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.