Not really. I’m only starting the twentieth year since I bought this house in 1999. The town itself has changed quite a bit. Many sterling and solid people have died or moved away. We’ve lost maybe ten businesses, including the much beloved Lighthouse restaurant that drew customers from miles away. We’ve gone from a laissez faire mayor who rubber-stamped most projects, to a much more self-conscious and strict town council that is increasingly regulated by the state, not always appropriately since the officials tend to come from cities. And we’ve realized that the wealth of the area is around the town, but not in the town, while local amenities remain in town: school, fire, church, library, senior citizen meals, water.
When I first came, the bank (Wells Fargo) accepted payment for gas and water, exchanged Canadian money freely with American (we’re close to the border), exchanged change for bills, cashed checks, and other friendly favors. Now they refuse to break down a hundred dollar bill even for a transaction with the city. They might as well be a machine.
This last week I got a first-hand look at the dark side when I became violently ill. Either a stroke or a major infection clobbered the top right quadrant of my head. There is no doctor in town. I could have called the ambulance but it was late and the roads were impassable because of snow and sleet. The best cure was time and that’s what I chose. That was Wednesday. This is Sunday. No one in town knows I’m sick. Tomorrow will be the local clinic of the hospital in Shelby and I will attend. I’m slowly improving anyway.
The local hospitals are each in a county seat and each is stretched to make ends meet. The result is that each has hired a person to oversee everything, forcing doctors to work to dictated protocol and so on. The criteria is not the welfare of the patient. Once the hooks are in a person, there will be expense after expense, incompletely covered by insurance. My high blood med jumped from $8 to $37 dollars a few months ago.
Valier has been a family-centered town for a long time, but it isn’t now except for a few. 30% of the population identifies as tribal. One family owns the only gas station, the store, a ranch and other businesses. Many outsiders have moved here because of the past reputation and are shocked when they are not included in a “family.” They are not necessarily small town people and want big city amenities. They sometimes try to force their fantasy on others. I heard one say, “We should just get rid of all $30,000 houses.” (That includes my house.) Some have talked of a walled city — walling all the big ranchers out?
Our law and order is via sheriff rather than police. This means the headquarters are in Conrad, thirty miles away, and Valier pays a lot of money for little service. Those who like edges and darkness are aware of this. We just got rid of an ineffective sheriff much like Trump: overweight, overbearing, vulgar, abusive of his own children, divorced by his wife, obsessed by sex, inclined to fire any officer people liked better, openly “tolerant” of low-level crime. Now our temporary sheriff is Billy Gobert, a tribal member from a prominent Browning family. He has been in law enforcement for many years.
A major focus has been infrastructure. First we were told we needed a second holding tank on stilts. (Though we are next to Lake Francis, it is privately owned water and only Conrad has access.) Then we needed another well and had a hard time locating a site. The new well is more mineral than the old ones. Then our water supervisor of many years was hired away to a better job, taking his expertise and experience with him. The other city employee had asked for a safety “cage” to put in trenches as protection for the digger, but was denied. The upshot was that he was trapped by a cave-in and his back was seriously wrenched. The “cage” is in use now but the worker has to go for pain treatment in Great Falls once a week. We’ve hired an eager young man, but he’s also had health problems
Then we began to fail the safety bacterial tests we send in once a week to a lab in Helena. Evidently the “bugs” in our settling ponds were getting chilled and inactive, so we installed expensive covers and pumps to keep those bugs happy. Then we discovered that our lagoons had accumulated sludge at the bottom, beyond what is allowable. The problem was two-fold: how to get it out and what to do with it. We found someone who would accept the muck on his land as fertilizer, so now the choice is between drying out and scraping each pond or trying to pump out the stuff as liquid.
The state required us to install water meters at each household. It was predicted that people would stop watering their lawns. I certainly did stop and there was some die-off in my yard. I failed to keep up with the restrictions on “grass” height and got into trouble as did others. A lady friend offered to come over and “mow my grass.” She did not understand that the north side is now overwhelmed with caraghanas (shrubs) from the neighbors. The back half is overrun with rogue alfalfa, which is too tough and flat for a mower, and the entire yard is closely spotted with volunteer poplars whose roots stick up above the ground. This is not the kind of yard most prosperous people here have. Theirs are a matter of uniform green, flat and uninterrupted. Most people have riding mowers. Most people get rid of their trees.
Sickness has made me think about my sewer which needs an upgrade. The city replaced a part of it but the part nearer the house is made of an ancient material called “orangeburg”. Every “plumber” I’ve called has been a novice who knows only two things: all plumbing is clogged and all clogging is the fault of trees. The last plumber said that my problem was that the house was sinking and therefore the angles of evacuation were too shallow, even reverse. Jacking up the house is estimated at $8,000. At present, the sanitary stack (a pipe that goes from near the sewer outlet up to a foot or so above the roof) seems inoperable (?) so the system vents through the shower. That’s not nice, but I also come to realize that the sanitary stack also draws in air so as to let the liquids drain on out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and no one has the expertise to understand why.
After this long here, many decades-old ties to local people (not necessarily white), and steady attendance at town council meetings, I’m still seen as an outsider — someone who can’t be trusted and probably has hidden wealth. If they were to get access to my house, there are a few plunderers who would be “on it,” looking for valuables, evidence of something that could be held against me, searching for a weakness that would let them control me.
Therefore, in these hostile times, I keep my guard up. I only call for the ambulance if I’m on the point of death. Of course, at that time I might not be conscious.
Do I regret moving here? Not one bit. It’s a good place to hide from the Trumpers. But it’s no free ride.