If you heard about the man who kicked off his campaign for governor by swinging a medieval battle sword on horseback in the middle of downtown Billings, you probably thought, "Only in Montana."
Glenn Schaffer posed at the offices of
the local paper in February on a stallion named Big Dog Thunder
Horse, and said that his campaign motto would be "Honor, Above All
Else." He cited Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, as his example.
Announcing that he would campaign across the state with his horse,
he said, "I will not ask for money, but for water and shelter for
me and my steed." The Billings Gazette put his story on the front
This was my first reaction: Here’s a typical
Montana character. But later I was struck by a different fact
buried deep in the article: Schaffer has lived in Montana only four
I thus see him as the latest example of an
under-appreciated trend: the newcomers who feed off — and
thus feed — our Western myths. Do you see the West as the
frontier, a place where you can reinvent yourself? Then
you’re probably from the East. Do you equate wilderness with
unspoiled purity? Then chances are you’re from a coastal
city. Do you see the concept of honor on horseback as proving your
electability? Then maybe you’re a recent immigrant from
When I moved to Montana 14 years ago, I was
gung-ho for its mountain image. I bought cross-country skis and a
mountain bike. I acquired a dog and hiked constantly. I felt
inferior for not being a rock-climber, telemark skier or winter
backpacker. But then I met Montanans who hadn’t made the
two-hour drive to Yellowstone in decades.
As a newcomer
to my small town, I quickly volunteered to serve on boards and
committees to preserve and strengthen our community. And I soon
learned that without the newcomers’ enthusiasm, many such
organizations would wither and die.
I developed a passion
for Montana literature, and then learned that my fiancée, who
grew up in eastern Montana, preferred Dostoevsky. The more time I
spend here, the more I alter my picture of typical Montanans.
Because the more time they’ve been here, the less
they’re interested in horses or cowboys or wilderness or
quaint small-town cafés. Instead, they want snowmobiles,
Harleys, economic development and the new Olive Garden.
Friends tell me of similar situations around the West. In Wyoming,
newcomers embrace the horse-packing image; in New Mexico and parts
of Colorado, they build with adobe; in Utah, they repeat the Ed
Abbey stories. It’s the people from elsewhere who most love
and sustain the old myths. Of course, I’m speaking in broad
stereotypes here, but I do so for a reason: It’s really
interesting when they meet. Just as the intersection of two
ecosystems — say, forest and meadow — creates the
richest habitat for wildlife, I find this intersection of myth and
anti-myth to be a home for a vibrant culture.
taught in the environmental studies program at the University of
Montana, Don Snow told me he thought the school’s great
reputation came from the way it took environmentalists and turned
them into Montanans. He said that with great pride, with respect
for both types of people and the way exposure to differing
perspectives can enrich one’s life. We live at the
intersection of myth and reality, and everybody gets confused as to
which street is which. So we get some strange combinations, like
"modem cowboys" and "Harley rodeos."
When Glenn Schaffer
gets on his horse, he’s part of that mix. And when we report
or read about people like him, so are we. It doesn’t matter
whether Montana really has any more characters than anywhere else.
The point is that we want it to. Montana has attracted people who
believe in characters, or wilderness, or individualism, or cowboys.
Those beliefs fuel a culture we love — and perpetuate.
I celebrate Glenn Schaffer not just because he’s
unusual. I admire the way he has grasped the heroic elements of his
own Montana vision. After all, 102 years ago another Pennsylvanian
grafted the concept of honor onto a horseman. Owen Wister dubbed
his creation "The Virginian," and so created the cowboy myth.