December 22, 2012


It might have been Christmas, but in reality it occurred a
couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Snow lay heavy across the rolling lands west of the Sweetgrass Hills; it was zero when we left our friend's place to drive the few miles to their neighbor's for a "barn dance"--everybody welcome!

Jane and I received the invitation via Kathy's e-mail; Jim had mentioned its possibility months before. The e-mail meant it was"fact" instead of merely "probable." So what that we lived a couple of hundred miles away on the west side of the Rockies? So what that a full-scale blizzard had blown in along Montana's Hi-Line only a few days before. There were no mosquitos.

The five-piece band hailed from Wisconsin. The "Trigger Happy's Country Music" band members were out for a week of hunting on the George and Jeannette Rankin Ranch. They were hosted by the Rankins' daughter, Kathy, and by her husband, Jim Bjorkman. Our connection is that Jim and Kathy have this bewildering affinity for reading the books I write.

The barn dance was held in a mammoth equipment shop on the Wallewein Ranch, east of Oilmont. The shop is BIG--48 X 88 if I recollect properly--with a concrete floor, and was well-heated. Still, as big as it is, the barn was barely adequate to hold all the people crowding in from the surrounding countryside. Estimates ran upwards of 200 people. Their ages ran from pre-schoolers to World War II vets. Grandpas and grandmas, mothers and dads, kids underfoot. It was a family affair.

The band was superb: this was no ordinary "country music" outfit. And they'd agreed to play, not because it was a lucrative gig for them, but because they love the people, land, and ambiance of one of the more remote sectors of rural Montana.

Dancers ran the gamut from those who were superbly smooth to jerkily inept. I belong to the latter group. Still, the music was so-o-o compelling that my feet betrayed me.

Liquor was a do-it-yourself type thing--and little of that.
Kids were in and out of the building all night, chasing each other in the snow until they froze out, then continuing the chase inside until they warmed up enough to again escape the confinement of a hundred sets of adult eyes.

Despite their exuberance, the dozens of young people from
toddlers to teenagers were remarkably well-behaved--no anger, no taunting, no fighting; just happy to be among their own kind.

It all began with hamburgers and a pot-luck. Lemonade and pop was available for the taking. So was popcorn and all kinds of nibble snacks--should the urge strike during the wee hours.

A collection was taken to buy the band a couple tanks of gas for their drive home.

When I asked Mike Wallewein if cleaning out his shop for the dance wasn't an enormous undertaking, he shrugged, grinned, and said, "What the heck, it needed it anyway."

This is the way barn dances used to be: country-wide family affairs where people came from miles and miles to renew friendships and blow out cobwebs from the past year's isolation and work. It's what makes rural people in rural places so great!

I wandered outside to gaze out at the snowdrifts and up at the star-filled night. It was cold, bitterly cold. But the gamboling youngsters seemed not to notice.

I reflected on the difference between this gathering and its people as compared to my experience in urban environments. No panhandlers. No homeless. No threatening gangs. No superciliousness about any of these happy, wholesome people. "This," I thought, "is the way Christmas ought to be--happy children, cheerful fraternizing parents, not one 'downer' in the bunch."

It was plain and simple the spirit of Christmas. It'd be nice if urban America could capture it's essence, too. But alas! I fear they have too many strikes against 'em to ever live as free and "alive" as people who dwell where there's more space where nobody is than where everybody is.


Next week? Another walk on the wild side.


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