Unfolding the Map
Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you've had a wonderful day. While you were celebrating, we have also been driving along the Hi-Line with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), through a lot of little small places. On this Christmas night I reflect on small towns, which we are losing as our population becomes more urbanized. To see where these four settlements are located, go to the map!
"On that May morning, the wind came strong at my back, and the square stern of Ghost Dancing served as sail; even resting easy on the accelerator. I blew past clusters of buildings that had got in the way of 2 so they could call themselves towns: Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham, Gildford..."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6
Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana
We seem to have a lot of small towns in far-away places in the United States. They aren't quite gone, but they aren't quite there either. They seem to fade in and out of reality, almost like fantasy places that we don't really notice except when they flash into our conscious as we blast by or through them, or perhaps even stop for a moment to gas up or get a drink and a candy bar.
I have often passed through many of them with nary a thought about them. Most of the time it's easy to justify. I have to get from one place to another and have neither the time nor inclination to stop. Frankly, most of them aren't even considered "towns" but instead are called "census-designated places." They don't meet the standards for towns. They are not legally incorporated. They simply have some sort of concentration of people. At night, you might notice passing momentarily by a larger cluster of lights than before. In the daytime, you might notice a gathering of buildings before you travel back into the sparse population.
I grew up on the Northern California coast, and we had little places like this. These are places that appear around a bend on the Coast Highway, or suddenly materialize in the fog. Many times, such places might have one lonely business - a store or a restaurant or a gas station - that gives one a potential reason to stop.
Perhaps if you did stop, you might learn some interesting tidbit. For instance, you might learn that Rudyard, Montana might be named for the writer Rudyard Kipling. It is hard for me to imagine the author that embodied imperial Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s (and who wrote some wonderful childrens stories in The Jungle Book, many of which were turned into a Disney movie) having much to do with Montana, but apparently he did make an early trip through the United States and Canada and might have passed through the area. He also lived for a time in Vermont, which he is said to have loved. You might also find that Rudyard is the only place in the United States whose direct opposite point on the far side of the earth is upon land.
You might also find that Hingham, Montana was once a thriving business center, built around a square, which had twenty enterprises in the early 1900s, indicating that instead of throwing its buildings at US 2 to be considered a town, to paraphrase LHM, it actually gave US 2 an initial reason to go there.
In fact, this area known as the Hi-Line has a history full of people who settled there on what was essentially a dare - get title to 160 acres if you build a house, raise a crop and keep yourself going for five years. The people came, and literally fought a war, as one resident puts it in a National Geographic magazine article about the region, against the often inhospitable weather and climate. And, many of those pioneers were women, who came out and made a go on farms alone. These were the type of people who settled the Hi-Line and their descendents, the people trying to scrape out a living there today, are deeply rooted to the place..
My fear is that such places will gradually disappear and take with them all of their secrets. I was reading another article in the National Geographic recently which argued that the best way to house the growing population of the planet to build up. In other words, people are going to continue to flock to cities because cities are where opportunities for employment and other activities are located. As people continue to stream into the urban areas, the solution is to build higher and higher to maximize the limited space. Whole communities can be housed in high rise buildings, and we are seeing this type of building happening in some cities in Asia. This will leave rural "green belt" areas for recreation and and farming to feed the the world's population.
But as the urban areas build up, we will lose something. The United States was founded as a rural, agricultural nation that became more and more industrialized over time. However, our country still has an idealized vision of its rural past. We consider farmers to be "the salt of the earth," never mind that there are few family farms left in the country. We extol the virtues of hard work, based on the idea that hard-working men and women roll up their sleeves and get to the land. After all, it's hard to justify the super-industrious person with the corporate executives trading derivatives from his high-rise office as the pillar of American culture, even though this idea is more true today than that of the homesteading farmer.
What will we lose? We'll lose a way of life that is part of the American self-image. We'll lose the iconic image of self-sustainability on the land. We'll lose the idea of down-to-earth men and women stoically planting and harvesting, hewing and clearing, and building new lives on the frontier. Perhaps that is as it is meant to be. Often the price of progress means leaving old things behind. The price of progress may mean that towns like Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana, once the rule in America, are now the exception and becoming more exceptional each day. And while most of the younger generation won't necessarily miss them, people like me who grew up in the rural areas will always feel a wisp of nostalgia for what is gone.
Beef is one of the main agricultural industries of Montana. Though I love Aaron Copland's classical music, the beef industry somehow appropriated Copland's Hoedown from his ballet Rodeo in their "Beef. It's What's For Dinner" campaign. Since this song is so synonymous with beef nowadays, I am including it as the meat of your musical interlude for this post.
I'm writing this on Christmas Day, so here's your little extra Christmas present. Don't get spoiled! It's from The Jungle Book, the Disney movie. The singing orangutan is the great Louis Prima!
If you want to know more about Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana
Next up: Kremlin, Montana