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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

There's a Little Bit of Montana in All of Us

September 24, 1997|SANDY BANKS

There were a couple of Harleys parked outside and through the window I could see a circle of cowboy hats around the front table. The neon sign blinked "Mint Bar and Cafe" in garish pink and green, and strains of George Strait and wisps of Marlboro smoke drifted out the open door.

Not my kind of place, I thought, as I eased the rental car up against the curb. But what choice did I have? I had a long drive ahead--from Bozeman to Big Sky--and I was desperate for a cup of coffee. And, from the looks of things, it was either the Mint Cafe or the Cowboy Korner next door.

*

Ican't tell you now exactly what I anticipated as my plane touched down in Montana last weekend.

I remember I was nervous. That state is, after all, home to the country's paranoid fringe--where the Freemen held off federal agents and where prosecutors say the accused Unabomber holed up to build his bombs; where armed militia roam the countryside and white Angelenos settle when they've had too much of rap music, gay rights and espan~ol.

And I know that I was intrigued. Since moving to California from Ohio 18 years ago, I've never gone north of San Francisco or farther east than Las Vegas. What beauty awaited me, I wondered, in a state famed for its picturesque mountain views, its rugged isolation, its stubborn independence?

In my three days there, I discovered the state is all that and more. And I saw how, in ways large and small, our California culture has insinuated itself into the fabric of Montana life.

It's there in a cowboy describing the wonders of sushi, a DARE poster in a thrift shop window, a real estate boom that keeps Montanans stuck on their farms while newcomers--outsiders--overrun their schools.

Outside the ranch hosting our women's journalism conference--the 320 Guest Ranch, a sprawling compound of log cabins, tree-shrouded hills and a rushing river--I didn't see a single black face in the three days I was in Montana.

So I was prepared to be a spectacle as I strode into the Mint Cafe--a lone black woman clutching a briefcase and a Los Angeles Times. But no one even glanced my way.

Instead it was I who couldn't stop staring, at the moose heads mounted on the wall, the denim-clad couple kissing by the video poker machine, the rugged-looking men crowded around the bar in their muddy boots and cowboy hats. These were real cowboys, with lined faces and calloused hands; wranglers who made their living out of doors, whose feet ached too much by the end of the week to manage even a little Texas two-step.

I thought about our own urban cowboys--those accountants and insurance salesmen who don cowboy hats and boots and go line dancing at places like the Cowboy Palace. The weekend hombre--the closest he comes to livestock is sliding onto the leather seat of his Lexus.

But as we mimic Montanans, they have drawn from us too.

At the table next to me at the Mint Cafe, a ruddy man with a cowboy hat and bolo tie is explaining to his friends the mechanics of eating sushi.

"See, there's this stuff called wasabi, and you mix it with soy sauce--'cause it's really hot if you don't--and that's what you put on these California rolls, which is really just rice with some vegetables rolled up inside."

His girlfriend looks relieved that it wasn't actually raw fish after all. "Sushi," she says. "I wouldn't go near it." She takes another bite of her rib-eye steak, shaking her head, while her friends discuss trying a new place in a town up the road, rumored to have a sushi chef from L.A.

Over the past decade, Californians have been flocking to Montana in droves, driving up the price of real estate and creating high-end enclaves on some of the state's most beautiful territory.

Folks like Bozeman Mayor Don Stueck worry that his city is becoming an "elitist, high-cost place to live," out of reach for the typical Montanan.

Many of those newcomers have headed back home, stung by a few winters in a place where snowfall averages (or, at least, so a Montanan will tell you) 600 inches a year and 40 below zero is not uncommon. Others have struggled with the reality of a tight job market; there are women with masters' degrees waiting tables to feed their children and limited options for a man who doesn't know how to break a horse.

*

It's easy to see why people romanticize this land. It's hard to avoid, when you gaze upon these vast green mountains and a sky so magnificent and blue.

It's a place so big, it makes you feel humble. And so remote, it forces you to detach.

I didn't see a cellular phone or hear a pager the entire weekend. My own electronic leashes were too far from home to work, giving me a sense of being cut off from civilization that first I feared, then I cherished.

By the weekend's end, I was entertaining fantasies of my own. Maybe this would be a good place to settle down. I could write a book, home school my kids, raise horses, commune with the wild.

On the way back to airport, I found myself humming along with a George Strait song. And thinking about buying a cowboy hat.

* Sandy Banks' e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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