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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

This House of Sky

On the Road to No Where and Everywhere

In his classic memoir – This House of SkyIvan Doig writes of the country in the very middle of Montana, the country where he grew up, and he celebrates the beauty and the challenges of the landscape.

“The country’s arithmetic tells it,” Doig wrote. “The very floor of the Smith River Valley rests one full mile above sea level. Many of the homesteads were set into the foothills hundreds of feet above that. The cold, storm-making mountains climb thousands of feet more into the clouds bellying over the Continental Divide to the west. Whatever the prospects might seem in a dreamy look around, the settlers were trying a slab of lofty country which often would be too cold and dry for their crops, too open to a killing winter for their cattle and sheep.”

Even after a generation of trying to carve a life and a living out of this rough and beautiful country, Doig remembered, “a settling family might take account and find that the most plentiful things around them still were sagebrush and wind.”

Welcome to Meagher County, Montana.

The county seat of Meagher County – White Sulphur Springs – is close to little that “modern civilization” would value and in the middle of all that is important. The county, current population estimate is 1,868, is named after a complicated (notorious) Civil War general, was birthplace of Doig and once attracted the investment dollars of John Ringling, the circus entrepreneur and railroad builder. There isn’t much in Ringling, Montana (south of White Sulphur) these days, but John – one of the five circus brothers – once dreamed of a railroad linking Yellowstone and Glacier Parks with his luxury hotel at the half way mark. As Ivan Doig says, many came to this rough and lovely land with big dreams and not all made it work. Ringling’s railroad made it 22 miles and the hotel never got built.

Two remarkable people who did make it work in central Montana – Jamie and Jock Doggett – have made a major difference in Meagher County, Montana and beyond. The Doggetts live on the old place that Ivan Doig once called home and they are the kinds of people who make the West – and the world – work. Jamie has been a country commissioner, organizes the annual – 6th annual this weekend – Meagher County Book Festival and seems to serve as the unofficial hostess of the county. Jock seems at one with this place – hard working, serious, very smart and, even better, wise. He is quick with a quip and quicker with his courteous, yet candid take on all things from the price of lambs to what’s happening at the Senior Center in town. He’s the kind of guy you trust with the keys to the new pick-up or your safe deposit box.

I met Jamie more than a decade ago when we served together on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She had chaired the Montana council. I’d done the same in Idaho. As two “non-academics,” given a chance to see what the power of “the public humanities” can do to change lives, we found some of the greatest change in our own lives. Both Jamie and I are nuts for history and love to examine the interplay and interdependence of cultures. Continuing her work in the humanities, Jamie is now a presidential appointee to the National Council for the Humanities.

Last Friday night, Jamie helped organize a talk in White Sulphur Springs by a Crow Indian woman and former National Park Service ranger, Mardell Plainfeather, that had a crowd enraptured. Her presentation focused on the tradition of Crow clothing as art, but her real message, as she said gently, is that we are all just people who can learn from one another.

The real power of the humanities is the liberation and power contained in critical thinking, leavened by a dose of history, literature and the other humanities disciplines. If you want to understand the world – and each other – a little better, check out the website for your state humanities council. It just might change your life.

I had never been this far into central Montana until last Thursday when we rolled into the Doggett’s Camas Creek Ranch and spent two unforgettable days beginning to understand how in touch with the land and their neighbors the Doggetts truly are. Living in a city – even a modest sized city like Boise – often precludes a chance to listen to the silence, watch a thunderstorm develop, or simply sit and swap old stories with an old friend. The pace in the Smith River Valley may not be slower, just better.

At the same time, life is demanding on the high plains of central Montana. Lots of folks – This House of Sky is my proof – just couldn’t make it here. It is not country for the uncertain. Maybe that’s why sensible talk about the latest book read, a Friday night conversation about what the Crow culture has to offer to a bunch of late arrivers, or how the high school football team will do this fall seems a little more important and a little more human.

It’s easy to romanticize the American West. It can be, and always has been, a place of conflict and controversy. Nothing comes easy. Not everyone is a saint. Hard work and a few scoundrels built the West. There is no Marlboro Man, never was, only complex people and sagebrush and wind. Still every place – in the West and beyond and Meagher County is lucky – needs a pair like the Doggetts; people who give and care and value history and not just their own.

Like a beautiful book that stays with you forever, good people and good intentions can change a lot for the better.

Ivan Doig’s beautiful book about growing up in Montana is really about the landscapes we all carry around in our minds, forever. I’ve now been to the floor of the Smith River Valley, up the road to Camas Creek, on the road to no where and everywhere. I’ll have those memories of landscape – and wonderful people – with me until the last day and, who knows, beyond.

Tomorrow…some more thoughts from Montana on Doig’s latest book – Work Song.

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