Old rules for the new west

Old Rules for the New West

Tim Hawke

This story was published in BS i24, “What Really Matters” Buy one: HERE.

THINGS HAVE BEEN CHANGING rapidly around here, and there are some traditions that seem to be getting lost in the transition.

I could easily be the grumpy grandpa and lament about losing the “good’ol days.” I could also be another jaded local who wants to blame everything on all the new imports. I’m not going to play that game. It’s regional bigotry. I don’t care where you happened to be born. All that matters to me is that you are a decent human. There’s plenty of my fellow native-born Montanans who think they are special simply for the luck of their parents copulating here, and most of them don’t even recognize that their ancestors were unintentional tourists less than 200 years ago. So, they feel justified in complaining about the Californians who moved in next door. It’s a bunch of crap – imagine how the Native Americans feel. So how do we keep these “Montana” ways from fading into memory? We remind people about them, and why they are important.

I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. It’s a small thing, but very much a part of our culture here in the 406. If you are driving down a dirt road in Montana, it is required of you to acknowledge traffic coming the other way. You don’t need to make a big production out of it. Two fingers off the steering wheel will suffice. It says “howdy, we live in the most beautiful place on Earth, enjoy...” This is an unwritten but understood rule. Your political affiliation doesn’t matter. Nor your gender or race. It just happens. You will always see an acknowledgment through the glare of my dusty and bug-spattered windshield. I really hope that I get one back.

During our long winters here, everyone keeps a shovel and a good tow strap in their rig. If we see someone stuck, we immediately pull over to help. It’s pretty much a Montana pastime. The biggest truck to join in will be the one to pull, while the rest of us pile out and push. It’s a team/community effort that ends in a round of cheesy high fives. Join us. It’s fun.

Montanans are known for being rather friendly. Some of you who came from the city might find it odd that we smile at strangers walking down the street. We make eye contact and sometimes say “Hello”. We aren’t weirdos. There’s nothing threatening about it. We really are just genuinely kind people. So, smile back, grant a little head nod – just acknowledge the kindness and pass it on.


A lot of you moved to Montana for our vast wealth of public land. Please respect it and don’t leave a mess. You will often hear gunfire when you’re out recreating. A lot of us love to go target shooting. Rest assured, no one is getting murdered. It’s not a backcountry robbery, no need to panic and call the sheriff. It’s all good. But if you decide you’d enjoy partaking in this plinking pastime, make sure you know what’s behind your target! There are people everywhere enjoying our public lands, don’t assume you have the place to yourself.

And if you’re driving around looking for a place to camp, don’t roll right up next to someone else’s site. It’s absolutely rude. There’s plenty of room for us all to spread out.

If you’re headed out to a trail in your boots or on a bike, be prepared for anything. Things can get really “western” in a hurry out here. The weather can change on a dime. When you head into our forests, you are no longer at the top of the food chain. Our mountains are steep and the rocks are sharp. The rivers are swift and cold. Understand your limitations and pack appropriate gear. Don’t put the rescue personnel or other trail users at risk by being reckless or ignorant. And please, I beg of you, if you bag your dog’s poop, DO NOT leave the bag on the trail or down at the trailhead. No one else is going to pick it up for you. This shouldn’t need to be stated, but apparently it does.


Montanans like to play in the mountains in a variety of ways. We used to all get along just fine on the trails. Hikers would wave to the friendly guys on motorcycles, and bikers were good about yielding to horse and foot traffic. And once again- everyone smiled and said hello. These courtesies have been falling apart recently. Some people seem to have this attitude that, what-I’m-doing-in-the-mountains-is-better-than-what-you’re-doing. It’s not. Please don’t be so sanctimonious. If you don’t want to share a trail with bikes of any kind, then please go enjoy our many wilderness areas where they are not allowed. If you’re on a trail with others, then can the attitude and smile. But also- if you want to fly down the mountain on your bicycle as fast as possible, stick to a designated downhill ride and quit running people off the trail, and ruining it for the rest of us. Don’t ever assume that you have the trail to yourself. And dammit, take out your earbuds and turn off your speakers.


Sometimes, you’ll be cruising down a road and come across a bovine roadblock. Ranchers need to move their cows often, and occasionally that means on a highway. Don’t freak out and start honking at the cows. Let the cowboys do their job. They want their beef off that road as much as you do. Be patient.

It seems that some of you are moving here to be around your like-minded, right-leaning peers. Please understand that Montana is, and always has been, a purple state. Jeanette Rankin from Montana was the first woman ever elected to the US House of Representatives (1918). She was a pacifist and a women’s rights advocate. Very progressive. We’ve recently had several Democratic governors and senators. Unfortunately, we’ve fallen victim to the politics of fear (“the commies are going to seize our guns and melt them down to make dildos for the gays!”). Although unfortunate, keep in mind that there are plenty of homegrown liberals here as well – and we also like to shoot guns. Let’s have a beer and talk. At worst, we can agree to disagree.

And if you moved here as a liberal and are hoping that you can enlighten us hayseeds, you might want to reconsider. You will meet a lot of resistance if you come in hot and try to wag your finger at those who don’t agree with your politics. Be kind and maybe try a friendly conversation about issues. Don’t be combative. You’ll be surprised how open-minded Montanans can be.

All in all, just be kind and courteous to all of your fellow Montanans. Hold the door open for strangers. Help a senior citizen out to their car with groceries. Feed your neighbors when you know they are in a tight spot. Shovel the snow off a stranger’s sidewalk. Just try to be an example of why we are considered such a friendly state. It’s pretty easy to do, and it keeps our little corner of the world the Last Best Place.


Stephanie klepacki blacck white montana

Tim Hawke is a Montana Native who doesn’t care if you’re not. He is an obsessed explorer who values memories over money. Buy him a beer.


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