortune 500 company he built from scratch, is any indication, he’s not done buying things in the West. Fidelity acquired more than 100 companies under Foley’s leadership and spun off a second public company, Fidelity National Information Services, about two years ago. In the past few years, Fidelity National Financial recapitalized, paying Foley a bundle, and he has been unloading big chunks of his FNIS stock (he stepped down as CEO of the two companies in mid-2007). He’s now set up as a perfectly positioned cash buyer at a time when lots of distressed assets are on the market.

Indeed, Foley appears to be in a much better spot than most of the Wall Street moguls, Silicon Valley financiers and high-rolling property developers who see the surging “amenity economy” in the Mountain West as the next great capitalist frontier. In some ways, he’s representative of the breed: a very rich man who’s become enamored with the West, and whose first instinct is to buy it.

Yet a number of high-profile developments by and for the wealthy — Promontory in Utah, Tamarack Resort in Idaho and Yellowstone Club in Montana, to name the most prominent examples — are staggering under heavy debt loads and a weakening economy. Boomtowns from Boise to Bozeman are seeing slower growth. But Foley, with an immense and highly liquid fortune, can afford to take the long view.

Foley is a West Point grad, and there is a certain military efficiency in his approach to business: Make sure you have plenty of assets, strategize carefully to find the non-obvious openings, win hearts and minds if you can — and cut your losses, unsentimentally, at the first sign of trouble.

If you’re the owner of a company that Foley wants to buy, it’s all sweetness and light and big piles of cash (hostile takeovers aren’t his thing). Steve Shuel, who sold MacKenzie River Pizza Co. to Foley’s restaurant group, describes the deal-making as “an unbelievable process in a positive way.” Contractors say he pays his bills, always and on time (which is more than you can say for a lot of moneyed developers), and public officials in Montana call him a model corporate citizen.

But if you’re driving around Whitefish Lake, or any other place where Foley owns a big spread, you can expect to see access to fishing blocked by poster-sized signs saying, “No Trespassing” and “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” Not all the signs are his, but his are among the largest and most menacing.

MONTANA CHIC:Foley’s home on Whitefish Lake features old barn wood (even on this three-car garage) and ranch-style architecture (emphasis on “style”). Photo by Anne Medley.

If you’re an employee at Fidelity National Financial during a period of retrenchment, you can expect that pink slip unaccompanied by any severance pay. If you’re a contractor falling behind on a job, watch out — even if, as in one case at the Rock Creek Cattle Co., your wife just committed suicide.

Foley has no time for people who don’t get it done: “If they didn’t perform, we fired them.”

All of which raises the question: why bring this approach to the Mountain West, which defines itself, at least in part, as a place with a different pace to life? Why buy property and build gates and fences in a state where the law — and the vast majority of the citizenry — zealously guard the principle of access to public lands and waterways? Why try to convince yourself, as Foley does, that your 11,000-square-foot house on Whitefish Lake, built of oak from a Kentucky tobacco barn and complete with solid copper drain spouts, is “like an old Montana ranch house.”

Partly, as always for Foley, it’s a business opportunity. But the business and the personal are tightly intertwined: “In the East, everyone wants out,” he muses. “We’ve worked hard all of our lives, and we’re hitting the age point where we want to get away. We want land and space, want to be in a cool area, maybe not all year around, but we want to be there enough to really enjoy it. We all want life to be what we had as a kid.”

Foley was born in 1944 in Austin, Texas, the only child of an Air Force officer. The family moved every few years, following his father’s transfer orders to Alaska, California (where his father was commander of Edwards Air Force Base), Virginia and Venezuela, where he attended an American-style school from the seventh to the tenth grade. Then it was a short stint in Elizabethtown, Penn., and Clinton, Md., where Foley graduated from Surrattsville High School (named after Mary Surratt, a woman conspirator hanged for her role in the assassination of President Lincoln.)

DON’T EAT THE WOODEN ARTICHOKES: The Foley house is meticulously decorated with Western and agricultural themes. Photo by Anne Medley.

His mother was the scion of an old Texas ranching family, and she had four brothers, all of whom had first children, boys, who were the same age as young Bill. Until he was 16, his mother regularly returned with him to a family ranch near Amarillo.

“I grew up summers there, not for school years,” Foley says. “We’d go to a canyon, hang out and ride horses and shoot, do all kinds of dumb stuff.”

But it was the United States Military Academy at West Point, more than summers in Texas or schooling abroad, which seems to have shaped Foley. Tom Dyer, one of his schoolmates, recalls how he and Bill and about 800 other boys arrived at college on a July day in 1963, each an individual with his own haircut and clothing. “By five o’clock that night, we all had the same clothes on. Everybody had his head shaved.”

The academic program did not offer a lot of flexibility: a heavy dose of math, science and engineering tempered by a bit of the liberal arts.

“It served its purpose well. They strip you down, put you back together, better than what you were,” Dyer says. “You get a strong constitution.”

Or, as Foley puts it, “You don’t understand it quite then, what it does for you.”

Almost all of the 583 young men who graduated with Foley went into the Army and most went to Vietnam. At that time, West Point allowed graduates to follow their father into another service. Foley had fallen in love with airplanes as a boy and had wanted to fly, he says, but his eyesight had deteriorated during college. The Air Force offered him a spot as a navigator. “That’s really great news: fly in the back of an F4 over Vietnam,” he says. That sounded like a good way to get shot.

Instead, he got a desk assignment in Seattle as an Air Force representative at Boeing Company, overseeing military contracts. Neither Foley nor his fellow officers had any training in the engineering and manufacturing of aircraft, so Foley applied a regression analysis and figured out that certain costs should have been lower; he saved the Air Force $40 million on one of his earlier renegotiations, he says. He specialized in finding the padding inserted into the deals. By 26, he held the rank of captain and had authority to negotiate contracts worth up to $250 million.

The financial acumen started earlier.

“From the beginning, there was something about Bill and his penchant for, or knack for, capitalism. We would be talking about whatever, and Bill would be talking about what was going on in the stock market,” Dyer says. “He was just advanced in that regard.”

GO ARMY! Foley is loyal to West Point, his alma mater: “Traveling around, as an only child, I was a bit of a wimp, self-centered,” he says. “It did a lot for me, taught me dicipline and authority. Photo by Anne Medley.

Foley says he had been a stock chartist, even at West Point. “I kept my own charts, did everything by hand. I had a broker in New York City. I’d run down and make a collect phone call. I wasn’t very scientific. I got interested in oil. I also invested in a lot of airlines. Regional airlines were getting merged — Mohawk, Bonanza, Air West, Pacific Airlines. I did really well with them. I tried to take my losses quick. I started with $2,000 dad gave me. I ended up with $25,000, which was a lot of money in 1967.”

While still in the Air Force, Foley began taking classes at Seattle University, working toward a master’s degree in business administration. He had also come to the conclusion that Seattle wasn’t a good place to meet women. He and a friend applied a bit of social analysis and concluded that flight attendants might provide fruitful fodder.

“We snooped and found an apartment building full of flight attendants: four to an apartment, three to an apartment. There were 150 units. There must have been 300 at least,” Foley says. “I met Carol there at a party. We married before I was out of the Air Force,” he says. Bill and Carol have four children.

Foley likes to mention that Carol put him through law school at the University of Washington with her job at United Airlines. Since then, he says, she’s been a freeloader.

“What? She’s a freeloader. I like to be honest,” he says.

After law school, Foley went to Arizona because it seemed to be happening, full of money from Chicago and the West Coast. He got a job at a big law firm, and, after a couple of years, founded his own firm with a few partners. He helped one client buy a small title insurance company and then, in 1984, engineered the purchase of that company for himself and his investors. He expanded the small Phoenix title company, Fidelity National Financial, mostly through acquisitions, and in 1987 took the company public and continued its growth. Some of his early deals were less than stellar, he says. He bought a troubled agency with little potential in Tucson for $1 million.

“We probably should have paid $300,000,” he says. Before long he had figured out how to buy companies often far below book value, pennies on the dollar.

“A big company would say, ‘We have to get out. We’re done.’ I’d pick up semi-bankrupt operations and survive long enough to turn them around,” he says.

All told Foley has done more than 100 corporate mergers and at least as many acquisitions. By 2003, Fidelity provided title insurance for close to one-third of all the residential real estate transactions in the United States and, in 2006, had revenues of $9.6 billion and profits of nearly $1 billion. The company streamlined its business operations with purchases of technology companies and other back-office service providers; some of those lines have been spun off into their own companies, including Fidelity National Information Services, which works with nine of the top 10 global banks. Fidelity National Financial remains so large that another spinoff, the lender services division, could well take place within a few months.

Foley is often credited with being one of the first to recognize the growth potential of the title insurance field, always something of a backwater in the real estate world. And while the company has taken a hit from the national real estate slump, it’s also finding new opportunities: managing foreclosure operations.

Not everyone thinks Foley’s leadership has been optimal. Jim Ryan, a Morningstar analyst who studies the company, gives the Fidelity companies low marks for stewardship and a lack of focus. “They act more like a Leucadia, the investment company, which buys and sells and is extremely good at it. Fidelity National Financial treats the title business as a cash cow to run an investment company,” he says, “but they don’t have the right people or the patience to pull it off.”

“I don’t like the shifting and spinning off of companies,” Ryan adds. Last quarter, for instance, Fidelity National Financial bought back one company from its own spinoff. Plus, he feels Fidelity National Financial’s board rewards Foley with big bonuses for deals that don’t necessarily add value for stockholders. Ryan cited a few recent deals, including Fidelity’s purchase of 293,000 acres of timberland for about $94 million from the wreckage of what had been Cascade Timberlands. The land extends from Bend, Ore., to the California border. Ryan says: “I’m still trying to figure that one out.”

When talking to Foley and his team, though, the artfulness of the Cascade purchase seems like part of the allure. The former assets of the bankrupt timber company had gone to auction, but, instead of bidding for the acreage, Fidelity took a back-door route, buying a controlling share of the bankrupt company’s debt. Then it stopped the auction and turned those assets to its own use. Fidelity now has two major private communities in the works on its former timberlands.

Still, in the 20 years that Fidelity National Financial has been a publicly traded company, it has averaged a 22 percent annual return to its shareholders — and Foley is proud of that figure. It’s the kind of number that keeps skeptical analysts at bay.

People who work with Foley — from his contractors to his secretaries to his business partners and associates — describe him as a genius and one of the hardest workers they’ve ever met. (The publisher of this magazine ran into him working the lift line at Whitefish Mountain Resort.) He retains even miniscule details about his many business ventures and seems to have an intuitive feel for whether something will make money or not.

SPEED IT UP! Contractors say Foley pays his bills promptly, but he sometimes cycles through workers at a dizzying rate. Photo by Anne Medley.

Foley maintains an easy-going air. By contrast, Greg Lane, his point man in Montana, often looks stressed out. A mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who joined Foley’s team in 1997, Lane is jokingly referred to as “Bill’s better half.” Lane worries about Foley, and says he can’t go on vacation because he has to keep an eye on Foley’s businesses. He also heads up the political side of Foley’s work — talking to county commissioners, planning boards, citizen groups, city councils, tribal leaders, governors and others. Often, locals react strongly when a billionaire buys into the neighborhood and airs ambitious development plans.

In Whitefish, for instance, there has been a backlash against Foley, who in a trademark piece of deal-making acquired a controlling interest in the stock of Big Mountain, a ski area that was built and owned by local residents. Foley’s first effort to buy the company failed, but then Richard Dasen, a local businessman and major shareholder in Big Mountain, was arrested and charged with luring girls and meth-addicted young women into prostitution. (Dasen was found guilty of five felonies, including sexual abuse of children, and recently finished serving a two-year prison sentence.) Dasen had to sell his assets in a hurry. Foley bought his Big Mountain stock, which gave him enough leverage to push through a series of reverse stock splits until he had a controlling interest. (Foley has since invested heavily in the resort, putting in new lifts and a day lodge, among other amenities.)

When Foley invests in something, he hates to go halfway. When he wanted to give to his alma mater two years ago, for instance, he gave $25 million, the single largest gift in West Point’s history, to build a new athletic center.

Politically, Foley jokingly calls himself a “cross-dresser.” He’s socially liberal, he says, and fiscally conservative. He likes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican) and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (Democrat). He says he’ll probably vote for presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in November. His record of campaign contributions over the past 15 years would lead you to believe his politics are driven by his business. Foley gives generously across the board to Republicans and, generally speaking, to sure-thing Democrats. Since the 2000 election cycle, Foley has given $152,000 in direct campaign contributions in Florida and California, and more recently in Montana, well over half of it to Republicans, according to records kept by OpenSecrets.Org.

As for interpersonal politics, Foley has Lane, who has a talent for smoothing ruffled feathers. He is good at explaining what the billionaire is up to, which always helps. He’s also good at making alliances and strategic concessions. In Bend, Lane has helped pave the way for a private development of Fidelity Timber Resources by setting up a 33,000-acre community forest for the town. Lane has also been working with the Klamath Tribes and the federal government and others with the goal of adding to a land base for the tribes — and another development for Fidelity.

In Deer Lodge, Lane talks about the wealth of knowledge held by the longtime manager of the ranch and of how much he has enjoyed working with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the local government in Powell County (population about 7,000). Powell County Commissioner Dwight O’Hara likes Lane. He says Lane drops by just to talk. “He’s an old shoe,” O’Hara says. When the construction of the private club was going full bore, it maxed out Powell County’s labor force and filled the cafes, hotels and rental apartments in Deer Lodge. O’Hara says Lane and Foley have been “excellent corporate citizens, straight-forward, very easy to work with.”

Lane insisted that Foley loves the West, loves Montana the way it is, and is going to great lengths to keep things the way they are — for instance, by putting easements on areas of the ranch so the views from nearby Deer Lodge will not change. (As of mid-April, 43 of the Rock Creek Cattle Co. home sites had been sold, Lane says.)

Love for Montana doesn’t mean the regular rules of capitalism go slack. For the ranch and the golf course, designed by Tom Doak, Foley laid out an aggressive construction schedule, and he got it, mostly. His contractors say working for him is fantastic in some respects, but his management style, which some call one-strike-and-you’re-out, has made for some hard feelings. He cycled through engineers and contractors, sometimes at a dizzying rate.

It’s not as if Foley is simply mean. The first engineers hired to rehabilitate the fisheries on the ranch didn’t get the proper permits. “It was bullshit,” Foley says. The first general contractor fell behind. Foley brought on a new general who has kept up with the schedule, and the new fisheries guy works hard. Foley appreciates that.

Commissioner O’Hara says, “He gave locals a fair shot at it.”

It’s about 50 minutes door-to-door from Rock Creek Cattle Co. to Foley’s house on Whitefish Lake, if you’re flying in Foley’s six-seat black BELL407 helicopter with custom leather upholstery. (Otherwise the 220-mile drive takes about four hours in good weather.) Foley’s pilot is West Point alum and 10-year U.S. Army veteran Mike Talbot. The helicopter sports the West Point logo on its side.

KEEP OUT: Barbed wire fences, like this one at the Rocky Creek Cattle Co. keep cows and calves in. But Foley goes further with security gates and other measures to keep people out. Photo by Anne Medley.

Foley also owns two jets. One is a modest Beechjet 400. The other is a huge GulfstreamV — the trophy jet of the ultra-rich (its title is held by Fidelity National Financial, which often leases it to a charter service).

Foley allowed that the culture of the Mountain West has been altered, and will continue to be, as billionaires and business executives like him seek out the quiet corners, the places where people are genuine and open. Yet he doesn’t think his own presence and his investments (which total about $125 million in Montana) inject into his new environment those characteristics of the East Coast, of California and of Florida that he would like to leave behind.

“It’s not such a bad thing that people like me are coming here,” Foley says. “Most of us are pretty concerned about things like land use. There are 300 million Americans and counting. Montana, like Wyoming and Idaho, you’re going to attract people.”

On the expansive back patio of the Whitefish house, Foley calls for Snowball, an airy puff of a Samoyed, and the dog wags his tail but doesn’t come.

Snowball eventually wanders over. Foley scratches him behind the ears. “He’s not loyal,” Foley says with feigned annoyance. “An alpha Samoyed can be squirrelly, kind of mean and bitey.” Snowball sat down on the flagstones, a big grin on his face. “Not Snowball. He’s just dumb.”

Foley gestures toward the rear of the Whitefish house. Like a lot of rich people across the Mountain West, he idealizes “authentic” relics and materials. Real weathered barn wood, for instance, is big with this crowd, creating the sense of house-as-extended-mood-piece. Foley may have a twinkle in his eye and a genuine smile, he might foster a few of his Montana employees in an almost fatherly way, but he remains a sharp-edged executive isolated by security gates and thousands of acres. The barn wood seems to offset the exclusivity, rendering it less uncomfortable.

“The idea is that it’s like an old Montana ranch house, and then you add onto it,” he says, describing the theory behind the rambling architecture. Foley points out the lack of uniformity in the size of the weathered Kentucky oak logs and the chinking between them.

“You just put up the logs, and then you chink it to fit. The idea is for it to be a little understated, to look like it’s old,” he says.

Artwork, from a gallery south of Missoula, had been hung on the walls that day. Provenance papers listing the artists and the prices lie on a table. Foley walks around the ground floor with his wife and takes in the original paintings. Four of them in a stairwell reflect too much light from a big window on the landing. Those will be sent back. Another one in the entryway Foley deems too colorful. He and Carol both really like a large painting in the living room by Ace Cooper entitled “End of a Perfect Day.”

The two admire it for a moment and say they find it relaxing.

In the painting, two cowboys in the foreground pick their way across a dry landscape of sage and rocks toward a distant homestead at the base of a high ridge. The entire scene, which has hints of autumnal reds and oranges, is bathed in early evening shadow, except for a distant ridge, which glows with late sunlight. There’s not a fence in sight.

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A New Political Day in Montana: Can The State Matter?

5-12-08

The annual Truman Dinner, organized by the Yellowstone County Democratic Party in Billings, has long been a homegrown affair held in a low-ceilinged conference room in a downtown hotel. Local candidates would mutter for a few moments and then sit to scattered applause. Later, the small, overdressed crowd would browse tables of donated items in a silent auction. A staple of the event was a goofy performance by a retired high school teacher named Jack Johnson, who would dress like Harry Truman and deliver one of the former president’s famous speeches.

It was a great forum, in a kitschy sort of way, for Montana’s citizen-legislature-in-the-making, but not this year.

This dinner was held in the gussied-up cafeteria of the University of Montana-Billings. There was neither a silent auction nor speeches by local candidates. After the meal, everyone trooped over to the college athletic center, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota gave a polished pitch for a Democratic surge across the High Plains and the West. A parade of major speakers followed, and clips of rock music blared in the interludes. The speakers’ images appeared superhuman on massive screens alongside the stage. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal leaned on the podium and delivered a subtle and folksy endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nominee. The crowd rose to its feet, campaign signs waving. A wall of Obama fans in the bleachers cheered and stomped. Then former President Bill Clinton took the stage like a superstar.

“This is the darnedest election I’ve ever been in in my life,” Clinton said.

A few months ago, Craig Wilson, one of Montana’s most prominent nonpartisan students of politics, predicted that Montana’s Democratic primary would garner little if any national attention and few ad dollars. Montana’s never really in play, he argued. The real story of a close primary would be the super-delegates, he said.

“We’re in the wrong hinterlands,” Wilson added. Small states like New Hampshire staked out important primary territory long ago. Montana has more of a lame duck status, he said, holding its primary long after other contests have decided the winner. “We’ll be lucky if somebody is flying over from Chicago to Seattle and parachutes into Missoula or Billings for an hour campaign appearance.”

Wilson’s primary notions can be forgiven. The days of cross-country speeches from campaign trains were long gone. It seems the only political insiders who dreamed Montana might be worth wooing—and that the state’s 24 Democratic delegates might make a difference—worked for Obama, who envisioned a true 50-state campaign while it still seemed a bit lunatic. He courted Democrats in Idaho, Utah and Washington, for instance, and handily chalked up wins.

“I’ve met people here who’ve never been involved before,” said Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath, who is running for the state supreme court. McGrath credited the grassroots Obama campaign for making the entire primary process more relevant.

Some people evidently still think a 50-state campaign is a little strange. In a conference call with reporters last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist repeatedly emphasized that his candidate had won the “key states.” It’s true, too. Clinton won California, Texas and Pennsylvania, to name a few of the perennial battlegrounds.

But this time it seems the key states won’t deliver the win. States like Wyoming, which broke for Obama, have made California less important. It’s about time.

Back in the summer and fall of 2000 if Al Gore had diverted to Montana just a small portion of the money his campaign had poured into Florida, he might have prevailed that November. After all, Gore didn’t need all of Florida’s electoral votes. In the election-night cliffhanger, he was only one vote short. Any of the write-off states could have put him over the top.

Politicians in the West have welcomed Obama’s attention. It feels pretty good. One of Gov. Freudenthal’s lines about Obama was that he “was country before country was cool.”

But Obama’s campaign didn’t blindly pick the strategy. Democratic candidates have been making headway across the Mountain West in recent years. In 2006, Montana became the focus of national political attention—and a huge pile of Democratic money—in the final days of the campaign as Sen. Jon Tester unseated his embattled rival Conrad Burns.

Clinton has made an effort to jump on the 50-state bandwagon. Her campaign opened an office earlier this month in Missoula and Billings. This morning, her campaign announced another campaign appearance by Bill Clinton tomorrow in Kalispell. With both Democratic candidates campaigning and spending in the Big Sky, country has become pretty cool.

It sure seemed like it at the Truman Dinner, where the major television news stations even had cameramen and reporters and where retired schoolteacher Jack Johnson (and his Truman act) was nowhere to be seen.

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Tracks Across A Landscape

It’s a seductive idea, that yours are the first sentient eyes to see this landscape, that your story will be its first, and that your imprint will be the one to endure.

5-19-08

Even 200 years into the modern American West, it’s easy, especially for newcomers to this landscape, to feel as if the grand open spaces are a blank canvas. It can seem, standing on a hillside of sagebrush and grass, as if nothing has ever existed but the ceaseless wind and sky.

In other parts of the country, and the world, the past is present, in ancient stone structures and centuries-old communities. By comparison, vast tracts of the West seem untrammeled, especially in the springtime when the snow has melted, leaving its particularly soggy mark on the grasses and naked soil. You can watch the imprint of your own shoe fill slowly with the shallowest film of water and, when you do, it seems no shoe can ever have stepped there before.

It’s a seductive idea, that yours are the first sentient eyes to see this landscape, that your story will be its first, and that your imprint will be the one to endure.

The fact that this myth, which I sometimes find myself cherishing, isn’t true is what makes the West so intriguing. So much of the context to our modern lives is subtle, easy to miss. Yet the obscurity of the past does offer a special kind of freedom and solitude in which you can immerse yourself. You can add your own footsteps to ancient trails.

A few years ago, I found myself asking Al Wiseman, a Choteau-area Chippewa and a local historian, about the route used by a band of Indians a century ago who had come back south on foot after the U.S. Army rounded them up and shipped them by rail to Canada. (Another story involves an old Chippewa guy who told me about how he jogged the same route to get to a dance some 60 years ago, where he met his wife.) Wiseman told me details of that old path along the edge of the mountains. He knew its nearby stretches and even marked sections of it with small boulders.

In the pre-dawn hours one early July day, my brother Todd and I jogged away from his small car, parked on a wind-battered slope on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area. We intended to test the trail from there to the South Fork of the Teton River, some 30 miles or so to the north.

We jumped an irrigation ditch and continued down a hill and over a fence. We stumbled across the knee-deep Sun River, numbingly cold and fast. To our left the mountains rose abruptly, almost like a wall. To our right, the land was rough, with long, pine-covered ridges. At times, we followed a pair of wagon ruts. Other times it was a single broad track. We passed the scattered logs of disintegrated cabins and clumps of still-thriving irises. My map indicated a burial ground, which I couldn’t find. We reached a canyon called Deep Creek (the water itself was ankle deep). We paused to fill our bottles with water, filtered through a small hand-pumped purifier.

Later, the going was easy, and it seemed we had the trail nailed. Then, for the better part of an hour, we forced our way through a dense forest of jack pines. In the middle, Todd hollered about all the houses. “What houses?” I asked. Then I realized we had run into a former settlement with remnants of about seven homes. I was standing in the middle of one. It was mid-afternoon, and we had covered more than 20 miles as the crow flies.

The final 10 miles to the Teton River took us across miserable, flood-irrigated fields and a network of broad ditches separated by short, painful hills. Dirt ruts materialized at our feet, leading us to the river and the second car. I collapsed and went into younger brother mode. Todd cooked pasta with pesto and tuna fish over a tiny camp stove. I ate.

A few days later a funny thing happened. I saw distant lumps of mountains on the horizon and, surprising myself, said aloud, “I could run there.” I was alone in the car driving home. It made me laugh—my own silly bravado.

At home, sometimes, I think of those weather-beaten boards I had stepped over without noticing, and about the other places, old homesteads maybe, where irises, those tough and resourceful flowers, were all that remained.

Those homesteads couldn’t have been much more than 100 years old. The shallow wagon ruts and foot paths date much further back. With such small signals of the past, it’s no wonder we retain our blunt sense of illimitable openness. The light touch on the land amounts to a gift, an easy chance for us to hold for ourselves a persistent illusion about the possibility here of new beginnings.

Yet our mountainous and rugged landscape isn’t empty, it just feels that way. As the homogenizing forces of mass-market culture sweep across our broad and empty spaces, let’s do what we can to maintain that sense of openness.

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