IN the past few weeks you may have noticed a Montana dateline or two in the news - or 60 or 70, I suppose - enough to make you wonder what in the world is going on "out there," out West in a sparsely populated state where "freemen" apparently await another Armageddon on the Montana plains and an 18-year search for the Unabomber may have come to a close in our mountains.
The truth, I think, is that most of us who live "out here" are just as puzzled as you, but perhaps not as surprised. We are both relatively large (148,000 square miles), relatively small (800,000 people, give or take a couple hundred FBI agents wandering around our forests of late), and relatively isolated (a long day's drive, often two, to the nearest cities of consequence: Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, or Minneapolis).
For most of our lives, we have had this place pretty much to ourselves. Sure, we shared our national parks in the summer, but mostly, this land has been our land.
And while it is popular to paint a picture of our state that is far more rustically romantic than its reality, the truth is that this state has changed, and changed dramatically, in the last decade. Sometimes it doesn't seem like Montana anymore.
We have become the "in" place. The place to escape to. Not just for Ted Kaczynski, but Ted Turner, too. It sounds odd, but many of us are less concerned with the fact that Mr. Kaczynski has a few acres outside Lincoln, than we are that Mr. Turner owns 128,000 acres outside Bozeman. Longtime Montanans feel as if their state has been invaded, and the names of some of the invaders are mind-numbing, almost incomprehensible to us: Mel Gibson, Michael Keaton, Meg Ryan, Tom Brokaw, Brooke Shields, Jack Nicklaus ... you never know who you'll bump into on the street in Big Timber, or Livingston, or Whitefish.
A few months ago at dinner, my children mentioned, quite nonchalantly, that they had met actress Andie MacDowell at the bakery that day (she lives outside town). My kids didn't call her Andie MacDowell, they called her by her real name, which most everybody in Missoula knows, and they laughed when I went into my "when-I-was-a-kid-in-Montana-you-never-ran-into-movie-stars-at-the-bakery-what-in-the-world-is-happening-to-this-state" speech. "Gee, Dad," said my 10-year-old daughter, "it's not like she's Arnold Schwarzenegger or anything."
Native Montanans tend to lump all these people who have taken over portions of our turf into one big vat: Newcomers, interlopers, out-of-staters, call them what you like. They are not one of us.
Actor Gary Cooper (the son of a Montana state Supreme Court justice) is. But Ted Turner isn't. And neither is Ted Kaczynski.
He may have been holed up in a cabin outside Lincoln for a quarter of a century, but before he moved here, he was raised in a Chicago suburb, educated at Harvard and Michigan, taught at Cal-Berkeley. Long before he is one of us, he is one of them. One of you.
Who are we? We are one of you, too. We are loggers and lawyers, ranchers and receptionists, miners and merchants, liberals and conservatives, churchgoers and welfare-cheats. What bound us together was a sense of place, the ownership of a state so big you can't drive from one corner of it to the other in one day, even without a speed limit; a state so vast and varied it's hard to imagine one border holding it all in.
That the suspected Unabomber could live in our midst for 25 years without anyone suspecting anything seems most stunning to outsiders, who react to the fact that folks here respect each other's privacy as if it were a notion right out of the head of Stalin himself, instead of one of the basic tenets of our democracy. (Had Kaczynski been testing bombs in his yard, believe me, someone would have said something.)
Meantime, a state that hadn't been in the news much since the Battle of the Little Bighorn is taking hits from all sides. A recent column by Mike Harden of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch is a good example.
"The problem is that not only does Montana sprout wackos like quackgrass, the general population apparently doesn't seem to find anything particularly remarkable about them," he wrote.
Harden's assertion that a dozen freemen and one Unabomber suspect out of more than three-quarters of a million people equals a state crammed with "wackos" is, of course, as blatantly unfair as a bigot's mass labeling of a race. Assuming there has been a murder or two in Columbus, in the last year (I wouldn't know if it's common or not; where I grew up in wacko-packed Montana, there hasn't been a murder since 1978), it would be like me saying killers were springing up like dandelions in Columbus.
Harden did say one interesting thing. He said Pat Buchanan had the right idea about that border wall, except it was needed around Montana to keep the unsavory characters locked in place. I agree about a wall around Montana. A lot of us would have put one up years ago, which, among other people, would have kept Theodore Kaczynski out.