If you've 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 page.
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 years.
I thus see
him as the latest example of an under-appreciated trend: It's 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
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
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
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.