“Don’t try to ride an elk and don’t shake hands with a bear.”
I’m standing in a small Montana town scratching out a life between two different mountain ranges. With river water as clear as the air pulsating in my lungs, it cuts a gentle, but jagged line through town. Above, rocky peaks act as shepherds watching over the herd below.
I’ve stopped at the town newspaper to say hello and get some local advice.
A man approaches the counter. He offers a firm handshake and directly tells me his name.
He smiles, his face artfully and handsomely chiseled, as if from the stone looking down from above. His eyes are bright like the blindingly blue canopy above.
As we shake hands I share my name and that I, too, carry black ink in my veins — only mine from Texas. Instantly we are trusted brethren.
I’d asked my new friend about advice as a first-time visitor to his state. The reference to staying clear of the wildlife is not fully in jest. Days before a man was arrested for trying to wrestle a buffalo.
My friend’s personality is as unique as this soil where he planted his feet more than 40 years ago. His pink ribbon tie playfully contrasts against the blue oxford shirt. His jacket is neat, yet hangs comfortably from his trim shoulders.
Quiet confidence and being true to yourself is a respected trait in this corner of the world.
He tells me about the town, the history, and what he sees going on hidden from the unknowing eyes of a visitor. I’m standing in a town where the old is facing down the new in a not-so-quiet battle for its soul.
The town is in an interesting sliver in time. There is not a chain hotel or franchise restaurant within shooting distance of where we stand. A block over, an old hand-painted Coca-Cola advertisement whispers from a red brick alley. Other faded signs mark once prominent businesses and family names forever part of the town’s lore.
I think back to my hotel room to where chipped plaster walls and decades of paint welcome me. Tall, narrow wooden doors with imperfectly brush-stroked numbers lead me to my room each day, where each morning, 114-year old floor joists bark as I walk across their backs. Oddly, I feel at home in this place I’ve never been before.
Everywhere you turn, you see a world stubbornly trying to hold on to its roots as steady streams of outsiders arrive to remake the town into their vision. Art galleries are popping up and a custom watchmaker offers his handmade pieces starting at $3,100 a pop. Ironically, most vehicles populating the side streets do not carry enough book value to trade for a locally made watch.
There is a timeless beauty of this corner of the world, a place where man, nature and man’s restless drive to improve the other never stop. I’m pulling for Mother Nature.