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You reckon that fellow standing next to you on a Billings street corner is a cowboy? Legs sheathed in Wrangler jeans, Stetson perched on his head, he looks the part. He may indeed be a cowboy, but he could just as well be a bank vice president. In Montana, there are few pretenses. Vast distances, stark geography, and a lingering pioneer spirit make this a land where most people prize independence and plain talk above material wealth and prestige. Although there's a bit of a cultural rift between Eastern Montana, where agriculture reigns supreme, and Western Montana, which is more oriented toward the Pacific Northwest than the Great Plains, Montanans remain united in their fierce loyalty to their state and their way of life. Spend a bit of time here, and it's easy to see why.
Big is an apt adjective for Montana, fourth-largest state in the U.S. Stretched along the Canadian border for 550 miles between Idaho and North Dakota, Montana occupies an entire time zone. When Lewis and Clark made their way west in 1805, they took four-and-a-half months to trudge across Montana. Today, the state's wild natural beauty still has a way of making people linger.
Montana has six state-designated travel regions. West to east, they include: Glacier Country, home of Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, and the cities of Missoula and Kalispell; Gold West Country, including Helena, Butte, and the old mining camps of Virginia City and Bannack; Russell Country, centered in Great Falls and named for the great Western artist Charles M. Russell, who lived much of his life here; Yellowstone Country, gateway to the magnificent national park; Custer Country, known for Billings and the Little Bighorn Battlefield; and Missouri River Country, dominated by Ft. Peck Dam and Lake.
People have lived in Montana for at least 10,000 years, but the land was sparsely settled for a long time. Indians were relative newcomers themselves when whites began pushing across the region in the early 19th century, but the Shoshone, Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, and other tribes had already established a bison-centered culture that struggles to survive today. (Montana still has nearly 50,000 Native Americans, most of whom live on the state's seven reservations.) Fueled by gold rushes, greedy industrialists, and war with and among the Indians, Montana was in a state of near-constant upheaval and lawlessness for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In some ways, it's not much different today. Montana must now deal with the aftermath of decisions made a century ago, even as it wrestles with troubling modern realities. The entire Butte/Anaconda area was named a federal "Superfund" site due to environmental damage wrought by mining; meanwhile, many small farmers and ranchers have decided to sell out to out-of-staters eager to buy a piece of the Montana dream. But it's that very legacy of a love-hate relationship with the land that makes Montana unique. Montana is a hard place to live, but most Montanans believe its myriad pleasures more than make up for the pain.