Montana was one of three states in the Continental United States I hadn't been to so driving through a small part of it had a "bucket list" kind of importance for me. I've welcomed the expansive landscape on this trip and the long open roads. It's my favorite part so far - mile after mile of two-lane road, flanked by soft browns with spots of deep green. twenty minutes between cars, no wireless hook-up, barely a radio station to listen to. Not that I would have tuned in, it's better without it. Mesmerizing. I pass dirt roads with signs announcing such and such ranch, but I see no houses or barns, only small mountains of baled hay every couple of miles, and uncountable numbers of black Angus cows. Where are the people? And if, in fact, they are out here how do they manage being so far away from others? Then, I realize I've not had a long conversation with anyone for a couple of weeks now, and surprisingly to me, I like it.
I stop some - to eat a sardine sandwich, take a piss, make a picture, listen to the wind and smell the air. Years ago, when I lived in Arizona, I thought the landscape was just too big and the sky too open. I couldn't comprehend it and was threatened by the immensity of it, as if it would swallow me up. Now, after living forty-three years in the cultural and physical closeness of the southern mountains, I'm welcoming this new world I know nothing about, that knows nothing about me. Letting the wind, the never-ending prairie, the empty road in front and behind, empty me.
I stop for a few hours visit with Al Jenkins, an old friend and hunting buddy of Leslie's Dad's. When Al got home from WWII, he married Ruby, opened a very successful shoe and boot store, and raised a family. He sold the business thirty-four years ago, at age 60, and started restoring antique cars. He's done eight now, mostly Fords, and this coupe is his pride and joy. He and Ruby traveled all over the country in these cars until she passed two years ago. She was 90 when she died. Al is 94 and he says he's slowed down. I'm not sure I believe him.
The Montana State Capital in Helena is both enormous and splendid, neither of which surprises me given the size of the state and the cultural and mineral riches within it. The statue out front of Thomas Francis Meagher didn't shock me either. Meagher was the first territorial governor of Montana. He was an Irish nationalist who was convicted of sedition by the British government in 1848. He was banished to Australia, but escaped and wound up in New York where he studied law and spoke about Irish independence on the lecture circuit. He founded the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, recruiting Irish immigrants in New York, and fought in numerous campaigns early in the war. I would expect to see him, or someone like him, at the entrance to the building.
But up a long, polished and worn staircase, I come to a statue of Jeannette Rankin, someone, I'm embarrassed to say, I knew nothing about. She was born in Missoula, in 1880, four years after the Little Big Horn, at a time when Montana was still untamed territory. She graduated from the University of Montana and worked briefly as a social worker before becoming involved in the women's suffrage movement. Elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916 she led the fight for universal voting rights for women and was "the only woman to vote to give women the right to vote." She was also a pacifist and one of 50 members of the House to vote against American entry into World War I, saying "I cannot vote for war." She lost a bid for a Senate seat two years later, bought a small farm in Georgia and continued her work in the Peace Movement. She was again elected to Congress in 1940 and cast the sole "no" vote for entry into World War II, a vote that effectively ended her political career. In the 1960s she organized the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of women's peace groups, and led a march on Washington, DC, against the Vietnam War, where they presented a peace petition to the Speaker of the House. She died in 1972 at age 93.
In my many years of traveling rural roads and seeing hundreds of these irrigation systems, I have never seen one in actual use. I drive past this one for a couple of miles before I find a place to turn around. I stop at the access road and get out, cameras in hand, and make numerous images. Even as I make them they feel prescribed, like I've worked too hard to get them. As I'm pulling away from the scene, barely gaining speed, I glance over at the field and see the image that made me turn around in the first place - the light, the guardrail, the sky, and the functioning irrigation rig. It's nice when it happens like that.
I see the crosses as soon as I enter the state on Highway 212 and they follow me as I drive across the southern portion of Montana - a cross for every vehicular death in the state. Montana has the highest rate of drunk driving deaths in the country and is among the highest in rate of highway deaths per capita. The same endless highways that are easing me to a clearer place also serve to lull people to sleep, or bore them to drink, or cause road hypnosis. Hitting a moose or elk at 75 mph, or 90, would likely be a quick killer, too. The cross program is administered by American Legion chapters around the state and was started over fifty years ago in an effort to get people to slow down and pay attention. I do.