Eastern Montana is a lot different from the West, which we’d seen a considerable amount of by car when we visited Phil’s parents last year. This time, instead of dramatic skies over fierce mountain ranges, the winds whipped through dry, flat prairie land. Opheim was our final destination on the grand August tour (not counting the last two days of the trip when we returned to Canada to catch our flight home out of Regina). Nearing the end of our drive down from Edmonton where we’d spent the previous week visiting Phil’s brother’s family (see “The Out of Town Experience, Part 5“), we were greeted by a herd of cows blocking the long stretch of empty Montana highway, lazily mooing in response to the toots of our car horn as if to ask, “what’s your hurry?”
Welcome to the country.
The welcoming committee.
Opheim is a small town in northeast Montana just 10 round miles from the Canadian border. A really small town. Maybe all of 25 square blocks, not counting the airstrip/6-hole golf course. And that’s not even the smallest. About a 20 minute drive up the road is Glentana. Though it might still be called a town, having once reached the required population minimum to do so, Phil’s mom estimates about five households still remaining there, including some of their relatives.
Opheim water tower marks the spot.
Some habitual city dwellers might experience severe culture shock in this kind of setting, especially when disconnected from basic conveniences like cell phone reception and a decent cup of coffee. But to me, there was something remarkably comforting about it. Just like any bustling metropolitan area, our homebase in DC is steeped in the usual ever-piling nuisances. The overcrowding. The high cost of living. The drudgery of routine. The pretentiousness. And lately, the increasing arrogance. Or maybe, its frustration. This summer vacation was our necessary escape from it all, and the brief time spent absorbing it certainly made us reconsider our future in DC (more on this later).
Opheim is one of Phil’s childhood homes. His folks live there now in the dated, but spacious house where his mother was raised, returning after his father retired from a lineman job that previously took them all over the country. He bought a handful of rental properties when they resettled in Opheim, picking it up cheaply no doubt with the expectation that, with a little nurturing, they could generate some income from it. Given the size of the town, his holdings might be enough to legitimately call an empire. One that Phil has trepidations about inheriting.
GTA grain elevator.
Towering grain elevators greet the arrivals to these tiny towns. As symbols of industry, they are the skyscrapers of the rural northwest. The towns are separated by endless acres of sandy colored farmland. And with little else to offer their people to make a living, it is likely that these towns will only survive as long as the farming does. Even Phil’s dad surprisingly spoke of Opheim as a dying town, although he is desperate to fight that fate. And why not? This is their home.
As beautiful as rural Montana may be, it’s people live a hard life. By the last census count, 111 people were living in Opheim, and I suspect this will decline once the 2010 count is reported. The median age was 50 and about a third of the residents were 65 or older. Presumably, most have ancestral ties to the area and will remain until their health or money force them to leave. The younger generations, on the other hand, face the dilemma of trying to earn a living for themselves or their family now. The town already lost a number of residents when the radar base closed some years ago.
Phil’s mom told us about the families that had recently left Opheim. Almost all, it seemed, moved so their children could attend school in Glasgow, the nearest large town, about an hour away. For those active in school sports, it meant more choices and possible local stardom as the Glasgow Scotties are well-celebrated in town. But, Phil’s mom worries that if any more kids leave Opheim, the school, which currently serves 49 in grades kindergarten through 12th, will be shut down and the students bussed elsewhere. We had seen this in other towns we had passed through that week — school buildings that had simply been left to waste away. From what I could tell from collections of proudly displayed historical photos, these were once vibrant little towns, so it’s not surprising that when residents decide to move, it’s taken as quiet treason.
Opheim has one school, an electric co-op, a post office, two competing bars that sit practically side by side, and a cafe who’s purchase by an eccentric artist from St. Paul (MN) who earned the nickname “Bill on the Hill” has it’s own interesting story. A hotel and its ground floor cafe on main Street closed years ago. And the General Store recently collapsed in a heavy wind.
There is no hospital, and from what Phil guessed, no neighborhood doctor, though there is a stand-by ambulance for emergencies. The fire department is made up of volunteers, all with full-time jobs. And, almost absent of any crime that would require a permanent police force, an aging Sheriff patrols the several towns that comprise his jurisdiction. In these sleepy towns, the weekly police blotters are a display of often hilarious melodrama. Home invasion calls where the suspect turns out to be a family member that the caller forgot had access to their house. Ridiculous disputes between neighbors. Petty vandalism. Hunters, crew workers, and rig drivers provide a temporary presence in town, and with it, temporary revenue. It’s strange to be in a place like that, where you have to drive an hour for the basic convenience of a grocery store. But this is small town life, and they’ve been surviving like this for years.
Given the sparse settings, it didn’t seem like there could be much to keep us occupied for an entire week (there was). When we arrived in town, Phil’s cousin, Scott, joked that we could fit all of our sight-seeing into an hour. Phil always says his trips back home inevitably turn into “working vacations” because his dad will put him to work on handyman projects that needed a few extra hands to complete. And the To Do List is a never-ending one, since it extends to neighbors and friends who might need help replacing roofs or laying brick. But as exhausting as all that work is, Phil’s dad and friends his age are content in keeping busy, defying expectations about their physical capabilities.
The first morning established a sort of routine. We slept in a little and woke up to find Phil’s mom working on something at the kitchen table and then, after breakfast, we would wander off in search of his dad to see what we could help with. In that particular week, Phil’s dad bargained for the use his friend’s bucket truck to cut down some trees around one of the rental houses, a barter made in exchange for letting the friend’s family stay there rent-free during the weekend of anniversary party. That friend being 80-year old Ken who drove into town one afternoon with the white truck kicking up dust on the dirt road alongside Phil’s parent’s house. We were warned by Phil’s mom not to let Ken do much of the work, since he’d recently had a serious heart attack.
Uh… He what now?
The only way Phil’s dad gets high.
At first, I started to think that we were about to witness a comical scheme, remembering the time my grandma told me about the guy who came to remove a tree in her yard and then, later returned to do the job by himself. On a bicycle. With a chainsaw. Thankfully nothing “sitcommy” (read: dangerous in real life) transpired while working with Phil’s dad. I stood by, ready to pitch in and get my hands dirty, having a little more to prove as both “cityfolk” and a girl. But with Phil’s dad doing the cutting from up in the bucket truck, and Phil doing most of the pulling except for Ken and another friend, Les, who gave the final tugs with their trucks, there wasn’t a whole lot left for me to do except soak up a country tan and entertain Josie, the black and white collie who belongs to the gas station clerk at the shop around the corner from the rental property where we were working. She spends her afternoons following Phil’s dad around town. So much so to the point that she figured out his routine. And when he jumps into his old blue van, she’s already on the run, plotting out a path to meet him wherever she think he’s going. It’s a small enough town to find him even if her first guess is a wrong one. She’s a playful dog and she’s good at fetch, but the problem is that she never wants to stop playing. If the tennis ball Phil’s dad found for her goes missing, she noses into the gravel to find rocks to toss around instead. And her teeth have flattened and chipped because of it. So, it was my job to distract her from running around under falling limbs, which is like trying to calm down a hyperactive child. It wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, and I smelled like dog afterward, but at least I had some company until it was time to start hauling away the mess.
Phil’s dad did at least entrust me to the job of mowing the grass in front of the house before all the tree trimming began, which marks the first time I used a riding mower (yeah, I cleared a lot of firsts on this trip).
Phil’s dad bought a blue van a while back at an auction and it seems like he often comes home with surprises he picks up there, sometimes to the chagrin of Phil’s mom. She dubbed the van the Hippie Van, but I prefer to call it the Daddy Wagon. As best as I can describe it, it’s like an old church van. A Club Wagon that squeaks with age. The seats are worn and its cluttered with tools and junk, and the handling seems loose. But driving it around Opheim was fun, even with the bumpy ride from riding on gravel roads, because there’s hardly anyone else on those roads. We only took it a few blocks up the street, just outside of the city limits, to the dump where we hauled the tree limbs from the rental yard. Seems like we made that trip back and forth at least a 100 times, dumping one load hitched to small hauling trailer before going back to get another. Thank goodness for the forgivable breeze during what would have otherwise been hot-as-hell afternoons.
Bullet holes the size of matzo balls!
After a while, when it seemed like we were making headway, Phil’s dad would keep eying anything else left on the property he wanted to cut down while he still had the truck. A few more branches. A few more limbs. A few more trees. A few hundred more rides back and forth to the dump. At least with the men distracted with all of that, I took the opportunity to try my hand at wielding some chainsaw, which I don’t think I’d ever done before. Probably the closest I ever came to it was an electric pruner that I used once on some shrubs back home and then nearly electrocuted myself because the power cord got in the way, unnoticed, at one point. Now it was a small chainsaw, but it was fast and loud and scared the hell out of me at first, because of course, with a whizzing blade you might only envision the worst: something shoots back at you or you accidentally chop something off yourself. Whatever. But it went smoothly and quickly, since the big limbs just needed to be cut small enough to pack into the trailer.
Phil’s dad had kept asking Phil about advertising his rentals on Craigslist. But not Craigslist in Montana (of which I think they only really make much use of in the college towns), but out west in Los Angeles or something to be marketed as ideal vacation property, especially for hunting enthusiasts. There’s a lot there to consider. That Los Angelesians (or however you folks prefer to be collectively referred to) don’t seem like the most likely candidates for vacationing in rural Montana. At least if there’s no lakes or beaches nearby. That Southern Californians might not be much for hunting, or at least not hardened enough of woodsmen to go on those kind of excursions on their own. Or that Los Angelesians have never heard of Opheim, must less the surrounding towns to even be aware that somewhere out there sits a reasonably priced short-term rental that can accommodate a big group.
Opheim is barely a blip on the map, not quite the lure of people of the Pacific. Which is a shame, considering all the work that goes into keeping up these properties. Two at least were rented to the locals, one being a bartender at one of the two bars in town. But the bigger rental, the one designed for hunters and work groups needing a place to stay in town, is a furnished two-floor house with a laundry unit and something like eight bedrooms (I lost count). They mostly get hunters renting it for weeks at a time during the summer. “How do you advertise it?” I asked Phil’s dad, wondering if outsiders who did come through, some of them repeat tenants, only heard of the place by word-of-mouth, or at the very least, purely by chance. Before I left, I setup a small website so they could at least consider doing some kind of internet-based marketing, although I don’t think anything came of it. Even some kind of internet marketing for a small, rural place is a puzzle.
To be continued in… The Out of Town Experience Part 7!