Custer Country, a title applied to southeastern Montana for the purpose of promoting tourism, will soon be rubbed from the map.
Montana is divided into six tourism districts. Each receives a chunk of lodging tax proceeds each year.
Custer Country, soon to be called Southeast Montana, covers 13 counties, including both the Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations. A number of individuals from each tribe s found the old name offensive. More than offensive. Stupid. The new name will be “Southeast Montana.”
Alzada is in southeast Montana. Almost nothing else is. Alzada is two light years from Billings. Billings is smack bang south central Montana.
I don’t like our neck of the woods being called “Eastern Montana,” but I thank the Deity that I don’t live in Western Montana.
Western Montanans tell outsiders that they live in God’s Country and Eastern Montana is flat, barren and boring. Western Montanans, who think their pellets don’t stink, like to call our country West Dakota.
From parts of Billings, I can see five mountain ranges, the four highest mountains in the state and the grandest river in Montana. North Dakota needs no outside defender.
The state is smothered with jobs and wallowing in oil money. North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of fossil fuels. Western Montana is the Appalachia of the Northwest, a region full of rednecks, rocks, ice and pikas.
Pikas are lagomorphs, rabbit-shaped critters. Pikas, no larger than a man’s fist, are crippled with “cute.” When not eating their own feces, they are eaten by any animal larger than a pika. They make tasty snacks for owls, eagles, ferrets and coyotes. They are also hardworking hay hands and shifty-eyed thieves.
Living at altitudes above 8,000 feet, pikas spill from their burrows in early summer, while snow lingers in the high country, to bear young, mate and make hay for the coming winter.
Pikas mate in summer but pregnancy does not progress until late winter. They do not hibernate. Young are born and begin nursing a few weeks before their mother leaves the nest.
Meanwhile, both sexes gorge on grass to replenish stores of fat needed to sustain them during winter. Pikas eat until stuffed, then stack grass in piles on bare or rocky ground to cure.
When the owner of one of these small piles looks away, neighbors sneak in to steal it. The dried grass is then pulled into the burrow or nesting niche to be eaten during the winter – twice.
Pikas make two meals of their stored fodder. First, they fill their bellies on hay and expel soft, green pellets. Next, they eat the green pellets and produce hard black pellets.
Pikas are crepuscular. So are tourists. Both lurk in the twilight – just after dawn and just before dusk.
Years ago, after the Great Flood, but before the introduction of caffeine-free and sugar-free cherry Pepsi, a fellow journalist dropped by the newsroom to say “Hello.”
He was not exactly a friend. In fact, he was not a friend at all. He stopped to see me because he had just recently left the newspaper business to become a lobbyist for the coal industry. The move tripled his pay while shrinking his self esteem.
Not-exactly-a-friend pulled up a chair beside my desk and sat down to chat, presumably to tell me about his pricy company car, big paycheck and spacious office.
Not wanting to be seen with this sell-out, I invited him to a nearby burger joint for a cup of coffee.
He said he was en route to Alzada to talk to ranchers about the bounty of coal development. A half hour later he looked at his expensive wristwatch and asked me, “How far is it to Alzada?”
I said, “Far enough to convince Western Montanans that Billings is not Eastern Montana.”
He said, “What?”
I told him, “If you plan on being there for supper, you are already late.”
Recently, a Gazette outdoor writer covered a homicide in Pryor. Outdoor Guy described Pryor as a tiny village in the middle of the wind-swept plains … .”
How windswept can plains be in the middle of the valley of a mountain stream?