Why we shouldn't all move to Montana after the pandemic
Since the coronavirus upended society in just a matter of months, I've been thinking about
My memory winds back to the morning of March 5, 2009, when a natural-gas explosion killed one local woman and shattered buildings on the eastern side of the
The Rocking R Bar, which boasts a bright red neon sign, has been around since the late 1940s. The explosion that day blew out the bar's windows; bricks and rubble battered the sign. From his house about 5 miles away, Mike Hope, the current owner of the bar, could see smoke rising from the smoldering buildings. He worried for his colleague and thought about the local college students who depended on their jobs at the bar. Later that night, he gathered with friends at the Italian restaurant he owned at the time. It soon filled up with people from the community, he said. Even though no one knew what to do, they wanted to help.
More than two years later, the bar reopened. Over the ensuing decade, the
When the gas explosion hit in 2009, Chris Naumann, the executive director of the Downtown Bozeman Partnership, co-owned Barrel Mountaineering, a sporting-goods store downtown. Nine businesses were destroyed or displaced by the explosion, and about 90 people were instantly out of work, he said. Through a relief fund, they managed to raise about $200,000, he said. With the arrival of COVID-19, Naumann had again been thinking of a relief fund. The scale, however, was so much bigger: By late March, he estimated, about 200 downtown businesses were temporarily closed, affecting over 1,000 employees. Statewide, from March 15 to April 3, the weekly average of incoming unemployment claims and reactivations jumped to 17,640 from 557 before the pandemic.
In some ways, Naumann compared the economic disruption of COVID-19 to Bozeman's gas explosion. But this time it's happening "on every street, in every town, across the entire country" — and "most of the world," he said.
I grew up in Bozeman, an outdoorsy university town of about 50,000 people. It sits in a panoramic valley set against the Bridger Mountains and the Gallatin Range, more than an hour north of Yellowstone National Park. Snowfall continues into late spring, often turning the winters into a test of endurance. The brief summers feel perfect, perhaps because of what came before.
Last fall, I returned to Bozeman to report on the impact of all the growth. By the time I finished the story, most states, including Montana, had issued stay-at-home orders. By mid-May, the state had reported more than 450 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with by far the highest number in Gallatin County, where Bozeman is. While the number of cases in Montana appears to have declined recently and the state is taking steps to reopen, even "The Last Best Place" has not been able to hide from the virus.
Before COVID-19 spread, scores of millennials like me were leaving large US cities for affordable housing and opportunities elsewhere, particularly in the South and the West, according to William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. This marked a shift from the periods during and after the Great Recession, when cities grew faster than suburbs, Frey said. He attributed some of this to millennials, who may have been unable to afford homes or make big life changes and so moved to cities and stayed put. But in recent years, millennials had reverted to what Frey called more "normal" suburbanization patterns, moving not only to suburbs of the cities they're in, but elsewhere, he told me before the pandemic. "Of course, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis may change all of this," he wrote in April.
In 2018, I moved from Washington, DC, to Austin, and then to Wyoming last year. Living in a more rural area again, I missed other people. COVID-19, however, preys on population density, the very thing I missed: busing to work, cozying up on bar chairs, dancing in a haze of sweat, watching fireworks on packed rooftops, hugging my friends — it changed for everyone, seemingly overnight. After the pandemic hit, wealthy Americans fled to rural places, as BuzzFeed News' Montana-based writer Anne Helen Petersen reported, potentially imperiling communities with limited hospital space and strapped supply chains.
For some wealthy city dwellers, the pandemic has revived a fear about
So what might that mean for Bozeman? Patrick Barkey, the director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, told me it's hard to say. "You could argue that pandemics have made the benefits of urban life less attractive — people are worried about the next one, even though the next one may be 100 years away," he said, adding, "Maybe that makes Montana more attractive."
Zachary Krumm, the Bozeman-based founder of Tenants United MT, which advocates for housing-policy reform, had already been thinking about how climate change could affect Montana. With the pandemic, he sees Bozeman only growing, he said, because "people who have resources who can get out will get out, and they'll go to places like this."
In recent years, many new residents have come to Gallatin County from California's Bay Area, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, according to a city assessment. While Bozeman seemed to flourish in the decade or so since I left, all that change also meant thousands more vehicles in the summer months heading up Hyalite Canyon, where locals hike and fish. It meant less habitat for elk to roam, and costlier housing. In an article for The Atlantic about Marfa, Texas, another "trendy" town transformed by transplants, Rachel Monroe called housing disparities and other similar divides "the preexisting conditions" that "underlie the current atmosphere of fear and anxiety."
The past offers a template for how people might come to view places like Bozeman in a post-pandemic world: as some sort of magical idyll.
Way back when, many people outside the Northwest had no idea where Bozeman was. (You must ride horses, they'd say. I'd disappoint them: I'm allergic to these magnificent beasts.) I grew up about 10 miles from downtown, near woods populated by black bears, elk, mountain lions, and moose. Google Maps cannot find my former house, instead producing a field of hay bales.
Today, I'm still surprised by how many people have heard of Bozeman. They volunteer to me that they have an upcoming vacation in the area, to Big Sky Resort or Bridger Bowl Ski Area, both of which ended their ski seasons early because of COVID-19. They know someone living in Bozeman, or someone moving there. Maybe they're thinking of relocating themselves. Some may just want to escape.
The West has long existed as a sort of canvas of the collective unconscious where outsiders project their dreams. As Wallace Stegner wrote in "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West," the region once "detonated words of prophecy." He added, "It was Ophir, it was Canaan, it was New Jerusalem." A promised land, where one can begin anew — provided they ignore that such colonization has historically meant the violent displacement of the indigenous people already living there.
More recently, it seems some elites have come to see the West, and Montana in particular, as a chic sanctuary. In 2018, Megyn Kelly tweeted a photo of herself zip-lining in Montana. "This is ... how Big Sky makes you feel," she wrote. That year, an editor for Vogue.com packed up her "prairie dress" and "vintage heeled cowboy boots" for a Montana cattle drive. Before the pandemic, The Times told readers to travel to Whitefish, Montana, in 2020, promising "award-winning restaurants" and "frontier spirit." The fantasy of the West won out, Stegner wrote, "because what people wanted was not facts at all."
Of course, since I was a kid, Bozemanites — once newcomers ourselves — have grumbled about the latest wave of outsiders, usually bad winter drivers from California. (Calling the town "Boz Angeles" is the old Montana joke. It is not a compliment.) But as the town recovered from the recession in recent years, more transplants from pricier places bought homes in Bozeman, and housing became expensive and tight, according to the city housing assessment. Wages haven't kept up: In 2018, average annual wages in Bozeman were $44,800, the assessment found, and in 2019, vacant studios or one-bedroom rentals went for an average of $1,130 a month. A recent perusal of Craigslist and Zillow, however, showed numerous one-bedroom units in town priced higher. In the city assessment, many employers reported a prospective hire declining an offer or an employee leaving a job because of the high cost of living.
Krumm of Tenants United MT told me that even before the outbreak, the class divide in Bozeman between those working in the service and tourism industries and wealthier people now able to work remotely was apparent. COVID-19 "absolutely exacerbates that," forcing service workers to choose between their health and their financial well-being, he said. Experts expect that those whose jobs depend on tourists will be in a particularly difficult position in the coming months. The early numbers are ominous: By late April, passenger traffic to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport had plummeted to about 5% to 6% of its usual level, which mirrored national numbers, Brian Sprenger, the director of the airport, told me. Of about 950 employees at airport businesses, he estimated, 75% had been laid off. The airport recently received $15.4 million in federal stimulus money; most of it is going toward operational costs, he said.
It is a dizzying reversal from when I landed in Bozeman last fall. Then, a sign at the airport's baggage carousel warned me that "due to extremely heavy passenger volume," travelers should arrive two hours before their departure. Downtown bustled with pre-Black Friday shoppers. Independent, locally owned stores I recognized from childhood, such as Cactus Records and Country Bookshelf, remained in operation, as did the breakfast joint where I once bused tables. The strange yellow horse still bucked above the sign for Bangtail Bikes & XC Skis. Alongside it sprouted new developments, boutiques, condos, and restaurants with trendy names: Urban Kitchen, Barley & Vine, Jam! I stared in wonder at the Lululemon store. Particularly disorienting was seeing developers turn the Armory, a building constructed for National Guard units after the attack on Pearl Harbor — complete with a rifle range — into a Kimpton Hotel with a rooftop pool. The Armory had been the location of teenage dances, at least some friends confirmed, one of which I have a dim memory of attending in a turquoise-and-lime dress. ("Lots of teenage sweat in the walls of that building," one person remarked.)
An entirely different sort of change had occurred by the end of March. Montana had issued a stay-at-home directive. In Bozeman, most downtown businesses, both old and new, had closed. By early May, the state was allowing restaurants and stores to open, albeit under some restrictions. Montana Ale Works, which previously announced it had laid off more than 100 employees, would offer takeout and curbside pickup. The Rocking R was planning to run at half capacity, with tables 6 feet apart and no one allowed at the bar, Hope told me. And Cactus Records, a Bozeman mainstay for decades, had, among other measures, installed a cough guard and was allowing only eight customers in at a time, according to its general manager, Michal Madeline. "Right off the bat, we've had a steady day of selling considering our state lockdown had JUST lifted," she wrote in an email.
Long before COVID-19 arrived, my mother had been practicing what she called "food insurance," or banking food. Such a strategy prevents panic-buying, she said. At home over Thanksgiving, for example, she froze our leftover turkey dinners, along with the deer her partner had recently shot and killed with a bow. I thought of this when, in the early days of the pandemic, she advised that I consider adding a few extra cans of food to my shopping cart each time I went to the grocery store.
Her instinct — born of her concern about the general state of the world, she said — cuts against one of the central tenets of the myth of the West: the fantasy of endless plenty. Or, as Stegner described the vision spun by William Gilpin, the first governor of the Colorado Territory: "The painful struggles of earlier times and harsher climates would not be found," and "agriculture was effortless." But with the pandemic creating a global hunger crisis, many workers at meatpacking plants in the US getting sick, and people stockpiling groceries, this dream of unlimited resources seems even more illusory. Looking at Montana's agricultural exports, one imagines a state subsisting on winters of wheat and beef (elk and venison for the hunters).
One of my hometown's staples is the Community Food Co-op, the grocery store of my hippified childhood. Founded in 1979, it remains quintessentially Bozeman, with its local vibe and connection to Montana ranchers, while also appealing to shoppers from bigger cities. It has grown from about 1,000 members in 1989 to 23,000 members 30 years later, said Kelly Wiseman, the co-op's general manager. By late March, grocery stores and their workers were on the front lines of the pandemic, and the co-op was preparing to offer online orders for curbside pickup. It had placed its cashiers behind protective shields and implemented special hours for senior and high-risk shoppers while gently reminding a few customers to stay 6 feet from others, Wiseman said. The high-risk shoppers "are really appreciative, they're very respectful, and they're obviously well read on what's going on," he said. Stockpiling across the country had also affected the co-op to some extent. "We got toilet paper in this morning," he said. "Whether it will be there tomorrow, I have no idea."
Those familiar with the winter and unforgiving landscape of the Rockies understand the impulse to prepare oneself for the worst — there might be no one else around to rely upon. But along with that mentality comes the idea that you need to look out for the people you live around, too. "We're really trying to ... raise the issue that this is supposed to be a state where we take care of our neighbor, and that's a stated value we have that's really important," Krumm said, "no more than during a crisis like a pandemic."
In the age of social distancing, "I've seen other people in warmer states hang out on their porches or balconies to enjoy the sun while still staying away from others, but it has been snowing and hailing and raining like usual in Montana even though it's spring," Jessica Brito, a Montana State University student, told me. "This made going outside really difficult and made me feel even more trapped."
All of this reminded me of a tragedy in 2007, the year after I moved away from Bozeman for college. That winter, a man was found dead in a U-Haul in town where he had reportedly been living. Before his death, temperatures had dropped below zero; he had died of hypothermia, the Gallatin County coroner told The Associated Press.
That incident led to the creation of a community-funded seasonal shelter called the Warming Center, a program run by the nonprofit Human Resource Development Council. Last year, it had to turn people away for the first time because of capacity, Shari Eslinger, the HRDC's housing director, told me.
When COVID-19 hit, the HRDC had to close its shelters early — along with other challenges, they couldn't accommodate adequate spacing. Eslinger told me that some of the previous guests then set up a campsite together and that the HRDC worked to provide basic hygiene needs. After approaching local hotels, the HRDC eventually found one willing to rent all 61 rooms to the organization through May 11.
COVID-19 has complicated people's ability to find stable housing, Eslinger said. "A lot of them are just waiting for their job to start back up," she said.
Eslinger also said the crisis had sparked a discussion about homelessness in Bozeman. After the shelter's occupants moved outside, community members "came in the hordes, bringing outdoor gear, firewood, and sleeping bags, tarps," she said. "It was incredible to see."
This is the Bozeman I know: people willing to lend a hand to a neighbor in need. But as is true across the country, COVID-19 may also bring Bozeman's deeper structural inequities to the surface.
I grew up seeing myself as white and Jewish; in Bozeman, I could count the other Jewish people I knew on one hand. During my time on the high-school newspaper, one of my classmates interviewed a man — who the local newspaper noted at the time was "a California native" calling for a "whites-only, non-Jewish society" — because he was running for the school board. Much later, as a reporter, I watched Whitefish grapple with the presence of Richard Spencer.
Bozeman is viewed as one of the more progressive cities in a conservative-leaning state where many people nonetheless share a live-and-let-live attitude. (Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, is running for a US Senate seat held by Steve Daines, a Republican.) In November, when I stopped by a coffee shop downtown, signs that said "Montanans United Against Hate" and "We Stand With You, You Are Safe Here" were taped in the window. When I saw those signs, it was hard for me to forget that in the last census, in 2010, 92% of people in Bozeman identified as white. That wasn't a drastic change from 2000, when 95% of people in a then much smaller Bozeman identified as white.
At the coffee shop, I met with Brito, the treasurer of the Black Student Union at Montana State University. She had moved from Gainesville, Florida, to Anaconda, Montana, when she was in eighth grade. She enjoyed hiking and skiing, though the latter is expensive, she noted. A psychology major at MSU, she identifies as biracial and bisexual and hopes to help kids with similar identities; she wants to become a social worker, therapist, or professor. She was working two jobs (one of them with the nonprofit Montana Racial Equity Project) to make rent.
Once Brito got to campus, she joined the Black Student Union as soon as she could. "We all deal with microaggressions," she said. "There's so little diversity here. People don't know a lot of nonwhite individuals; they don't know how to act around them ... It's really nice to be able to be around people who aren't doing that." When I asked her later whether she was going to stay in Bozeman after college, she shook her head. "I love it here in some ways. Montana is beautiful ... I love skiing. I love how kind people are the majority of the time, and ... I feel safe for the most part," she said. "But I really, really miss diversity."
In Montana, "there's still kind of this unawareness of racial issues," Meshayla Cox, the program, events, and outreach coordinator for the Montana Racial Equity Project, told me before the pandemic. She pointed to a recent incident in Bozeman where a black woman took issue with the language a white police officer used during a traffic stop. "No place in the US is exempt from the effects of racism," Cox said. And as white people must confront their biases, as they come "face-to-face with larger numbers of black and brown folks, we start to see those same problems that we thought were just apparent in bigger cities and the South play out here."
When I caught up with Cox recently, she told me that COVID-19 was exposing the realities that marginalized communities had endured for years. Black and indigenous folks didn't start dying at disproportionate rates because of critical health conditions just now, she pointed out. For example, in Montana from 2011 to 2015, white men and women lived more than 15 years longer than their American Indian counterparts, according to a state health assessment. And chronic conditions could make this population particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
The pandemic "brings a magnifying glass up to the systemic racism that just exists anyway," Cox said, in addition to the "inequities for folks who are in poverty or low-income."
By early May, Brito's university had moved online, but the WiFi at her home was inadequate, she said. She had lost one of her jobs because of the pandemic and had started delivering food door to door to make up for the lost income. She worried about exposure to the virus as a result. "There are many other low-income people like myself that may have lost any stability they had," she wrote in an email.
In response to the pandemic, the Montana Racial Equity Project was raising money for black college students in Montana, as well as people of color, people with disabilities, undocumented people, and people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the state. By late April, it had received more than 60 requests, Cox said.
"If we continue to see this kind of exodus of people from larger cities to small towns, or to Montana, you're going to just see that wealth inequity and that divide grow exponentially," she said, speculating about the post-pandemic future.
The Crazy Mountains, a little over an hour from Bozeman, draw a sharp, awe-inspiring line across the sky. Two major bands of the Crow Tribe once lived on both sides of the Crazies along the Musselshell and Yellowstone rivers, said Shane Doyle, a Crow tribal member who designs educational curriculums on American Indian culture. Doyle, who lives in Bozeman, said the US government shrank the original reservation to 2.3 million acres today from more than 30 million acres in 1851, moving the western boundary over 100 miles to the east and dispossessing the tribe of the mountain range. The Crow people still feel strong cultural and spiritual ties to the mountains and go there for ceremonial purposes. One of those traditions is to fast in the mountains, which Doyle has done. Earlier this year, Crow tribal members were advocating against motorized access in the area.
When Doyle and I first spoke before the pandemic, he told me that Crow people loved coming to Bozeman to enjoy its fancy hotels and the hot springs. But he also said they didn't necessarily get to partake in all Bozeman had to offer because of the lack of jobs available — ones outside the service industry and environmental nonprofit world, for example. In Bozeman, the high cost of living still makes Doyle and others feel vulnerable, he told me. He said he paid over $2,000 a month in rent and made up to $60,000 a year, in addition to his wife's income.
"When white people first came to Bozeman, it was because of the gold," he said. "But now the white people are coming for something that's a lot more valuable than gold ... They're coming here for the clean air and the clean water and the beauty." He added, "They're not coming for any capital, because they already have it."
When we caught up around early April, he said he felt that the country was undergoing the same sort of destabilization some Native Americans in rural communities had already experienced. "Being isolated, not having a phone, not having a car, not being able to get to town, not having a job, not knowing where your money's going to come from, how you're going to pay your bills — that's just daily life," he said.
By then, the pandemic's disproportionate effect on Native American communities nationwide had become apparent. With COVID-19, there is concern about how the Crow community in rural areas, for example, might access healthcare and about the impact on those with chronic health conditions, said Alma McCormick, a Crow tribal member and the executive director of Messengers for Health, a nonprofit focused on the health of people on the Crow Indian Reservation. She previously conducted interviews with Crow people who have conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and she coauthored a study that examined perceptions of the link between illness and historical trauma.
"There's a lot that could go into [why] we've kind of ended up with chronic health conditions today," she said, listing displacement and adaptation to modern society. "It's made us vulnerable and susceptible right now to this COVID-19 virus," she said, adding that the community's large, close-knit households also posed a challenge to social distancing. (The Crow Tribe recently received federal aid to address the virus.)
Previously, Doyle said his friends and family noticed that there seemed to be a high prevalence of the virus where he lived. Then on April 9, the Crow Tribe Executive Branch confirmed its first COVID-19 case. "That kind of opened up the eyes of our community members, knowing that this is serious," McCormick said. "It's hit home."
After moving to Wyoming last August, I joined a group of new friends for a hike to summit Medicine Bow Peak. The hike took longer than expected. My legs ached, my throat hurt, and I wondered what I was doing in Wyoming. After leaving DC, had I, too, succumbed to the supposed promise of the West, a place that was never really mine in the first place? I recognize the temptation to treat a place like Bozeman as an idea — a beautiful place to start the next chapter. I also can't see it that way anymore. Now, Montana feels more like a mirror.
Once COVID-19 spread across the US and friends on the East Coast turned to Zoom to hold virtual happy hours and to Instagram to share workout regimens, my life looked more like theirs than it had in months. To be sure, I could not understand the grief of communities hit in New York or Georgia. I also lived in Wyoming, a state that, unlike where many of my friends and family reside, did not have a stay-at-home order. Seeing people hanging out in groups in town unnerved me.
But the pandemic began to seep into life here. The university where I am an MFA student shifted to online classes. Some shoppers wore masks in grocery stores. Runners crossed the street to avoid each other. Local bars started curbside cocktail and liquor pickup. For a couple of evenings, my neighbors howled in apparent celebration of community and healthcare workers. (For a startling moment, I thought it was a real coyote, a sound I fell asleep to as a kid.) When I walked downtown to watch the train go by, the nearly empty streets looked the same on the surface, but there were paper hearts taped on the businesses' front doors.
Thus far, seven people in Wyoming have died from COVID-19, four of them Northern Arapaho tribal members, according to the AP. Reports have indicated that the impact on rural areas, though it may come later, could still be severe. Yet Wyoming is opening up more.
We have one thing in common now: We're hoping for this to be over. Some might romanticize the West's open spaces and jaw-dropping terrain, and the spirit of rugged individualism supposedly triumphing over it all. But it's still no place to leave other people, and a pandemic, behind. Bozeman, too, will thrive in the future precisely by supporting all its communities — including those the newcomers don't always notice, who might otherwise be forgotten.
On my fall hike, I remember I kept touching my phone, trying to check Twitter — a familiar twitch. In the wilderness, my phone was junk, useful only for its flashlight. I looked up at the snow-streaked mountain face to the scattered lakes below. The sky melted into peach and violet pastels, the sunset's colors reflecting in the water. I couldn't see another person.
Ahead, my friends' bright jackets bobbed down the trail.
It was reassuring to know that I wasn't alone.
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