Well, the cowboys finally got their own oil spill. If misery does indeed bring people together, maybe the Montana cowboys and the Gulf Coast fishermen can find some common ground. Or water.
Of course, cowboys are not the only good folks affected by the burst pipeline which smutched–up the wild beautiful Yellowstone River. The cowboys may be less injured or insulted than campers, anglers or tourists, not to mention those who supply their needs. Maybe 1,000 or so barrels of oil spewed into a millions-of-gallons river is no big deal to locals. After all, Montana has lived with the wreakage of mining for a couple of centuries; here in Florida we’ve been living with the depredations of the oil industry so long it seems like forever. We don’t fish out of rowboats any longer, and ranchers traded horses for horsepower long ago. But even though the pain and loss felt by the Southern fishermen is fading and our Western friends are probably still in shock, we ought to get in touch with our common outrage. An independent spirit is a flagstar of the American character, and is arguably more a part of Western and Southern personality than in most other places…and that is not the only link I’ve seen between the ways and the means of the two regions.
I lived in Montana for a fall and a winter and a few days of debatable spring, back around 1978-79. Like Florida, where I came there from, Montana is populated by a comparative few born there, and by a considerable and begrudged issue of newcomers, which is to say those whose roots were set down less than five generations back. As soon as one puts in a little time in Florida or Montana–say 5 minutes–it’s de rigueur to start to look down upon anyone who comes after you. It’s just not that way everywhere. I never got that at all in NYC, where people pour through the city like particles through a sieve, and even many who live there travel constantly. Deracination, you know. But there’s another way in which the West and the South are alike: People help each other there, in the most practical ways. I don’t exclude other areas when I say this; I’m sure I could get help with a flat tire in Iowa. In the South it’s truly customary–almost mandatory–to offer a hand, even if it’s not truly needed. I think it’s just ‘cause there’s so much Sunday School. down here. Do unto others and all, y’all. I didn’t notice the helping urge in Westerners until I was leaving. Maybe wide-open spaces leave wider gaps between people. Western people will help you , but they respect your independence enough to leave you alone until you ask, or they see a dire need. They will throw the rope, but maybe just before the quicksand takes you under. They wouldn’t want to interfere, in case you had a plan.
When I was leaving Montana, in a caravan of 2 cars, early April, snow piled 12 feet high and hard by the road, is when I saw the Western attitude about help. We were pulling a sizable U-Haul trailer behind a ’72 Chevy station wagon. The 327 V-8 was sucking down gas in a beastly way we never expected. Up-grade, through icy passes on minor roads we dragged on until we came onto a sort-of -real highway that limbered out into a moonlit distance. We rolled across the high plains into bright cold April night, clipping past a sign directing travelers to a dis-remembered town …I think it was 71 miles away. We had used ¾ of a tank of gas to travel from the last town, just about the same distance behind us. So we kept on driving. Stopping was not an option. Too cold. Treacherous shoulders. Morning a long way off. About half the distance to that forgotten town we caught sight of a distant light, and watched it for miles, until we were beside it, at a small gas station and store. We stopped to wait out the night; I got out to stretch and look. A kerosene heater threw a light onto a man asleep on a cot beside it. A note on the door told me–or any traveler–to “knock if you need gas.” The man filled our tanks, asked if we needed anything else, told us, yes, there was always someone there in winter. Too far between towns not to do that, he said. Somebody could freeze. I didn’t see a house, barn or any other sign of life anywhere near.
When we got to that next dark and distant town a deputy sheriff bump-flashed his roof light, pulled in front of us, led us to a station, opened up and checked the safe location of the “guard rattlesnake” warned of by a sign on the door, sold us gas and snacks, and left the money on the counter for the station’s owners. He helped us for the same reason as the man at the last stop: If you don’t help each other out there, somebody dies. In the South we help each other ‘cause Jesus said to; out West they help each other ‘cause you have to–your number may be up next. But it all comes to the same thing. And we’re at that point now, from sea to shining river. An oil-soaked pelican equals a suffocated spring trout. If the sea birds are sticky in Pensacola and the fish aren’t jumping on the mighty Yellowstone…what the hell are we gonna do? I lived in Montana somewhat accidentally, more than thirty years ago. If I had tried–and I didn’t–to persuade my cowboy buddies that events in Florida should matter to them, they’d have laughed me out of the Ponderosa Saloon, or maybe chased me out of the Bitterroot Valley. I can say with assurance that back then I could not have nudged one single mullet-fishing son of a gun to worry for a hot second about the Yellowstone River. When I lived in New York City a man from Up East spoke of the great maritime tradition there. I said, “We don’t have that down South…we just got a bunch of cowboys in boats.” I won’t say cowboys are fisherman on horseback, but you get my drift: we’re all in this together. And now here we are, working class heroes, wondering when the fishing’s gonna get good again. I’m not going to try to tell you who to blame, or what to do about it. Let’s shake hands and just make sure that this time we don’t blame each other.