The Bozeman Way

Author and her husband, Ed Warren, under Lucy Boy, at Open Range

Bozeman is a place, a small town in Montana, but for a newcomer like me, it’s also become an adjective, as in “That’s so Bozeman.” I’ll explain.

This past February my husband and I were going out for dinner, and we had our usual division of labor — I was driving, and Ed, who is better at spotting animals in the road, was our second set of eyes. At Open Range we usually park in back but it had not been cleared. Even though we have snow tires, before turning onto that slick ice-rink of a parking lot, I hesitated. I’d stopped for only a moment, but long enough for the car behind me to blast its horn for me to get moving! I was startled because this isn’t the Bozeman way. (Adjective)

I pulled into a space, and as Ed went inside to get a table, I braved the slippery walk to talk to the driver who was getting out of a small blue car.

“What was that about?” I asked her. “People in Bozeman don’t sound their horns at each other.”

“I didn’t know if you knew I was behind you.”

“I knew.” I explained that I was debating if it was safe enough to park on the ice, or if I should go around to Main Street where it was plowed.

I joined Ed at our favorite corner table, the one next to the window, that’s under Lucy Boy, the huge Angus Bull. As the waitress handed us menus, she said, “I’m so sorry about that person who sounded her horn at you.” She explained that she’d been walking by, coming into the restaurant on her evening shift.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” I said. “I don’t think anyone has ever sounded their horn at me in Bozeman.”

Not five minutes later, Maggie, the assistant manager, came over to our table. She also apologized for the horn honking.

“That’s one of the things we like so much about being here,” I said. “There’s no road rage”

“And she’s one of our vendors,” said Maggie. “Desserts, pies, cakes.”

“Maybe get a new vendor?”

Bozeman is a friendlier, softer, more gentle place. A place where if you should ever get honked at people rush to apologize.

I’ve told this story to friends in L.A. where drivers are always honking their horns for you to get out of their way, go faster, move it, buddy! In L.A. would anyone apologize if someone sounded their horn at a customer in their parking lot? It would go unnoticed because it’s business as usual. In a recent survey published in the New York Times, drivers in L.A., known as the city of the car, agreed that driving in L.A. is now the scariest, most dangerous thing they do. So, it’s no wonder they’re slamming on their horns so rudely.

My husband has had a home in Bozeman for about 20 years and we puzzle over what makes this small western town so deliciously different. First, there’s room, open space. There’s less than a million people in the entire state, only 7 people per square mile. Compare that to 37 million in California, 239 per square mile. Since Montana has less density, there’s less crowding, more elbow room, more slow breathing — inhale, exhale — sweet mountain air. There is the Western macho Montana man complete with cowboy boots and hat, but chances are good that this cowboy isn’t honking his horn at you.

I was talking with a friend who visits us at LittleBearRanch. (The name is a joke: Little Bear because the bear in the kitchen wasn’t so little, and it’s hardly a ranch.) Anyway, Hunter, twelve years old, was comparing L.A. to Bozeman, and he said, “Here it’s go-go-go! There it’s more peaceful, more gentle.” Even kids get the difference.

Since we don’t get to live in Montana fulltime, when we return, I try to put my finger on the exact instant when I sense the difference. You know how when you land in a place like Hawaii, and the door to the plane is opened, and that whoosh of warm balmy, tropical air hits you, and instantly, and happily, you know you’ve arrived someplace else? In the Bozeman airport I feel the difference: it’s not chaotic, people aren’t frantic, and the parking is easy. (Yes, there is a place in the world where airport parking is still easy.) “Guardian Spirit” the life-size bronze of a grizzly bear in baggage claim sets the outdoor wilderness tone — hiking, fishing, biking. In the over-sized baggage rack, many of the passengers are collecting their fishing rods.

Bozeman Airport

The best Bozeman pleasures are the simplest: I start the day by slowly strolling down our driveway in my pajamas with my first cup of coffee. (A bear whistle is tucked in my pocket, just in case.) Directly in front of me the sunrising over the Bangtails Mountain Range casts a rosy glow, and on my left the leaves of the quaking aspens are shimmering like silver dollars in the breeze. The landscape is so green and lush you could lick it. No matter how quietly I approach on silent bare feet, the squirrels, munching their breakfast seeds, dart away, and the bluebirds fly from their perches on the rickety cedar fence to their favorite pine tree, their tiny wings flashing a dazzling blue in the sun’s early rays. At first, the deer are skittish and leap away, but by mid-summer they’re no longer afraid of me, and I have a pet deer that walks parallel, alongside me. In the morning it’s almost as if this deer is waiting at the front door for me to come out. It’s breathtaking to realize that we’re taking our morning walk. Together.

We’re eye-to-eye, watching each other. When I was eye-to- eye with the black bear in our kitchen, I was scared; but eye-to-eye with my deer outside, I feel an honorary companionship. Amen.

And the picnics. At Fairy Lake. The very name conjures up magic. You can also tell someone from Bozeman — they’re not show-offy: Their clothes are modest and sturdy — flannels and hiking shoes. There’s nothing glitzy about Bozeman except maybe the hokey Christmas lights strung across Main Street in December. And deep in the middle of the night in bed Ed and I savor the old-fashioned sound of the distant freight train’s whistle as it echoes miles away through the valley.

Probably Bozeman is no more special than any other small town in the West, except it is my small town.
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