I’m a sucker for the cowboy. My bookshelves sag under the weight of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry novels. I have spent summer wages on Ian Tyson CDs and Willie Nelson concert tickets. My favorite Clint Eastwood film is Unforgiven, not Million Dollar Baby.
But even I was surprised when the 2005 Montana Legislature drew its six-shooter and plugged two great icons of the mythical West: the smoky old saloon and the beer can tossed in the ditch.
The dust is still clearing, but it looks like Montana will phase out smoking in public places, including bars, by 2008. And this year Montana will become the 49th state to ban open containers of alcohol in automobiles.
Sakes alive, what’s next? A bag limit on coyotes?
Of course, being a cowboy isn’t about cows. Cowboys are about freedom. It’s about not being fenced in. Following your own trail. Doing right, ‘cause its the right thing to do, not ‘cause some smarty-pants from the government told you to.
The Cowboy Way has a libertarian streak as wide as I-90. After all, Montana is the state that for more than a year had no numeric speed limit. We could drive as fast as we wanted, as long as it was "reasonable and prudent." Montana eventually imposed a 75 mph speed limit, but only because the feds threatened to withhold millions in federal highway funds that keep our interstates from reverting back to buffalo trails.
Freedom is still a high card in the political poker hand. But a new card is in the deck: Responsibility.
When the Legislature first considered banning smoking in bars, casinos and restaurants, there was the predictable roar of opposition. "Private property rights!" bellowed the Marlboro Men. "If folks are afraid of a little smoke, they can stay outside."
Of course, pink, healthy lungs are private property, too. And the single moms slinging hash and serving beer have a right to avoid unnecessary trips to the oncologist, and they deserve a chance to bear healthy, full-term babies.
Truth is, the writing was on the wall. Polls showed that, even in Montana, voters were more than happy to ban smoking in public places by ballot initiative. The Marlboro Men knew what was good for them: phasing in agreeable regulations instead of getting walloped by a ballot initiative.
The debate over open containers was as perennial as bunchgrass on the northern range. Libertarians said there was a difference between drinking-and-driving and driving drunk. If a fella wants to crack a Coors on the long drive home from cutting hay or fishing or watching the high school football game, what’s the harm, so long as he stays sober?
That was the theory. The reality is that Montana motorists too often didn’t stay sober. The unspoken tradition in Montana is to plow into a six-pack or twist the cap off a bottle of the hard stuff while cruising our wide-open spaces. Montana graveyards are full of folks who pay the ultimate price for this particular libertarian habit. And very often, they aren’t the ones in the cars with the open containers. Montanans are increasingly fed up with it and sent a clear message: Keep your parties off our highways.
"This is one of those laws that will start the cultural change that we need on the highways of Montana," said Mike Tooley, deputy chief of the Montana Highway Patrol. "We hope that just the existence of the law will make a difference."
As for me, I think a little dose of responsibility won’t hurt the Cowboy Way and will make Montana the better for it. Think of it as a new trail that could lead us to greener pastures. A place where real cowboys, for example, raise their stock for better prices and higher returns, and raise them in ways that don’t exterminate native wildlife and where folks irrigating their hay leave enough water in the creeks for a few fish. A place where neighbors get along a little better, and the people, and eventually the land, are healthier for it.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Kalispell, Montana.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.