Michael Reagan / August 8, 2022

Montana, Where American Still Works

“In the last week I’ve met half a dozen good, hard working ordinary people out here who prove that the politicians in DC can’t completely wreck America with their bad policies.”

I’m a lucky American.

Thanks to my wife Colleen’s job as a travel agent, in the last two weeks I’ve been to Europe and back.

I was able to tag along with Colleen, as I often do, when she took a group of tourists to France’s Bordeaux wine country.

While I was gone things looked like they were starting to improve a little at home.

The Biden administration was still doing its best to cripple the economy, bankrupt the federal government and destroy our energy industry with their insane green policies.

But the stock market bounced up nicely.

National gasoline prices continued their slow fall towards $4.25 a gallon (except in California).

And Nancy Pelosi didn’t start World War III by visiting Taiwan.

While I was in Europe, a friend from Pittsburgh, an ex-newspaper journalist named Bill Steigerwald, drove from Western Pennsylvania to Montana with his wife and daughter.

It’s a 1,900-mile road trip — one way — but Bill’s used to driving across America and meeting strangers. He still thinks it’s fun at 74.

For decades he did what he calls “drive-by journalism” for the Los Angeles Times (in the 1980s) and two Pittsburgh daily papers.

And in 2010 for his book “Dogging Steinbeck,” he carefully retraced the road trip John Steinbeck made around the U.S. in 1960 and turned it into his iconic best-seller “Travels With Charley.”

Bill drove by himself, racked up 11,276 miles in about 40 days and met hundreds of Americans from Maine to California. Unlike many journalists, he liked 99.9 percent of the flyover people he met.

Bill still meets — and, as he says, “gently interrogates” — people all the time when he travels.

This week, in an email from the middle of barely populated Montana, he wrote, “Don’t be too worried about the future, Mike.”

“In the last week I’ve met half a dozen good, hard working ordinary people out here who prove that the politicians in DC can’t completely wreck America with their bad policies.”

In Lewistown, population 6,000, Bill said he met Brandon O'Halloran, an ex-school teacher in his 40s who owns and operates the Rising Trout Café on Main Street.

Brandon and his wife Mariah have three kids and live on a small all-organic ranch and wheat farm outside of town.

Three mornings a week he goes in at about 5:30 a.m., roasts his own coffee and makes a pile of cinnamon buns and breakfast sandwiches from scratch.

“He’s upbeat, friendly and apolitical, a sensible mix of liberal and conservative,” Bill wrote. “You’d never know the country is in a mess or that his wheat crop failed last year because of the weather.”

Bill is staying in his wife’s family’s log cabin in the dense forest near the former silver mining boomtown of Neihart, population now about 50.

In “downtown” Neihart on Highway 89, which cuts through mountainous Lewis & Clark National Forest and its sprinkling of still-active Minutemen silos, is “The Inconvenience Store.”

A cooperative, it’s run on a shoestring and owned and staffed by a dedicated crew of colorful and friendly residents.

The priceless store serves as an early morning coffee hangout for old-timers, a community center and is the only place for many miles where you can buy bread, milk and water.

Almost next door to the co-op is Bob’s Bar Restaurant & Motel.

The modest combo was bought about five years ago by a hardworking 40-something entrepreneur from Indiana named Janice who even cleans rooms herself (to make sure they’re done right).

Her funky bar caters to tourists, locals, skiers and passing bikers and she just hired a new cook who specializes in prime rib and grilled salmon.

Janice has the only gasoline for sale for 40 miles and she knows locals depend on her.

“She charges $6.50 a gallon,” Bill reported.

“That’s steep — but fair. When her two old gas pumps stop working because of vapor locks, she gets out her equipment and hand pumps what you need herself.”

It’s the way America has always worked, Bill said — in the middle of Montana, anyway.

Copyright 2022 Michael Reagan

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