In Montana, we like to think that we're rugged individualists, beholden to no one. In many ways, that's true - you probably couldn't find as many people living lives of self-sufficiency in any other state, with the possible exception of Alaska. Many of us raise our own meat, hunt our own game, burn our own wood. Of course, just as many beat our own path straight to the grocery store, but that's decidedly less picturesque.
And some of us drive big giant trucks that wouldn't get stuck in snow unless they were directly under an avalanche, and even then, they could probably tunnel their way out like a big HEMI-driven earthworm. But again, many of us don't.
For my part, I drive a 1992 Ford Crown Victoria whose manufacturers generously deemed "mid-size." Trucks look down on me from their diesel thrones as they pass me in a cloud of dust and exhaust. If I so much as have a big lunch, I worry I won't be able to fit inside. Naturally, I get stuck in the snow a lot.
Getting stuck in the snow eliminates any fantasies of self-sufficiency you ever had. It makes you feel like a baby in a stroller, only without your mother to push you. Whenever I get stuck in the snow, which is every time it snows more than about two inches, I remember the scripture, for as it says in Proverbs 19:17, "whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done." Thus, every time I get stuck, I say a little prayer thanking God for giving someone the opportunity to do a good deed, maybe even earn their path into Heaven. Because one thing is for sure - I'm sure as hell not getting out otherwise.
Like the little two-fingered wave by which Montanans greet each other on our backroads and byways, helping someone whose car is stuck in the snow is an unspoken rule that governs the way we live in the Treasure State. You'd have to be a pretty cold bastard to walk past someone spinning their tires there on the side of the road. I don't doubt that someone in Montana has done just that, but if there's any cosmic justice in the world, they stubbed their toe later that day.
Once, I was stuck in my apartment building's lot at 7:30 in the morning. It didn't look like that much snow, but somehow I just couldn't back out, and I was late for my job.
My roommate at the time was what we might charitably call a "cat gentleman," and with his five pussies he always had about 100 pounds of kitty litter at hand. I had heard once that it was useful in getting yourself unstuck, so I shoveled out space behind the tires and dumped a heaping portion of it onto the snow before trying to back up again. The result was a rooster tail of snow and kitty litter arcing through the air. "Well," I thought, "I guess I'll quit my job and just live in my car."
Now, I've got to admit I'm not the most gregarious person you've ever met, but I'm not really the kind of guy who hangs out with his neighbors. I've never, for instance, baked them muffins and brought it over to their place to introduce myself. I've never filled a basket with fresh produce from my garden and left it at their door with a handwritten card that reads "welcome to the neighborhood." Hell, I don't even have a garden.
So I can imagine them in their beds, thankful that's not them out there spinning their tires. If they didn't want to come out and help, instead preferring the warmth of their covers, who could blame them? And I've never been to Colorado or Vermont or Maine or New Hampshire, but I can certainly imagine them doing just that: drawing their covers tighter around themselves and trying to shut out the noise of my helpless flailing. But here in Montana, here in the hinterlands, God bless them, they came one by one out of their apartments and helped. Some were in their plaid pajama bottoms, one in sweatpants, and one had even bothered to dress in snow pants. It took ten or fifteen minutes to get the Crown Victoria over the small hill that led out of the complex's lot, but they did it without complaint.
I'm no historian, but I'd like to think that it's part of the same predisposition for neighborliness that kept a lot of bellies full in the days of settlers and homesteaders. There's a bit of family lore that, five generations back, when the Cahills first arrived on the Hi-Line, we were saved from starvation by a family with a plot some four or five miles away. Unfortunately, nobody remembers the name of the family. We escaped from the sweatshops and meat-packing hellscape of Chicago, taking advantage of the Homestead Act to get a little spread up north. But they knew about as much about ranching as I do about being the Prince of Monaco.
Their first winter there was a complete bust - they didn't have anything in the larder, and only a handful of mean, rail-thin cows to their name. The Cahills could easily have been wiped off the face of the earth that first cold snap, were it not for the neighbors. They brought a wagon through the snow and gave them salt pork and biscuits, enough to get them through the worst of it. Without their kindness and understanding, I wouldn't be here now, pressing the pedal to the metal and gunning my engines in the Safeway parking lot.
Sure, giving a push to a car stuck in snow isn't quite as difficult as loading up your buckboard and driving through a blizzard to the neighboring homestead, but I think it's demonstrative of the same spirit and willingness to help each other out. It's a recognition that we're all in this boat together. And that the boat is full of snow.
I'm not one to prophesy, but I feel pretty secure in saying that the day Montanans stop helping one another, and no longer feel that simple camaraderie towards those who need a little help, will be the day that Montana isn't worth a damn anymore.
I think that day is a long, long way off.
Sherman Cahill is a freelance writer who lives in Butte, Montana. He loves Westerns, books about Montana history, and the city of Butte, America. But he's never caught a fish, never shot a deer, and can't tell a bluegill from a rainbow trout, except that one of them is probably bluer than the other. But he'd still like you to consider him a real Montanan, if at all possible.