»  National Review Online

August 23rd, 2006

  Rocky Mountains Diary


I spent the third week of August on vacation with my family in western Montana. The following are some random notes from the trip.


"Horn or corn" is one of the oldest social distinctions in the history of our species — ten thousand years old, at least. The herder of livestock and the cultivator of grain have never seen eye to eye. A song from the musical Oklahoma! explores the issue:

The farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.

But of course they cain't, and that creates tensions. In Oklahoma! the song actually ends with a free-for-all, the farmers and the cowmen slugging it out. If you want to stretch the thing to breaking point, you could probably construct an argument that the current problems between Western Civ (agricultural, mainly) and Islamia (pastoral, originally) are rooted in this.

Montana straddles the horn-corn divide. It is where the libertarian mountain-man, gun-culture, leave-me-alone, Buffalo Bill West (horn) meets the earnest, Scandinavian, chronically well-behaved, surely-everyone-agrees-about this-hey?-oh-yeah Garrison Keillor north-Midwest** (corn).

It is therefore fitting that the latest act in the millennial horn-or-corn drama is being fought out over one of Montana's seats in the U.S. Senate. Three-term Republican junior Senator Conrad Burns (horn — in a varied career before entering politics, he was once an actual cattle auctioneer) is being challenged by Democrat Jon Tester (corn — he is a working grain farmer).

There is general agreement that Burns is in trouble. This is so much the case, in fact, that Vice President Cheney himself showed up last week at the little ski-resort town of Whitefish, up in the north of Montana, to lend the Senator a hand. The veep called Burns "a sensible, effective, patriotic senator who never forgets who sent him to Washington, D.C. … I'm proud to count him as a friend." Whether having Dick Cheney declare you his friend is something a politician should welcome in the current national mood is open to question, but at least party solidarity is not yet dead.

In Burns's case there are also some particular negatives. For one thing he seems to have taken more money from crook-lobbyist Jack Abramoff than any other member of Congress. Since Burns has not been charged with any offense, the Tester campaign has allowed the Scandinavian-nice side of its collective psyche to dominate, and has so far refrained from negative advertising.

There is also the matter of style. The adjective Conrad Burns is most commonly tagged with in news stories is "folksy." When you examine his actual recorded utterances, this turns out to mean a combination of (a) salty, (b) testy, and (c) just plain loose mouthed. A friend in Missoula sniffed that Burns "is not a very educated man." (Though I should note that, as a number of NRO readers warned me before I set out, Missoula is a "blue" college town — "the Berkeley of the Rockies.")

Most recently the Senator insulted a group of firefighters he ran into at a local airport, telling them they had done a poor job keeping down forest fires. This was not smart. Forest fires are the bane of life in this heavily wooded, lightly populated state. They are a constant preoccupation, and half the people you meet seem to have been involved in fighting them — I just got through talking to a local man who told me of his youthful career as a "smoke jumper." Firefighters are heroes, and a politician who bad-mouths them will lose votes. Burns has issued an apology, but the harm was done.

Some of this loose-mouthed-ness is just "elderly Tourette's syndrome" — a 71-year-old guy gets tired of watching his words all the time, the way a politician should. This is especially the case with someone who came to politics late in life, too late to internalize the necessary restraints. Burns was 51 when he first ran for office. The state's senior U.S. Senator-for-life, Max Baucus, is more careful. He went into politics at age 32, after a desultory few years lawyering. This is a rather common pattern, especially I think among Democrats. You can say the same of, for example, Joe Lieberman.

Now, there is a case for professional politicians. What I just noted about Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman could, after all, equally well be said of the immortal Calvin Coolidge. (Who, asked whether he had any hobbies, replied: "Yes, running for office.") Still, there is something attractive about a guy like Conrad Burns, who earned a living half a dozen different non-lawyering ways before entering what is euphemistically called "public service." At least such a person will know something about the public he is supposed to be serving. Those scattered few of them, I mean, who are not lawyers.


The red/blue, liberal/conservative pattern hides complicated realities out here in the mountain West. This is, for example, a red state on the presidential election map: It went for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Much of the state politics, however, is blue. Montana has a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature.

Look more closely, and the picture is even more confusing. This is a gun state, for example; even Democratic politicians are careful to make it known that they keep guns around the house. (Jon Tester claims not to know how many guns he owns.) Twiddling the car-radio dial as we drove along Route 93 to Glacier Park, all my wife could find at first were country music stations. We might, except for one glaring demographic difference, have been in Alabama.

A born-and-raised Montanan I spoke to played up the libertarian side of the state character. "People here want to be left alone." After a pause for reflection, he added: "Mind, if there's a federal subsidy to be had, they won't turn it down." Of course not.

And the picture is further confused by inward migration. Refugees from Mexifornia, and even from the northwest, have been moving in, sending property prices up. They are a mixed lot politically, but more blue than red. It's a great place to live, if you don't mind the occasional tang of forest-fire smoke in your nostrils … and if you can find a job. If you can, it's likely going to be a job in government or Ed Biz, both blue of course.

Don't let anyone tell you he understands American politics if he hasn't traveled a lot in all fifty of these United States. This is a big country, and the edges are a long way from the middle.


And Montana is a mighty big state, and a very empty one. Our itinerary was as follows:

Monday 8/14:  Flew here. Met our host, an old college classmate of my wife's from China. She runs the Hong Kong Chef restaurant in Missoula. (And runs it very well, if I may say so. The place is spotless, the food excellent. It's in the Fairway shopping center at Stephens and Brooks, and if you are in Missoula and want some good Chinese food, I don't see how you could do any better.)

Tuesday 8/15:  "Did" Glacier Park. Drove up from Missoula, through the reservation and around Flathead Lake, then the length of Going to the Sun Road through the Park. We stopped at Logan Pass and walked the trail for a couple of hours, to Hidden Lake (which is in perfectly plain sight most of the way).

Wednesday 8/16:  Set out for Gardiner, on the north edge of Yellowstone Park. Took a 2-hour detour to see the ghost town at Garnet. Booked into a Gardiner motel for two nights.

Thursday 8/17:  "Did" Yellowstone, driving north-south and stopping at the sights. I explained to the kids that we were driving across the caldera of a super-volcano that had the potential to extinguish all human life on earth: That kept them quiet for a while. Caught Old Faithful doing its faithful old thing. Even better, saw the Beehive Geyser go off (which happens only once a day, and for our money was a much better show than O.F.)

Kept right on going into the Grand Tetons. Ended up at Jenny Lake, just in time to catch the last ferry across (we were the only passengers), but too late to get one coming back. The ferryman, whose name I forgot to ask, was full of useful & interesting information, and very helpful. The kids were much taken with the story of poor Jenny. Thanks, guy. Climbed up to the waterfall & Inspiration Point, then hiked the 3 miles back round the lake to the ferry dock. Drove back across Yellowstone in the dark. The sky was cloud-free, so I stopped at one of the Continental Divide markers, switched off lights, & showed the kids the Milky Way.

This was really a lovely vacation day. Too much driving, of course, but got a modest hike in and saw a trillion stars. And, oh!, the Tetons!

Friday 8/18:  Drove back from Gardiner to Missoula along I-90 … except that after a couple hundred miles of cruise control at 75 mph, we got bored watching bugs splatter on the windshield and detoured off on the Pintler Scenic Route through Anaconda and Philipsburg. It wasn't actually any more scenic than the Interstate (though Philipsburg was charming, in a slightly artificial way), but gave us a powerful impression of the emptiness of this state. You have the road to yourself for miles, miles, miles. Speed limits are mostly 70 even on these back country roads. As a Montanan explained to me: "If they weren't, how would we ever get anywhere?"

Saturday 8/19:  Spent all day whitewater-rafting down the Clark Fork River in care of a local outfit, Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures, who gave us a marvelous day out. (Thanks, Austin.) The water, though cold, was so inviting — air temperature was around ninety — we actually spent a lot of time in it. In fact the Derbs body-surfed over some of the gentler rapids, the kids shrieking with excitement. Another lovely, cloudless, memorable day.

Sunday 8/20:  Lazy day. Drove around Missoula with friends looking at sights and talking property prices. (Which run around forty percent of Long Island's even with the refugee influx pushing them up.) Lunch at Finnegan's. Spent the afternoon in a little water park just five minutes walk from the house. Water slides and tubes; a moving artificial "river"; lawns and picnic tables; recliners under shade; a kids' pool … Cloudless sky, temperature up around ninety again. This is the life. The kids were perfectly happy. Though the park was full, there were practically no lines for the slides. There aren't enough people in Montana to make a regular amusement-park wait line.

Monday 8/21:  Home to Patakistan — to bills, work, fractious contractors, looming start-of-school, humidity, clogged roads, outrageous taxes, and the long slow wait for a terrorist nuke to wipe out New York City and catch us with the fallout. Gotta relocate.


Et in Arcadia ego.  There was that snake in Paradise; and even here in idyllic Montana we felt a brief chill of ultimate evil.

Our hostess has some lovely Chinese paintings and character scrolls. We duly admired them. She told us they had actually been made by her father. Not only had he done the painting and calligraphy, both very fine, but he had even composed the poems! (Whose quality I am not equipped to judge.)

Our hostess then told us her father's story. In contradiction to his artistic and literary talents, he had originally trained as a railroad engineer. In the first few years of Communist China — the period of "socialist reconstruction" — this was a very good career field. The man had done well, enjoying a challenging, well-paid career, starting a family.

Then came the Hundred Flowers movement. Citizens were encouraged to criticize the Communist Party and government. Millions did so — far more than the Party had expected. Mao was furious, most especially with intellectuals, who had made the bulk of the criticisms. Our hostess's father was himself one of these critics. He was arrested and sent to a labor camp. When he was released from the camp and returned to his old work unit, instead of giving him his high-prestige job back, they made him work as a lineman, out in all weathers. This was in Manchuria, where "all weathers" is no joke — the winter lasts six months, and temperatures go to forty below.

The poor fellow "wore the tight shoe" like this for many years, all through the Cultural Revolution, until Mao died and Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s. Then at last, after twenty years, he was given his old job back. At this point he was close to retirement age, so it was little consolation to him. His was one of the hundreds of millions of lives wrecked by the Chinese Communist Party. One of the lucky ones, you might even say, since at least he survived to write his poems and paint his scrolls. For these horrors, the Party has never really apologized and never accepted collective responsibility. They never mention them, and plainly expect the Chinese people to just forget all about them.

** It occurs to me, though I am sure the thought is not an original one, that in order to be liberal, it's best to be conservative. I mean, these orderly, traditionalist, monoracial, monocultural Scandinavians (and their Midwest descendants) can afford to hold liberal attitudes because they all think the same way about the fundamentals.