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Uncommon Ground

Mutual Respect

It’s the people of the Flathead, in towns like Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls that make our valley great places to live

By Mike Jopek

I cautiously pulled out onto Highway 93 and accelerated toward Kalispell. A man in his local truck sped up next to us and offered me a crude one-handed gesture. I muttered to my visiting nephew that I’ve got to get mom’s plates transferred from Florida to Montana. She’s been waiting for the paper title to arrive before heading to the motor vehicle place.

We moved to town back when traffic lights were scarce. There was little congestion. Town was calmer. Driving was easy, the potholes big, but clearly less chaotic than days prior when streets were littered with stumps from harvested trees. 

Whitefish grew up from Stumptown. Suddenly it’s like every other newcomer wants to give town the flavor of the place they fled. Back in our early days I recall how mad townsfolks got at newcomer Gene for put up a flashing ‘Bah Humbug’ sign on the second floor of his downtown diner during Winter Carnival.

The 150-year-old ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens was not the proper vision of a holiday town. A lot changed during the past decades. Whitefish hasn’t witnessed much anything as radically abrupt as the past years when a pandemic ravaged nation migrated to rural America to buy up land and homes with cash.

Today’s roads are more crowded, the lines longer, yet people are more prosperous. Successful that is, if workers were fortunate enough to purchase property back when small homes in places like Dakota Avenue in Whitefish sold for less than $20,000.

Currently there’s basically no worker homes for sale in our rural town in northwestern Montana, a place further north than the tip of Maine. People want to live in town, closer to services. More are headed to Montana every day. 

Some come to change town, others to join a community seeking an outdoor lifestyle while their kids attend some of the finest public schools anywhere in the nation. With our fast internet, remote workers make a decent living while enjoying a western life.

With such a sudden influx of newcomers comes big challenges on how to get along. The conflict is in our streets, at our stores, and on our trails. There’s nothing insurmountable in these collective encounters that a bit of old-fashioned courtesy and cooperation won’t help resolve.

It’s a matter of slowing down, yielding to pedestrian on the trail, and tipping local servers better when eating some of the finest food in Montana. A yoga instructor might say breathe. Sounds easy, yet hard. I’m glad she keeps reminding me.

It’s the people of the Flathead, in towns like Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls that make our valley great places to live. We work and play hard. It’s the lifestyle most of us moved here for, to leave behind the bustle of urban life.

Yes, the lines are longer today, the traffic so bad that one routinely can’t make left turns, and the trailheads fuller of visiting cars. Most locals still know the secret places, the quiet times, and that ever-important homegrown code of courtesy. 

It’s easy to blame newcomers. I’m glad old-timers welcomed us into town decades ago. As youngsters we posed challenges but also brought opportunity, a willingness to serve, volunteer, and make town better.

The blowhards will continue to blow like that cold northeastern wind bearing down on the farmhouse on this frigid February morning. No amount of yelling or threats will make our public libraries stronger, our schools better, or the ski lines shorter on powder days. 

Many of the challenges facing the Flathead are fixable. We need to work locally with people regardless of whom we voted for in past elections. Find that old-fashioned common ground. Mostly be kind and listen more. We’re all just human, trying our best.

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