~ Mark Twain
“I need to run into the house for a minute.” Jim told me. “Wait here with the yak.”
There were two Tibetan yak in the pen. An adult and a child. The adult was sauntering slowly toward me.
“Is it safe?” I asked, as the yak approach at the speed of a riding lawn mower in low gear.
“He’s charging you right now,” said Jim with a chuckle and then headed off toward the house with the long strides of a man who walks many miles each day.
The small yak has was munching on grass a few feet away. I pulled out my GoPro to try and get a selfie with him without spooking him. This is what happened.
His name is Goliath. Here are a few more photos of he and the other yak, just because they’re so damn cute.
Meeting Jim Watson
Kalispell is a small city of 22,000 in the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana surrounded by lakes and mountains. Jim Watson is the personification of the Kalispell that I came to know during my visit there.
Jim is a well-read rancher, hunter, entrepreneur, a volunteer. Although Jim has told me he is not a Libertarian, it seemed to me that he embodied many of the best parts of the Libertarian ideology.
According to Wikipedia, “Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association, and the primacy of individual judgment.”
That is to say, they think the government should have little or no role in people’s lives and people should be left to manage their own affairs.
If everyone was like Jim, a Libertarian country would probably be a pretty great place.
I met Jim because he’s on the board of the Foy’s to Blacktail Trails, a non-profit organization that is working to create a network of trails between Herron Park at the edge of Kalispell to the forests of Blacktail Mountain, which is about 11 miles south as the crow flies.
We met at Herron Park, a 440-acre conservation area with 15 miles of trails for public use that is jointly managed by the Foy’s to Blacktail Trails and the Flathead County Parks Department. During our conversation Jim told me stories about the US forestry service’s mismanagement of public land and explained the selective logging and natural reforestation methods practiced on both his own ranch and in the conservation area.
Having worked in the forestry industry as a young man I have a fair understanding of sustainable land management practices. Jim’s land management system was exactly everything I had ever learned sustainable forestry was supposed to be like.
Here are a few shots of Heron Park. There is no sign of logging, unnatural reforestation, or machinery, which is exactly what sustainable logging practices should look like.
Jim also runs the 1000 acre Spring Brook Ranch where he breeds Tibetan yak and bison. The yak are mostly raised for breeding, but some are also sold for their meat. Jim sells most of his bison and yak meat to local restaurants. When Jim told me this I was surprised because I’d never actually seen farm-to-table food operations in North America.
I thought that the farm-to-table movement was some kind of hipster sustainability trend that was done more because of its trendiness than for social responsibility.
I met several business owners that were part of the growing farm-to-table scene in Kalispell, and they were definitely not posturing hipsters. They were passionate, sustainably-minded entrepreneurs dead serious about the importance of locally-sourced food.
This not what I expected to find in Kalispell, a place I associated with lifted pick-up trucks, gun racks, and camouflage as casual everyday clothing.
Now Entering Trump Country
Kalispell’s slogan is “Discovery in Every Direction.”
The city sits in the Flathead Valley surrounded by the finest natural landscapes in the state. North of Kalispell is Glacier National Park, one of the most-visited national parks in the USA. South of Kalispell is Flathead Lake, the largest lake (by surface area) west of the Mississippi. To the east and west are the Swan Mountains and Salish Mountains, which are comprised mainly vast swathes of pristine Rocky Mountain wilderness.
I grew up in Cranbrook, British Columbia, which is just a 3-hour drive north of Kalispell. I had visited Kalispell and the surrounding area many times with my family as a child and felt I knew the area fairly well.
Montana has a reputation for being a state of gun-loving pickup-truck driving Republicans; just like my hometown.
On my way to Kalispell my mother and I drove past a rust-spattered pickup truck with a gun rack in the rear window and a bumper sticker that said “My dog is smarter than a democrat”.
“Don’t go around talking politics down here.” My mom warned me. “This is Trump country.”
I was an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter on an assignment for a Chamber of Commerce heading into the heart of Trump country during the most politically polarized period in the USA that I could remember. I would be meeting with tourism officials, business people, and community leaders.
Talking politics was probably the dumbest thing I could do.
So, I decided I would ask every person I met about Donald Trump.
I had come to Kalispell on assignment to photograph and write about the outdoors activities around Kalispell for the Chamber of Commerce. The night I arrived ate dinner with the woman who would be signing my paycheque (probably).
She seemed like a good person to start with.
Elk Sausage And Polite Politics
We ate at the the Desoto Grill, where I had a sausage hoagie made from locally-sources elk (pictured above). That was my first taste of farm-to-table cuisine in Kalispell.
I had decided not to ask people their personal opinions on Donald Trump because he’s such a polarizing figure. Since I’m a pretty obvious liberal, I didn’t think I’d get straight answers from people — especially the ones who knew I was a writer — if I asked what their personal opinion was.
Also, I didn’t want to know what each individual thought as much as I wanted to know the general sentiment of the community. So, I’d ask people, “How do folks around here like Donald Trump?”
When I asked Diane — whose job is to market Kalispell to visitors — her answer was unsurprisingly diplomatic.
“I think a lot of people around here are unhappy with the choices they’ve been given.”
I didn’t realize it until I wrote her words down just now, but that statement explains exactly how I — and I think most Americans — feel right now.
If general election ballots included a “New Election With New Candidates” option, I’m pretty sure it would win by a landslide.
America prides itself on its dedication to personal freedom, which is often associated with freedom of choice. Freedom for companies to compete in the marketplace and for consumers to buy what they like. Freedom to pursue the religion of your choice. Freedom to go shopping at JC Penny with an AR-15 assault rifle slung over your shoulder.
The two-party political system conflicts with the freedom of choice ideal. The American political system only really allows for two viable presidential choices. (I feel obligated to point out is just one choice short of a dictatorship). A whole lot of people a dislike them both, but also have no clear way to change the situation.
This was my first step toward understanding the nuanced relationship between Americans and their government.
Well, maybe not all Americans, but at least the dozen or so that I met in Kalispell.
Outdoors Adventures And Political Inquiries
I spent most of a week galavanting around Kalispell’s wild surroundings with my camera, and eating and drinking with the owners of the better-known pubs and restaurants in the evening. Those are the good parts of my job.
Here are a few obligatory photos of how beautiful it was.
It would be silly to describe every conversation I had about The Donald. So, I’ll summarize the most meaningful tidbits.
I ate lunch one day in the Tamarack Brewing Company, where one of the people working told me that around the bar, a fair number of people were so distraught that they were considering not voting at all.
Quick Aside: Tamarack Brewing Company is an award winning craft brewery that has won some serious awards for its IPAs. It also happens to be owned by the daughter of hockey legend Lanny McDonald, who happened to show up while I was there and was gracious enough to take a selfie with me.
When I visited the Kalispell Brewing Company I heard the same thing. A lot of people were just fed up, alienated, disenfranchised.
I met more than a few Republicans during my visit. Most of them were vocal about their dislike for The Donald. The strength of their language reassured me that they weren’t just telling me what I wanted to hear.
But, when I’d ask the same Republicans that disliked Donald Trump whether or not they would vote for him, the general consensus was, “I may not like ’em much, but I’m sure as hell won’t vote for a Democrat.”
So, How About Bernie?
Nothing to do with Bernie. Just wanted to show you this lookout I found on top of Blacktail Mountain, south of Kalispell.
Sometimes, right after talking about Trump I’d ask about Bernie Sanders, just for fun.
I was surprised that most of the party-line-towing Republicans would talk about Bernie’s integrity, saying something like, “I may not agree with ‘em, but he ain’t full of shit.”
I only met one man that seemed to genuinely support Donald Trump. He was a local historian.
We met at Sykes Diner, which is a Kalispell institution. It was opened by community-minded business man who wanted to give people a nice place to hang out.
Everything on the menu is normal diner price except the coffee, which is ten cents and all-you-want as long as you want.
It was packed when we met there at 8am.
Over bacon and hash browns, the historian advised me, “Don’t watch what Trump does. Watch who he hires. He will surround himself with good people that will get things done.”
Is Montana A Republican State?
Before my visit to Kalispell, I thought Montana was extremely Republican. I worried that I’d run into intolerance and ignorance that liberals tend to associate with conservative rural areas.
I encountered the opposite. I encountered friendly, open-minded, gracious people regardless of their political preferences.
Here’s the thing.
The United States is a vast country with many culturally distinct areas. I often to joke that the USA is about 5 countries in one.
All those people, with all their different beliefs, cultures, and histories, are expected to agree on just one of two people to lead them?
Far less diverse countries than the United States have far more diverse political systems.
Japan is one of the least diverse and most homogenous societies in the world and they have 5 parties, including a Communist Party.
The USA is a vast country. So many areas have their own identities: Alsaka, California, Texas, Florida, Washington DC. How could the leadership of a country so diverse be distilled down to a choice between just two people.
Is Kalispell elephant country? No. Is it donkey country? No.
It’s bear country.
Kalispellians are an self-reliant, hiking, climbing, snowboarding, skiing, hunting, fishing, horse-riding, ranching, logging, mountain biking, dirt biking, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, do-it-yourself, and contribute-to-your-community kind of people.
A certain breed of person is attracted to a place like Montana. These people have their own beliefs and culture.
It’s not Republican and it’s not Democrat. It’s Kalispellian, and I really liked it.
Kalispell Fits No Stereotype
In Kalispell I met a Tibetan yak rancher, a hockey legend, restaurants owners and ranchers creating a locally-sourced food chain, parks run privately by volunteers for the community, forest fire lookouts who volunteered to spend weeks at a time alone on desolate peaks, and sustainable logging practices better than I had ever seen when I worked in the Canadian forestry industry.
These are hearty people who engage eagerly with adversity and care about their community and environment.
I think that these kind of people tend to be drawn to Libertarian ideals more than those of either major political party.
I wouldn’t say everyone I met in Kalispell was a Libertarian, but the general character of the area definitely has a Libertarian streak, which I liked.
I like Libertarianism. I don’t like everything about it, but I agree with many of the ideas. Libertarians oppose racism, sexism, and all other stereotypes. They believe communities should be close-knit and provide public services for themselves. They believe that every person — whether they have a terminal illness or an unwanted pregnancy — gets the final say on what happens to their body.
On the other hand, I am strongly opposed to the Republican Party platform.
But, Libertarians tend to vote Republican because of their stances on gun rights and their small government rhetoric.
In Kalispell I met many people that supported the Republican Party, but who were also passionate members of a community where socially responsible farm-to-table practices were popular and private citizens were buying up land for public use and then managing it according to the best practices we currently have.
Despite the dislike of The Donald, open-mindedness, and progressive values of people I met in Kalispell, and despite indications that Montanan’s political views are becoming more and more diverse, The Donald won 73.7% of the votes in the Republican primary there, a total of 114,056.
That’s almost as many as the combined total won by Hillary and Bernie (118,362).
This confuses me.
The people I met in Kalispell were a far cry from the Trump supporters I’d seen portrayed in the media — angry, brash, rednecks violently opposed to anyone who disagrees with them.
I have no explanation for this paradox.
What I can tell you is that if you have any preconceptions — like I had before my trip — that cities like Kalispell are populated with stereotypical, gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, pickup-truck driving rednecks, you are wrong.
Kalispell is populated with intelligent, outdoors-loving (and often gun-owning), progressive, sustainability-minded people with big hearts and a welcoming attitude toward visitors.
The Final Yak Encounter
On my last night in Kalispell I’d finished drinking a few beers at the Kalispell Brewery where the local Forest Fire Lookout Association (a group of volunteers who take turns sitting for weeks on end on watch in remote forest fire lookout towers as part of a first-alert system) was having a meeting.
I chatted with several.
After a few beers, I decided that I had to go to Hops. You see, Hops is the only place in town that sold Jim Watson’s yak meat in the form of a Tibetan yak burger.
When I arrived I a few of the forest fire lookouts I’d met were at a table, so I sat down.
This time I was a bit uncomfortable asking about The Donald. These folks were a bit older. They spoke with the sight redneck drawl and, from their demeanour, I felt fairly sure they were committed Republicans.
To my surprise, when I asked them about The Donald one of the fellows became livid. He hated the man more than I, ranting for much of the meal about Trump’s buffoonery.
We had a few beers. I ate my yak burger and I reflected on how much I liked the people I’d met in Kalispell.
I wondered how I could be in a state where during the primary Donald Trump won almost as many votes as both Democratic candidates combined, but only meet good-hearted, open-minded, community-and-family-oriented people who didn’t even seem to like the man.
After my time there, I can tell you three things about Kalispell:
2) Kalispell’s local culture fits no stereotype. It’s independent, self-reliant, socially responsible, freedom loving, and community centred. It’s a city of smart, resilient, welcoming people.
3) I’m looking forward to going back.
Finally, here’s the yak burger. It was delicious. If you want to try one, my guess is that Hops is the only place in the USA that serves a fresh-off-the-farm yak burger. According to Google Maps, this burger travelled exactly 5.7 miles from Jim’s ranch to my plate.
I’m looking forward to the next one.