In a little town like Valier there are only 400 + citizens but fairly substantial amounts of money to manage. Crime, though forecast, has not materialized. The most common violence is someone crashing into a deer on the highway. This sometimes deceptive peacefulness is partly due to the lack of bars so that belligerents go to the nearby towns that DO have a high incidence of public violence. (We have an occasional incident of domestic violence.) Anyway, most people are busy making a living and are from sturdy Belgian stock that mind their own business. And yet dealing with troublemakers and obstructionists at town council meetings is a constant problem.
Maintaining self-government in a small town in a time of anxiety and polarization has become difficult everywhere, esp. since the towns of the Montana High-Line were built-out about a hundred years ago when the open range was fenced off. Infrastructure is in dire need of renewal. Even the trees planted then are about aged out, whether cottonwoods or elms. Since this is true of most of the small towns across Montana, the state is hard-pressed to help out, but they do offer grants and loans. At the same time, technology has changed, standards have changed, organizational structures probably need to change, and the demographics of the state skew to the elderly. The bottom line in all this is paperwork -- a LOT of paperwork.
Valier has been through several phases since 1999 when I moved back here. At that time we had a patriarchal mayor who had been unchallenged for a long time until he too finally aged out on the job, leaving a lot of undone and difficult issues in a semi-collapsed town. Velda Loch stepped in as the next mayor. She is a skillful woman with a lot of connections, a “people-person,” who worked with state and federal grant agencies to catch up. However health issues forced her back off.
The next mayor was a newcomer, Mackenzie Grey, with quite a different style since she was from the urban Northwest. A computer adept, she was able to navigate the mounds of technicalities necessary to secure grants. About the same time a man arrived from the same area, but with much less grasp of what was essential or useful. His contribution was that he had run a sprinkler business and so realized that a hydrant used for major truckloads of ag herbicide and pesticide mixing had no backflow valve on it, and in fact the same water line also fed into the schools. Under the right conditions, the entire school population could be poisoned. This was immediately rectified and the county stepped in to stop the storage of the toxins in town. However, the trucks still use the hydrant. As it turned out, this citizen also lacked a mental “backflow device” and has returned to address the council again and again with misunderstandings, technicalities, confusions and accusations, evidently hoping to match his first success. I’m watching “Deadwood” in the evenings and often hear the echo.
The town employees, often caught in the middle, began to be stirred up. The cry of “throw incumbents out,” which seems to some to be the sovereign remedy for everything in some minds, found voters. The town councilmen, after the election, were newly chosen major business owners determined to get a grip on the situation. They squeezed hard but results were not what they expected. The situation exploded. Lawyers appeared. Councilmen realized they could be sued and disappeared. A new council was formed -- with difficulty. No one wanted to walk into such a storm. Except Mr. Know-It-All with his charts and databases and accusations.
Engineering projects were his meat and he pored over spreadsheets and maps to find new shortfalls, diversions, and failures to take his investment advice. In fact, some of the engineers did fell short and there was conflict with the mayor. The sewage lagoon “bugs” failed to perform, the wells were getting perilously low and their walls were caving in, the sewer “lining” turned out to be troublesome, and so on. We were told we needed a new watertower. At the same time some citizens wanted the town more “civilized,” meaning no chickens or horses and constant spraying of dandelions and mosquitoes. “Green” meant to them only square lawns of a specific height. They were not interested in any other issues except the streets. They demand urban-quality streets with curbs. People who think they can move here to find peace and quiet are sadly mistaken. Instead the movement was for vigilantes to patrol the streets at night and for ladies to take shooting lessons. Too much television all the way around.
A possible oil boom hasn’t materialized. No one pays any attention to the wind farm just a couple of miles out of town, nor the grain elevator that looks to be closed down in favor of a much larger operation in Conrad. There IS a bit of excitement about the Pondera Canal Company water rights, which were not historically allocated according to the law and treaties. When the water is re-allocated, the PCC will take a loss that -- combined with drought and the failure of snowpack to form -- will put some people out of business. All of this is almost too scary to think about except in the brash, swaggering terms of old guys who feel they’ve seen it all.
Since I’ve been watching “Deadwood” but not liking it, I was relieved that Keith Carradine says it’s NOT a Western. Indeed, David Milch (the originator) made his bones writing about Manhattan cops, though he was collaborating with Steve Bochco who was not so literarily pretentious and knew his territory personally. In fact, “Deadwood” was supposed to have been about ancient Rome, but another series (cleverly called “Rome”) bumped it over to South Dakota. Clearly, Swearingin (who was an actual historical person) is an alter-ego for Milch, who even looks a little like him. Swearingen’s character is as amoral as Milch’s, a movie director intent on control and profit through sensationalism, thinly disguised by undergrad philosophy and a lot of pseudo-Shakespearean language. He claims deep research and historical accuracy -- but all concerned emphasize that there is really no way to KNOW how things were. The story, like every story is a mirror of the storyteller. And just so is Valier a mirror of its citizens, actual not-yet-historical people struggling to sort out what to do and interacting -- sometimes with considerable skill and success and other times making each other miserable. Sometimes we could use a better script, and sometimes it is the fault of the actors. No one seems to be directing and why should they?
Coincidentally, someone sent me evidence of a town problem that the council never could resolve but that time solved for them: a paranoid schizophrenic holed up in a collapsing old warehouse with an uncountable number of feral cats who posted about black box cars on the elevator spur that were equipped with iron shackles and chains for use in a FEMA emergency. He often noted black helicopters rising from the depths of Lake Francis alongside the town. He aged out. Time presents problems, but it removes them as well. Even broken treaties.