Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tourists Move In

The new wave of suburban homesteaders.
Tourists Move In

August in Montana . Harvest is in full swing. Hay, neatly compressed and bound, tumbles forth from balers. Combines fill trucks with record-breaking yields of wheat. Fat, contented cattle stand hip deep in ripening grasses.

Multitudes of ducks and geese paddle across lakes and ponds in places where no lakes or ponds or even puddles have been seen in living memory. Green grasses peek through the golden hue of ripening grains. Flowers are bigger, leaves heavier, robins fatter. The countryside is lush.

This is not normal. This is August. This is the dry-land of Montana . Our gumbo soil should be hard as concrete with cracks gaping down to bedrock. Usually, by now, cottonwood leaves hang wilted and listless in the unrelenting sun, edges brown and curled. By now, everything should be brown. But look around. Beautiful hazy shades of green blanket the rolling hills. Golds are brighter. Blues are deeper. Greens are greener.

Usually, in August the tourists stream across eastern Montana on their way to Glacier and Yellowstone , speedometers on the red line, grimly eating the dusty miles. Cranky kids, hot and sweaty in the back seat, punch each other. But this year is different. This year rain fell in abundance. This year tourists slow down. They stop to look. They see. They linger. They camp in spots in which no tent has been erected since the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “Honey, why do we have to keep driving? Let’s stay here. Little Johnny and Susie are having fun wading in the creek. I didn’t know prairie country was so peaceful, so beautiful. I thought the only things in Montana worth seeing were the mountains. I wish we could live here.”

A hundred years ago dugouts, shanties and sod houses dotted the Montana plains and short grass prairies. Several years of plentiful rainfall had prettied up the land. Our semi-arid country exploded into spring bloom. Professor Wilbur’s much publicized, hopeful and dead-wrong theory that “rain follows the plow” lured thousands of homesteaders to the erstwhile “ Great American Desert ”. Men and women unloaded their wagons, hitched plows to oxen and dug furrows into the deeply grass-rooted soil to plant foreign crops. Pioneers could look across their free acres and see smoke from several neighbors’ chimneys. In a few years, those who hunkered down and toughed it out watched most of their neighbors load household goods onto the same wagons and roll back down the road.

There is a lesson here, folks. Thousands of tourists have experienced this year in our region as, indeed, “The Last, Best Place .” There is a danger that ill-informed easterners will be so taken by this lush and lovely rain-drenched summer that hundreds of them will descend upon us. A new wave of these pioneers sell their suburban ticky-tacky back in New Jersey for a few acres of prairie. Couples lie in bed at night sharing dreams of starting a new life Our West. Children argue over what to name the new horse.

Developers, one step ahead of the new wave of homesteaders, buy up hundreds of acres of alkali-laden soil, divide it into five-acre lots, and truck in the bulldozers. From temporary trailer offices, names are invented, streets are platted and advertisements go out to major newspapers across America . Soon, in places named Lone Pine or Cactus Flats, five-acre ranchettes will sell like, well, like dreams. Horses will hang their heads over white board fences while their new little owners play computer games in their new four-bed, three-bath plus, because the great outdoors is scary and Trigger is large and alive and has huge feet. Mom and Dad sigh over memories of sushi bars, latte stands and bagels and lox.

Four years; give them four years. Their covered wagon is the Mayflower Van or the U-Haul Truck but the effect is the same. Montana is a land of Promise . There is Gold in these here hills. But the gold might glitter differently than what most people expect. Our riches include the solitude, the empty hills, the slower pace of life, the look of peace in your neighbor’s eyes, the time to talk with strangers, the contentment with what each day reveals. New homesteaders who find these things are likely to stay. Welcome home.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 26, 2010

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