Flathead Valley, look around.
You can see the mountains; you can see the wild autumn weather moving in and making the northwestern corner of this state its own. We are back into the natural rhythm of this valley, after a long stretch of heat and weirdness descended upon us.
From August until about last week, the valley was under a thick cloud of smoke and haze, making the final weeks of summer a frustrating exercise in finding indoor activities away from the cough-inducing air.
Homes have burned, and we lost the Sperry Chalet in the Sprague Fire in Glacier National Park. That fire still burns, and will until winter puts it out. Wildfires in the summer aren’t unusual, but this summer felt different. For example, at one point, sections of Going-to-the-Sun Road were closed off due to fire and snow, respectively.
Then, just as the air looked like it was going to clear up and our local students would get to run around at recess without breather masks, overseas hackers decided to take the valley hostage with threats of violence against children.
If you’ve ever walked through a fresh wildfire burn, you know the silence there. There is no life, there are no birds singing, and everything is in a black-and-white monochrome. That’s how this town felt the Thursday morning when Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry announced there would be no school due to the threats, and then the next day, and then even the following Monday.
Local folks, especially parents, were understandably concerned. Everyone wants to protect our children — that’s largely a unifying factor in a community. Everything froze with the threats; people were unable to go to work because they had to stay home with their kids, and all activities involving groups of children were canceled.
It was as if our valley was in stasis at the transition between summer and fall. But here is what I learned from it all: The weirder things seem, the more I’m impressed with the response from Montanans.
A couple weeks ago, I drove to towns with evacuation orders — Plains, Eureka — to talk to people affected by the wildfires. I found resilience, a sense of responsibility for one another, and the desire to serve. Volunteers were being added to Red Cross shelter lists in droves. Food was arriving by the truckload. Neighbors were banding together to dig their own fire lines to save their neighborhoods.
The same inspiring behavior happened all over the valley during the school threats. Pretty much every adult I encountered last week seemed to become a mama grizzly for all the children here. The threat against the most vulnerable of us was a threat against all of us, all of our interests, whether we’re related to the children or not.
You learn a lot about people when they’re put under pressure, because the reality of their character comes through — no time for facades. And by and large in the past couple weeks, this corner of the state showed me it is compassionate but fiercely loyal, willing to open its doors to neighbors in need but also knowing when to close ranks and hunker down with each other.
So yes — it’s been a weird few weeks (and months even) and we’ve suffered losses, some more than others. But despite the turmoil, I’ve only gained a stronger appreciation for the people here, who make this valley a community I’m proud to call my own.
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