The Montana Messiah

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. —William Westmoreland

God how we need a hard winter. Year after temperate year, droves of urbanites move to southwest Montana because they’re sick of the city—but many of them forget to leave their metropolitan mentality behind. Eager to capitalize on the exploding real estate market, they build hilltop trophy homes and million-dollar vacation cabins amid picturesque forests and pristine waterfronts—places we’ve been fishing, hunting, hiking, and cross-country skiing for as long as we can remember. They’re attracted to open space and the trusting nature of Montanans, but then slap NO TRESPASSING signs and security cameras on post-and-rail fences surrounding 20 acres of our last best waste. They’re a kind of fiscal frotteur, salaciously caressing our unsuspecting, outdoor-oriented mindset—but instead of respecting it and adopting it themselves, they instead choose to exploit it for their own material gain. And the saddest part is, some of that perversity is rubbing off on us, too.

Which is where a real Montana winter comes in: Week-long bouts of 30 below every month; biting winds that penetrate ski parkas like tissue paper; and back-to-back blizzards dropping three feet of snow overnight. Parked cars reduced to indistinct white mounds. Six-foot snowdrifts on Main Street. Impassable highways, cars piled up in ditches, schools and businesses shut down for days at a time. And all around, the heavy hand of winter slapping a little dose of Montana reality into everyone.

Materialism disappears in blizzard season. Icy roadways, busted water pipes, damaged local infrastructure, astronomical heating bills—as we shiver our way down Maslow’s Hierarchy, every day is a struggle for survival. Just stepping outside hurts. The cold incapacitates our machines, forcing us to confront nature directly, and in its rawest, most unforgiving form. Humility reigns as we seek daily assistance from others. This shared subjugation by insurmountable forces unites us; we learn to talk to each other, help each other, appreciate each other—and connect with each other. Self-absorption cannot but obliterate amid the blinding white loneliness of a cold Montana winter. When it’s all over, we instinctively understand what life is all about—and it ain’t money.

This issue of Outside Bozeman (Winter 2006-07) is devoted to hard winters and what they offer: A reduction of nonessential activity, a much-needed shot in the arm for communal values, and a reminder that being a Montanan is at least as much about attitude as it is about birthright. If you can ride out the cold season in style, you’re that much farther ahead of the game. John Dudas, an arguably deranged but decidedly adaptable Montana transplant, runs 20 miles in 20-below weather. Alpine aficionado Kevin “Dimmesdale” Fletcher explains how affinity for pain is an integral part of the backcountry skiing experience. Local guide-for-all-seasons Jason Matthews relates an inimitable tale of that most winter-minded of mammals, the Alaskan sled-dog. And veteran ditch-crasher Drew Pogge gives a little advice on what to do when your car inevitably plummets off the roadbed.

This issue also introduces such wacky notions as snow-biking and the plight of people in Bozeman who do not ski (it’s true, they do exist). Mike St. Thomas’s article on ViaVerda Ranch shows us that there’s at least one well-intentioned land developer out there. And be sure to read our interviews with local outdoor writers Doug Peacock, David Quammen, Mike Finkel, and Keith McCafferty—these guys know better than anyone the importance of respecting not only the seniority of Nature, as Westmoreland puts it in the quote above, but also the nature of Montana.

So no matter what your outdoor inclinations may be this winter, be sure to pray for a nasty one. Kneel before your bed, hold a séance in the basement, or smear goose blood on your face and invoke the wrath of Crom. Better yet, climb up on your roof, throw your arms skyward, and yell “Old Man Winter is a pansy-ass!” Whatever it takes, let’s work together to summon the snow and cold this season. Bring on the pain. Some people will flee, no doubt. But come springtime, those of us who remain will be Montanans, one and all.