Monday, December 05, 2016


My past with Missoula begins in the fall of 1961 when I attended the state teachers’ conference there.  I stayed in the Victoria Hotel, $4 a night and the desk clerk came up with you to make sure no trespassers were already in the room.  In the night there was a fight between drunks in the hall and I stood on a chair to peer over the transom until the woman threw the man down the stairs and stalked off.  Maybe because my college degree was theatre, I found this dramatic rather than scary.  I have no memory of the seminars and so on.  In 1991 when I was teaching in Heart Butte, I had intended to go to Missoula again, but my principal forbade me, saying it would give me wild ideas.  He wanted me to attend in Butte.

The last time I was in Missoula was for Jimmie Welch, Jr.’s memorial.  No one there recognized me or knew of my connection which was through Bob Scriver’s childhood when his closest friend was Jimmie Welch, Sr. which is why I say “Jimmie” rather than “James.”  Of course, the U of M has been a great friend to the Blackfeet.  They ought to be, since the drug and revolution pipeline leads straight from there to the rez.  

I’ve already talked about the Missoula UU Fellowship and the sharp jolt I got recently on discovering they were stuck just where they were in 1982 when we kept urging them to support the Montana Ministry project.  They did, but with reluctance.  None of the leaders from that time are still there, but the attitude is.  They were not the kind of people Leslie Fiedler would have liked or expected when he sold them his house. 

The other amazing news from Missoula recently is that they had quietly sold their municipal water system to a private Canadian company.  To me that’s a bigger scandal than the one traced by Jon Krakauer about the typically American cultural rot that led to paid sports players who were hardly scholars and rapists who stalked girls’ dorm rooms.

Now the Mayor has taken a leave of absence to go into a dry-out program for his alcoholism.  The President of the University has left, politically compromised, but also unable to turn around falling enrolment,  “The fall headcount at UM is 10,329 students, down from 10,999 last fall and down 22 percent since 2010.”

What we have here is partly economic collapse, since many of the industries in the area have closed down because they were resource dependent and produced pollution.  But I also take it as an indicator of the collapse of the liberal political and academic world, a structure no longer a lever, a refuge, a nursery of ideas, or much of anything else except a library and a nice campus.  The headquarters of Richard B. Spencer, a white supremacist who defends the Nazi salute, are in Whitefish, 2 1/2 hours’ drive north of Missoula.  Whitefish is a luxury resort town, a sort of lifestyle place.

If you want to know more without my squinty take on Missoula, consult:

When I was working for the City of Portland, I was aware of people who considered Missoula a suburb of the Northwest.  They had good cars and would leave after work on Friday, come back on the evening of the day before they had to be at work again.  Maybe they were drug runners, but they were more like culture runners, the old sex-drugs-rocknroll crowd in middle age.  They might start out for “George”, the major amphitheatre in the middle of nowhere (eastern Washington), meet people from Montana and just keep coming east.  They didn’t usually cross the Rockies.  Between Portland and Missoula it’s 547 miles, an 8 hour drive .  George is halfway between.

Geologists will explain that “Missoula Floods” is the label for a series of glaciation events.  The Flathead Valley formed a natural impoundment for the melting of the glaciers in the cordilleras on either side.  Missoula was approximately where ice jams formed, like putting a plug in a bathtub, so the water rose until the dam broke from melting or just pressure, sending a wall of water roaring down the Clark Fork and then the Columbia, creating the Gorge for which “George” is a pun.  This happened repeatedly.  One can see the “bathtub rings” left by various iterations.

When the State of Montana was formed, which was not a geological event but rather a surveyors’ task, the western boundary — some say — was supposed to go north/south along the Continental Divide in the Rockies.  Those opinionated “some” say that the surveyors were bribed to move the boundary over to the Mission Mountains because "they" believed there were deposits of silver in the Flathead Valley.  This didn’t prove true.

Missoula is sometimes called “the Hub of Five Valleys,” though it is five mountain ranges and only three rivers: Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot.  It is not just a geological depression, for in winter when the temperature conversions put a lid on the air,it's also a sociological depression.  A quick dash to the big cities of the coast can help.

How does one turn around a town sunk in depression?  Shock therapy?  Okay.  Let’s give the Flathead Valley to Washington State.  Probably not necessary to close the Continental Divide since the snow does that in winter anyway.

So then what would be the humanities center of the state?  If it must have an academic anchor, I would suggest Helena (Carroll College) or Great Falls (College of Great Falls).  They already have good arts programs.  Or maybe, like medical and veterinary schools, there just isn’t enough population in Montana to sustain specialization to that degree.

But why keep the model of academia, which comes from medieval Europe and responds less and less to actual people on the prairies where they live.  Why not let humanities be carried on a network supported by the Internet (Skype included).  Instead of making people pay tuition to be part of it, why not let writers, artists and musicians earn their way into participation and publicity by contributing?  So many credits for a novel, so many for a trio. 

Maybe a formula of combined productivity and quality could be devised so that the best and busiest would be supported.  Rather than imposing standards from back east or from credentialed people, a point system could weight rewards for people from minorities, the young, the old, the cutting edge, the classic, the naive.

Then Missoula could be left alone to be the “lifestyle” location it clearly wants to be, a little imitation of New England where they could indulge their fantasies of safety and bourgeois worthiness, hoping no one would drive down from white Whitefish.  Which is not to guarantee no one will ever throw anyone down the hotel stairs again.

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