Lessons Learned in the Wild West

Ok, so maybe Montana & Wyoming aren’t really the Wild West anymore.  But it’s definitely a whole different world out there!   I’ve always found it fascinating to study other cultures & learn how people live in places far & wide.  From an early age I found myself drawn to reading & learning about other nations & cultures.  As I’ve grown up I’ve realized that even within our own nation there are vast cultural differences.  So I thought it would be fun to compile a list of things I learned/observed on our recent vacation to Montana & Wyoming.  I wrote a similar post on my Facebook page after our honeymoon trip to Maine a few years ago, & people seemed to enjoy it, so I thought I’d try it again for this trip.

Note: this list isn’t going to state the obvious “Holy crap!  The mountains are beautiful & there really are bears out here!”  That stuff goes without saying.  These observations are meant to be more cultural in nature.

If any of my lovely readers grew up or currently reside in Montana or Wyoming or that general area, please feel free to contribute your own thoughts about life in the “Wild West.”

1. This ain’t a place for the faint of heart.  Much of the rest of this list will explain why.

2. Late September through mid May = COLD.  Very cold.  BITTERLY COLD.  So basically 75% of the year is winter.  And I don’t mean the quaint winter wonderland kind of winter.  I mean the FREEZING COLD, massive snow drifts, can’t-travel-except-by-snowmobile kind of winter.  Yikes.  Even in early September, it’s not uncommon to have a bit of snow, as you can see below from Yellowstone.


3. This place is desolate.  I thought I grew up in the middle of nowhere & relative to much of the world (certainly the U.S.), I did.  But holy crap, Montana & Wyoming are seriously isolated!  Montana, the fourth largest state in geographical area, has just over 1 million residents . . . basically the same population as the COUNTY in which I currently reside.  Maybe I’m simple-minded, but that blows my mind!  Wyoming is also quite large geographically but has less than 600,000 residents, making it the least populated state in the whole country.  To give you an example of how isolated these states are, when we landed in Bozeman, MT we went to the local Wal-Mart to gather some supplies for our trip.  We then drove about 5 hrs north to a small town near Glacier National Park.  It was not until we were within 30 minutes of our final destination that we located another Wal-Mart or any other real grocery store.  Certainly we may have passed a few that were off the main roads (if you can call them that) so we didn’t see them, but it is not uncommon for people to live up to 2 hrs away from a real grocery store!  Considering the weather issues discussed in the above point, I think you can now fully comprehend my first point.  This is not a place for the faint of heart!

4. Cowboy boots & cowboy hats really are everywhere out West.  This was my first trip west of Chicago & I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  Sure, movies play up the cowboy image, but I always figured that was mostly exaggeration.  And I’m sure a good deal of it is.  But lots of men (& some women) really do dress like that on a regular basis.  I also noticed that it seems much more acceptable for men to wear hats indoors, even larger hats like cowboy hats.  In the South older people at least seem to find that rude (for no logical reason, in my mind).  But out West this seems to be common practice.


Note the 3 men in cowboys boots & hats.  This is Main Street (basically the ONLY street) of Cooke City, MT, just outside the NE entrance of Yellowstone NP.

Note the 3 men in cowboys boots & hats. This is Main Street (basically the ONLY street) of Cooke City, MT, just outside the NE entrance of Yellowstone NP.

5. Casinos are EVERYWHERE in Montana.  About every other convenience store has a casino attached to it.  (And there are a lot of convenience stores.)  Granted these are not major Vegas-style joints, but all the same gambling is clearly a much more accepted practice in this area.  We overheard a bartender explaining to a customer one night that most of these casinos are just machines that run automated poker, & of course there are slot machines.  Anything more than that requires special licensing apparently.

6. There is no sales tax in Montana.  Not even on prepared food.  Woohoo!

7. The above point may be influenced by the fact that a large portion of businesses in Montana (& possibly Wyoming too) are only open May through September . . . the short but frantic tourist season.  If you’re wondering why this is, see point # 2.  I’m not totally sure what these people do for income during the winter months.  It can’t be easy.  See point # 1.

8. Drive around Montana for more than about 30 minutes & you will surely run across at least one white cross on the side of the road.  Drive a little longer & you’ll lose count of how many you’ve seen.  These crosses are markers for highway fatalities & they are placed by the American Legion of Montana.  The Legion started the program decades ago in hopes of combating Montana’s very high rate of highway fatalities.

montana highway cross

9. Having read # 8, you might not be shocked to learn that Montana has a very high DUI rate.  In fact this article

(http://247wallst.com/special-report/2014/04/25/states-with-the-most-drunk-driving/3/) states that Montana is # 2 in the country for DUIs.  And Wyoming is # 4!  If you look at the article you may notice that North Dakota tops the list & South Dakota is also in this shameful top 10.  Notice a pattern?  All very cold, very rural states with what one can reasonably assume is nonexistent taxi service.  And being rural there isn’t a hell of a lot to do except drink.  And when it’s brutally cold 75% of the year, who can really blame them for wanting a good buzz?  All in all though, it’s a sad picture.

10. Though Montana & Wyoming are both traditionally Republican states (at least from a federal/presidential point of view), the religious conservatism that often goes hand-in-hand with Republican voters does not seem to be quite as strong, certainly not in comparison to the South.  We saw plenty of churches, & plenty of Baptist churches at that, but the overall feeling we gathered was that there is a much greater “live & let live” mentality out West.  I got the idea that a lot of people may be religious & more traditionally conservative, but I also got the feeling that they are less concerned with enticing everyone they meet to believe exactly the same things they do.   In other words there seems to be a greater understanding of the idea that if you want to have the freedom to do & believe as you choose, you have to be willing to grant that same freedom to others, even to those with whom you disagree.  Perhaps this is because traditionally people who moved out West did so partially for the idea of being left alone.  I could be completely off-base in my observations here, particularly as I have no real scientific way to measure them, but it’s just something I observed that I thought was worth mentioning.

11. In the South we don’t like to call bars bars.  We like to call them grills, diners, pubs, inns, or restaurants, or maybe we might stoop to “restaurant & bar.”  But out West there are no such qualms.  There are lots of bars.  Most of them, maybe all of them, serve food & plenty of it.  In fact, like the South, most of them are more accurately restaurants that happen to have a bar.  But I couldn’t help but notice that out West, unlike the South, there seems to be no shame in naming an institution “such & such bar or saloon.”  But then again the South is all about trying to seem all proper & dainty when really we’re just as dirty as everyone else, right?  (This is partially a joke, partially not.  If you’re offended, I’m sorry.  But the South does rate highest in a lot of rather bad things: obesity, smoking, teen pregnancy, heart disease/diabetes, poverty, etc.  Ok, sorry, I wandered from the real topic at hand.  Oops.)


12. From what I observed, there isn’t a very distinctive accent out West, in Montana anyway.  I’ve always been very fascinated by linguistics, & I love listening to the way people talk & pronounce various words.  Despite being very rural, I did not observe any real “countrified accents” like you encounter in the South.  Indeed I was impressed with how clearly & eloquently most everyone spoke.  I don’t meant that everyone we encountered seemed like a real genius.  But they didn’t sound like your stereotypical hicks either.  In fact the only real accent I picked up at all was a bit Canadian if anything, which perhaps is logical as Montana does border Canada.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Southern accents & have a bit of one myself at times (certain words, that is).  But I also like people to speak clearly & actually enunciate their words, & I make a sincere effort to do so myself.  Sadly, this is something a fair amount of Southerners have not mastered.  It’s completely unfair that such folks are often judged negatively for such a superficial thing, & yet it is what it is.   Ok, I’m back on the South again.  Oops.

13. Out West you don’t see a lot of sports cars on the road.  Thanks to the winter weather discussed in # 2, massive trucks & SUVs are the law of the land.  However, it’s also not too uncommon to see some rather, uhh, interesting “trucks” on the road.  See below for an example.

montana truck

14. Montana (& probably Wyoming but we didn’t spend as much time there, at least not outside of Yellowstone) isn’t a good place to be a vegetarian.  Not only are there a lot of delightful temptations such as steak, bison burgers, & even elk burgers, but there don’t seem to be a whole lot of places that offer a large vegetarian selection.  If you’re a vegetarian & you decide to visit or move to Montana, plan to eat a lot of boring salads or do most of your own cooking.

15. A lot of people really do refer to sodas as “pop.”  One of our hotels even had a sign over the vending machine area that read “Pop/Ice.”

16. Considering how cold it is the vast majority of the year, it’s really quite shocking to note how many trailers/mobile homes there are in Montana.  Can you imagine how cold it must get in those homes during the brutal winters?  See point # 1.

17. Huckleberries are huge in Montana.  Everywhere you go there is huckleberry pie, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry chocolate/candy, huckleberry-scented lotion/candles/soap/etc.  You name it, they’ve got it in huckleberry.  The only things I tried were the huckleberry pie & ice cream.  But they were both DELICIOUS!


Overall, our vacation to Montana & Wyoming was AWESOME.  We hiked over 30 miles in total, & yes, I have 4 (healing) blisters on my feet to show for that.  But they were well worth it!  The mountains & wildlife were gorgeous, the air was clean, the people were friendly [though less likely to tell you their whole life story the minute you say hello, as some Southerners are wont to do ;)], & the food was delicious.  It was exactly the type of break I needed from the hum-drum of daily life.  Part of me wishes I could live out there in those beautiful mountains, but sadly I don’t think I’m cut out for the cold or the isolation of such rural life.  But I shall certainly be looking forward to my next opportunity to visit this majestic, fascinating, & challenging land of the Wild West.

The Hilarity of the American South

Though I’ve read a great deal of books & watched lots of movies about various parts of the U.S., I’ve lived my whole life, all 20-some years, in the South.  I’ve traveled a little to the Midwest & New England but never for long enough to really soak up the culture or get intimately acquainted with the lifestyle.  As some of you who know me in real life may be aware, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the South.  I love the weather, the flowers, the people (several of my friends & coworkers from other parts of the country have confirmed that Southerners really are friendlier by & large), the food (well, some of it), the music (again, some of it), & the geography.  But I hate the narrow-mindedness & the religious fanaticism (those two tend to go hand-in-hand, surprise, surprise!) that seem to abound in the South more so than anywhere else in this country.  I also hate that the South leads the nation in so many negative things including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, teen pregnancy, poverty, & high-school drop-out rate (shocking, I know, that these are all really quite connected).  Furthermore I hate our less than stellar history with civil rights & race relations & would be willing to bet that gay rights are suffering more in the South than in other parts of the country.  I could write a whole series of posts on the reasons why the South is the winner of such dubious “accolades” but that’s not my purpose today.  Someday I’ll write that post & probably offend a lot of people in doing so, but today I just want to write something light & witty that will hopefully make my readers smile.

map of the south

As an aside, my mom always told me “you might as well laugh as cry.”  As a nurse this has come in very handy at times.  When a patient is pooping on the floor, trying to kick me in the face, or screaming at the top of her lungs about how incompetent the hospital is, it is very tempting to run out the door crying.  Having the ability to step back & smile & laugh in spite of the difficulties is about the only thing that keeps me sane at times like these.  Don’t get me wrong: there have been plenty of times when I have cried as a nurse; I have experienced tears of sorrow, anger, & frustration & everything in between.  But with time I have slowly learned to laugh at the madness more often than cry

The same can be applied to life in generalI think about this a lot in relation to my mixed feelings about the South.  I do not want to downplay the serious problems we as a society are facing in the South.  Obesity, teen pregnancy, & poverty, among other things, are serious issues that we must address if we want to progress as a country.  I’ve discussed some of these issues on here previously & I intend to write about all of them someday, maybe even cohesively.

But in any case, my purpose today is to share some of the oddities of life here in the South that my husband & I have observed over the years.  Some of these may not be truly unique to the South, so if you’re a reader from some other part of the country, please feel free to enlighten me.  At the end of the day, one of the greatest signs of strength of a person or a society is the ability to laugh at one’s self.  So with that spirit in mind here are some of the hilarious things we’ve observed over our time living & traveling in various part of the South:

  • The fatter, harrier, & older the man, the more likely he will mow his yard shirtless in full view of the neighbors & all passers-by.  My neighbor across the street is guilty of this right now as I am typing this.  Thankfully I am not easily offended, just easily amused.  I should also add that this is the same neighbor who very soon after we moved into our house could quite often be found sitting shirtless in a lawn chair in the middle of the street watching for a raccoon that was apparently wreaking havoc on his roof.  He said he had set a trap on the roof & was hoping to watch the raccoon get caught in it.
  • Just yesterday we saw a little girl playing with a walker in the front yard of her house.  I had to wonder if her grandmother or grandfather actually uses that or if it was just given to her, for whatever reason, as a toy . . . Hmmmm.
  • In the South dumping old house-hold appliances such as washing machines & refrigerators in the back yard is completely acceptable.
  • Not once, not twice, but multiple times in various parts of the South we have observed people going down the road on a motorized wheelchair.  And not necessarily “in town” but on “back roads” too.
  • You’re not really in “the country” until there are no lines on the roads, not in the middle or on the side.  Maybe this is true in other parts of the nation too, but it’s definitely true in the South, at least the parts with which I’m familiar.  How any local government thinks this is safe is beyond me.
  • Earlier this spring we observed two beagles mating at a rest-area on the side of a major interstate.  Their humans were standing about two feet away, watching intently.  This was in full-view of all passers-by . . .
  • In the South if you want to criticize someone without feeling awfully guilty about it, just add “Bless her heart!” or “I love her to death, I really do” to the end of whatever you’re saying & suddenly your judgments are no longer considered mean-spirited.  If you’re Southern, you know you are guilty of this at least occasionally; just smile & nod.
  • Go to any small town in the South & no matter how run down everything else is, no matter how few jobs are available in the area, there are two things that will always be in immaculate condition: the churches (of which there will be so many as to make you wonder how there are enough people to fill them) & the fire dept/rescue squad.
  • Having old tires in your front yard is pretty common in the South.  Some people even grow flowers in them.  Nothing like landscaping with old rubber!

flowers in tires

  •  In our hometown, there is a certain field on the side of the major highway that cuts through the county that is littered with old tractor trailers.  They have been there for as long as we can remember.  No one seems to know who owns them or why they are there.  But they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.  And it is only when you’ve been gone for a while that you realize just how junky this looks.  But it’s not unique to my hometown.  I’ve seen this same phenomenon elsewhere in the South.
  • In certain areas of the South, we do not have garage sales.  We have yard sales.  Driving around going from yard sale to yard sale is a pretty common activity for Southerners on Saturday mornings.  As teenagers my sister & I held a yard sale along with our best friend.  We made $18 between the three of us.
  • There are certain women in the South who call everyone “Sweetie, Honey, Darling, Sugar,” or some variation thereof.  On occasion I’m quite guilty of calling everyone “Dear” myself.
  • If you’re really from the South or have spent enough time here, you will know that there are dozens, actually hundreds, of variations on the Southern accent & almost all movies & TV shows don’t imitate even one of them correctly.  I’ve heard some pretty amusing ones over the years & I love listening to all of them.
  • Elementary school gym classes in the South quite often include square-dancing.
  • On Election Day in 2012, we happened to be in our hometown for a funeral.  While my husband was pumping gas, an older gentleman started chatting with him & asked who he’d voted for.  My husband responded “A man named Johnson.”  This gentleman had apparently never heard of the Libertarian candidate & assumed my husband was talking about LBJ.  Nevermind the fact that LBJ is deceased & that my husband is about four decades too young to have ever voted for LBJ . . .
  • While on the way home from summer camp one year, my youth group stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break.  The cashier told us in no uncertain terms & with no apparent embarrassment that their bathroom had been shut down by the health dept but we were free to use the restroom at the gas station across the street.  That illustrious facility had a restroom with no functioning lights & as best I can remember either no soap or a door that didn’t close properly.
  • I should also add that it is very common to find Southerners riding bicycles at night in the middle of the road wearing all dark clothes & shoes & with no lights whatsoever on their bikes.  How there are not more auto-bicycle accidents is really quite shocking.

Southern passport

I could go on & on but I’ll stop now, hoping you’ve gotten a few laughs today.  One of the scariest things in life, to me, is the idea of staying in one place your whole life.  I know for some people that’s ok & I am not condemning that.  It’s just that I feel the need to explore as much of life as I can, & thus I consider myself blessed to have lived in three different places so far in my life, even if they have all been in the South.  I love the Raleigh-Durham area, where we’ve now settled, for numerous reasons, & for now we have no plans to leave.  One of the reasons I love this area is that it is such a cultural melting pot & does not share some of the more negative parts of the Southern experience while still sharing some of the more positive parts.  In any case, as I’ve said I have mixed feelings about the South.  Mostly I love it because this is my culture; it’s part of who I am, whether I like it or not, which is exactly why it pains me when I see some of the problems our culture is facing here.  But again that’s another post for another day.

I’d love to hear about any unusual or hilarious experiences you’ve encountered in the South (or elsewhere for that matter).