I visited Montana in early June, mostly the town of Kalispell, and Glacier National Park, and places with great names like Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear. It is a beautiful state, dead in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. It also has the distinction of being hugely under-populated. A state of well over 147,000 square miles, it just this year passed one million in population. By comparison, my home state of Missouri, only the 18th most populous state, is a little less than half that size and has more than 6 million residents. Montanans are proud and protective of this fact. I saw a bumper sticker that read, ‘Montana is full, I hear South Dakota is nice!’
But they also have a fierce winter. Anyone you speak with can tell stories of shoveling deep snow off their roof to keep it from collapsing. And the winter, at least its effects, lasts a long time. This was June, and when I was visiting Glacier National Park, I found that it was not completely open yet. There is a road called the Going to the Sun Road, which leads from the Lake McDonald area up into the mountains and glaciers. One takes the famous Red Buses to make the trip up this notoriously circuitous road. But the snow was not quite melted enough, and people were hiking and biking up the portion of the road that was navigable.
Perhaps this long winter is why people in Montana (at least from what I observed in the town of Kalispell) love their flower gardens. Everywhere are brilliant early summer displays of iris, poppies, roses, and many other flowers. They favor flowering shrubs—lilac abounds—and even trees that take on gaudy displays, like flowering chestnut, mountain ash, crabapple, and linden.
But perhaps nothing else is more emblematic of their desire to prolong the summer than the fact that their kids don’t start school until after Labor Day. This used to be the tradition throughout much of the United States. It is said that it was because rural communities needed to plan their agricultural activities around the school year, and a beginning date after September 1 was important for that. But it likely originates in other considerations, particularly the problem of asking young students to sit and pay attention for several hours a day in stifling, un-air conditioned schoolrooms. In Missouri, the law says that any district wanting to start the school year before September 1 must hold a public hearing declaring that. Almost all districts now do so, and start as early as mid-August, mostly because they want students to have as much ‘catch-up’ time as possible in the classroom before they take standardized assessment tests (just another idiocy forced on our educational system by ill-advised standardized tests, but I’ll let that go for now).
In Montana, the summer comes on later, and is not as long, and families want the time to appreciate it. They are a hunting, fishing, camping, boating, climbing, hiking-crazy people. They like to be out in it, and they want as much summertime as possible to do that. I don’t suppose Montanans are any less concerned than folks from other states about their children doing well on tests (though there is a strong streak of libertarian-style distrust of federal mandates), I just think that the priority of living the whole summer trumps that concern.
This is just another example of my basic and abiding thesis, that nothing influences our lives more than the seasons. In Missouri, and many other states, we have a long summer that often grows tedious in its heat and humidity, so part of it is ‘negotiable.’ In Montana—nuh-uh. We’re living for the summer while we’ve got it.