The sun rises early in this part of Montana; the tent fully illuminated well before 6am. It is quiet. Quiet being relative to what humans consider noise. Just that no cars have passed on the nearby highway this morning; the birds have been chirping and tweeting for hours. All kinds, but none that I can identify by call or song, are in the cottonwoods that line the creek that’s between the highway and the tent. There’s cow shit on the ground all over, remnants from last week’s rodeo, touted locally as the wildest one-day rodeo in the west. There is still broken glass along the street next to the sidewalk curbs in front of Augusta’s downtown bars, finely ground into the asphalt.
I’ve done the same bike tour four times now, and never another tour of any greater distance. Billings to West Glacier: 700 odd miles when you count the diversions from the main route. The wrong direction to be cycling in terms of prevailing winds, and the harder direction in terms of efficiency (uphill toward the Continental Divide). But why would one do it the other way, starting in Glacier (a crown jewel of the National Parks, unparalleled beauty, blah blah) and end in Billings (Montana’s asshole, industrial capitol, and place that people are from and never go back to)?
Seems like that would be a stupid way to do the course they tell me. I tell them that there are plenty of amazing, passionate people in Billings, about the great trail system, that central and eastern Montana are generally underrated, and they shouldn’t knock Billings unless they can talk about more than driving through it. And contrarily, I consider Glacier Park a shitshow, aesthetic beauty marred by the ills of industrial tourism. Long lines of RVs, crowded trails, imported low-wage workers, and kitchy gift shops have all come to detract from the wildness the park was founded on.
The reason for this tour is for far more than just to go on a bike tour. It is the means of travel for a college course on energy and climate change. Each June, a fresh set of students show up at the office in Missoula, slightly over-packed but generally still forgetting some moderately crucial item. They often hail from the archetype liberal college towns of this country (though not exclusively). Missoula, Burlington, Eugene, Boulder, and so on. Not that this is a bad thing; just different worlds than the little towns of Montana that will soon become our homes on the road.
I get excited for them. They have no idea what they are getting in to. I didn’t either the first time I took this trip. Even being a native of Montana, I had hardly heard of, much less visited, many of these places. I’d never been to a coal mine, never stood below a one and a half megawatt wind turbine, or visited a Hutterrite Colony. I’d never dug deeply into the economics and politics of energy production and distribution in the state. Despite how small the world is in Montana (contrary to it being geographically expansive), the topic of energy easily transcends its borders, quickly bringing under the umbrella players such as the Bonneville Power Administration, multi-national conglomerates, west coast cities, and foreign nations (there are even some connections between Russian Oligarchs and ownership of a particular Montana coal mine).
Montana exports burned coal, in the form of electricity, from Colstrip, one of the West’s largest coal-fired generating stations, to power customers in the Pacific Northwest. And Montana exports unburned coal, via railcar, shipping it right through many of the same west-coast cities Colstrip electrifies. It goes to export terminals along the US and Canadian coast, where it is barged up and shipped to generating stations in Southeast Asia (mainly South Korea and Japan).
Before having biked between the two, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Ryegate and Roundup. Only that my uncle had been working in Roundup when he got another DUI and went to rehab. Maybe that saved his life; the rest of his buddies (the boilermakers that he worked with building units three and four at the Colstrip generating station) are dead now. They didn’t die young, by any means, but their hard lives surely didn’t allow them to die as old men. Or that my high school English teacher, perhaps one of my most influential teachers, was from Roundup; she used to have an email address referencing Highway 12, the two lanes that run up (at least from the perspective of the direction I ride) the Musselshell River towards its headwaters in the Belt and Castle Mountains. I wrote her an email, to that “hwy12” address, after I first biked through Roundup, Lavina, Shawmut, Ryegate, Harlow, Two Dot, the Hutterrite Colonies of Duncan Ranch and Martinsdale, and Checkerboard. The last I had heard about her was that she was about to marry her third husband (impressive for a woman in her early thirties at the time) and was living somewhere in South America. I understand your email address now I had told her. I ended up going to grad school and teach college courses. What have you been up to over the years? I got a quick email back, as succinct as the last time I’d got an email from her when she wrote a reference when I was in college. Nowhere near the detail and encouragement she had provided on my writing back in English class years earlier, “You are lucky I stumbled across this. I don’t really use email anymore. Yes, that Highway 12; it’s a special place.” I don’t know of anyone else who has been in touch with her since then. She always seemed like the type that didn’t mind keeping things that way.
Most years we stop in Lavina and meet my uncle John where his miles long dirt driveway meets the highway near mile marker 56. It’s the only stop for water between Roundup and Lavina. He brings out gallons of RO water – RO being perhaps the most commonly used abbreviation in Yellowstone, Musselshell, Golden Valley, Wheatland, and Meagher counties. Reverse osmosis is the best way to remove the iron that plagues the artesian wells and groundwater of Central Montana, the process rendering it palatable.
It’s one of those acronyms I have to make sure I explain at first reference, not to mention the frequently occurring ones that are integral to our topics of study. The PSC, PURPA, BPA, and the QFs that are directly related to the regulation of the power we study. NEPA and the EIS process, the CWA, and the CEA (that’s the Public Service Commission, Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act, Bonneville Power Administration, Qualifying Facilities, National Environmental Policy Act, Environmental Impact Statements, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act, for those still brushing up on their energy and environmental-related acronyms).
The students, they are smart, doing their darnedest to catch themselves up on a decade worth of information in a quick four weeks. After those four weeks, they are as well versed in energy in Montana as most Montanans, save those working somewhere in the industry. No, they may never know as much about what goes on at a coal mine as Byron Kim, the surface manager who has proudly showed the Signal Peak Mine to my slack-jawed students. Or as much about oil and gas development as Alan Olson, a former state representative who now lobbies for the Montana Petroleum Association, or as much about ranching and community organizing as Steve Charter, a fourth generation rancher in the Bull Mountains. Or as much about the Bible as a Hutterrite woodworker named Ben, who told me that climate change is god’s punishment for letting homesexuals marry.
But they take home a little of each of those perspectives. And I take home a little of each of those perspectives, and of their perspectives. This trip reaffirms that the world is much more complicated than we often believe, or want to believe. That the coal miner is not a flat, interchangeable character. That the seemingly empty landscape that whizzes by many a car window is rich with stories of incredible depth and intricacy. That these relationships extend much further than the roots of the alfalfa grown there, the end of the irrigation line, or the horizon line, regardless of how far off it is.
We were sitting in the public library in Augusta the other day, having diverged from Highway 12 a few days earlier: me, the other instructor, and the six women that are on this year’s course. I remembered there being air conditioning in the past, though none was available here today, and the temperature inside had already hit a sticky 80 degrees. The shelves, though few in number, boast an impressive variety that one wouldn’t think would be found in a cow town of just a couple hundred people. I shelved a book about the solar revolution as Hal entered the room.
Hal Herring is a writer, conservationist, sportsman, and tree planter, yet still a bit of an enigma. He transcends labels and stereotypes with ease. He’ll talk to you for days in his Alabama drawl, about rock climbing in the Bitterroots, about hunting hogs in the South, about harvesting pine nuts. He’ll rant and rave about environmental justice, property taxes, Donald Trump. He’ll quote Sir Francis Bacon and tell you about ten books that were published last year that you would enjoy reading.
I asked Hal a question about activism in his journalism. I don’t tell anyone what to do, or how to think, he told me. I just write what I see. I present the facts and let them come to, and act on, their own conclusions.
It made me consider my role as a teacher. I wear many hats of responsibility, and have always considered mentorship and role modeling as perhaps the most important. And I have to agree with Hal. It’s not my job to tell my students what is wrong and what is right, nor even what I think is right and wrong. But just to be there, showing them everything I can, whether it relates to the course topics or not. It’s a big world out there when one is expected to be a global citizen. But there is an even bigger world, not that much further beneath the surface of that which occupies our daily lives. Out that car window, below the roots of that alfalfa, beyond the end of that irrigation line, and just over the horizon. I guess my job is to make sure the little things don’t get missed. To highlight the infinite hues of gray that are too often overshadowed or washed out by the blacks and the whites. To not allow Central Montana, or any part of Montana, the West, or this country to be seen as a homogenous blob. To give faces and names to people who may otherwise be sorted in with others who occupy the same zip code, racial demographic, or have been bestowed with the same job title. Because when you create a little bit of space to learn about something you may not have ever been aware of, there are some damn good stories to be heard.
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