Knowledge or knowing something is a funny thing. Immanuel Kant discussed a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge in his treatise on philosophy, “Critique of Pure Reason.” A priori knowledge is the attempt to infer the truth of a notion directly from its nature or condition in the mind; while a posteriori knowledge is empirical and based on observation, i.e. effect to cause.
These two methods of knowledge are important, not only to philosophers, but to literary endeavors. Because, you see, writers are, to paraphrase Malcom Muggeridge, “God’s spies.” Writers observe people, places, and things. Writers spy; they stare; they ogle. Sometimes their ogling is furtive; other times it is blatant. But it’s always performed without shame.
And the phrase “without shame” brings us to Russell Rowland, an author who lives in one of our more sparsely populates states – Montana. To most Americans, Montana is a semi-mysterious place located on the northern border of the U.S. Frankly, I’m guessing most Americans know very little about Montana, other than it is probably cold and covered in snow during the winter. And when people outside Montana think of the state, which I grant you is probably not very often, more than likely they wonder why the heck anyone would want to live there?
Russell Rowland answers that question in his delightful book, 56 Counties: A Montana Journey, which describes Rowland’s road-trip through all fifty-six counties of the state. The road-trip took approximately four months. During those four months, Rowland traveled around observing and ogling people, places, and things. He talked with all sorts of people: farmers, ranchers, cowboys, miners, politicians, and historians. The outcome of all that ogling is a focused and entertaining portrayal of Montana.
Rowland’s ogling reveals that parts of Montana are stuck in the past, while other parts of the state have embraced the future. Those that remain bogged down in the morass of the past are trapped in the snare of economic insecurity; whereas, those that have accepted change are marching into a bright future. Of the latter type, Bozeman is the perfect example. The city of Bozeman cozied up to high-tech, encouraging companies to come to Big Sky country. According to Rowland, one side-effect of this infusion of technological gentrification is a curious field of suppressed energy that can only be described as snobbishness. The residents of Bozeman consider their city (and themselves) superior to the rest of Montana. Still, like most of the people in Montana, the people of Bozeman are friendly, hard-working, and self-sufficient. In fact, Rowland points out that most of Montana’s residents regard people who lack self-sufficiency as suspiciously weak.
Based on Rowland’s travels, anyone electing to move to Montana should definitely consider Fort Benton as their permanent residence. Fort Benton, a city of fewer than 2,000, is located in Chouteau County and boasts an unrivaled pristine beauty, along with a quixotic friendliness. Rowland describes Fort Benton as one of his favorite places in Montana.
Montana has a dark side, too. The suicide rate in Montana is twice the national average. Rowland discusses the suicide epidemic of the state and offers his insights to the problem, which he ascribes to Montana’s unwritten code of independence and self-reliance.
56 Counties is unique because Rowland resists the urge to write a hagiography of Montana. Instead, he presents the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. Montana is a state bedizened with random and contradictory symbols, just as any other state. Yet despite the state’s problems, the intensity of Montana’s breathtaking grandeur and its residents’ affability makes it a wonderful place to live.
With literary flamboyance held under careful control, Russell Rowland has produced a remarkably engaging gestalt of the Big Sky state. 56
Counties is not to be missed; to do so is to do one’s self a disservice.