Something, but not that

By Beacon Staff

During formal interviews for news stories and less formal conversations over drinks, someone routinely and abruptly says, “There’s something about the Flathead.”

A simple, “I agree” is not enough to appease these people. They want confirmation, a conversation about its beauty, its populace and acknowledgement that it’s “on the up.”

I’m happy to abide. People love to brag about the town they live in, the trails they’ve conquered and the summertime barbecues they’ve hosted. I’m not immune. But what I’ve learned during my short tenure here – relocating from Bozeman by way of Bismarck, N.D. – is that it’s not what I expected.

There’s a perception in much of Montana that the Flathead Valley is still a haven for conflict. Fellow Montanans whispered warnings to me while I was packing my U-Haul to head northwest in February. I read about the Aryan teen pop duo moving to Kalispell; I watched the documentary, “The Fire Next Time,” and I was under the impression that this community’s fabric was still frayed.

The atmosphere may have only changed recently. But the Flathead Valley is no more polarized than the valley I came from. Like many towns in the West, residents here hold passionate views about property rights and open space, taxes and government, natural resources and jobs. Water, roads and forest use are all divisive. But that division hasn’t torn the fabric of the Flathead like many would lead you to believe. The people who live here year ‘round may disagree about zoning, but I would bet the chances of being accosted for a different point of view are no greater here than in the rest of Montana.

There is something about the Flathead. It’s blue collar at its core and those who wear those shirts and built this place want a say in what happens to it and who controls it. They’ve earned the right to shout.

During the election season in Gallatin County, often viewed as a tranquil valley blessed with prosperity, Republican and Democratic headquarters were vandalized. Opposing politicians there resorted to calling each other a “public disgrace,” “slanderous,” and worse. People would buy advertisements criticizing causes. Come November, the atmosphere may be similar here, I couldn’t say I’ve never lived through one in northwest Montana.

But since I left southwest Montana, I haven’t gone back. I loved that place, but I love it here more. And friends who are leery of my opinion, come visit, experience that “something,” and then plan return visits.

While Flathead County is the third most populated county in the state, it’s off the beaten path, which may account for some misperceptions. If you don’t live here, the thinking goes, visit for a weekend on the lake or day on the mountain, then get out.

Recent transplants expecting to be drilled about politics or undressed for joining the bandwagon of growth to the area, find it, instead, inviting. Growth is often coupled with animosity, but no more here than other parts of the West.

People here love the Flathead and simply hope to help guide its future. That’s not scary. That’s community engagement. The fabric’s tighter here than anywhere. It’s just plaid.