A tense confrontation on a quiet Montana road


It's one of those summer mornings in Montana when whatever compromises you've made in life seem totally worth it. The fields are deep green, the mountains still shine white, the rivers bump their banks, the sky is that unfathomable blue. Better yet, we're driving in two cars to the put in for an early-season canoe run down the Gallatin River. It's like the beer commercial says, right?

Up ahead, on the rural two-lane, two bikers are out enjoying a morning ride. And closer to us, a Jeep is pulled off to the side. Our first car swings around the Jeep. I start to do the same, when the Jeep spits gravel and shoots out in front of me. Whatever. I settle back in my lane.

Then the Jeep, with two men in it, pulls up very close alongside the first biker, crowding him, obviously shouting something. It does the same to the second rider. Then the Jeep roars ahead, the passenger gesturing the bikers to pull over in a wide spot.

The bikers want nothing to do with that, and instead, veer away and approach a stop sign, where they dismount, obviously shaken.

"You OK?" someone in our first vehicle asks.

"Those guys are yelling at us, threatening us," one rider says, shaking.

"Maybe you should call 911."

The rider thinks about it, pulls his phone out, and starts to dial. Meantime, I hear the Jeep drivers make their own cop call. They must have what they consider is a legitimate beef – riders too far in the lane, riding side by side, who knows? Maybe they have a real case. We may have come on the scene after an initial altercation.

My passenger can't stand it. He has had run-ins with rude drivers on his bicycle many times, and what he sees as obvious harassment has him worked up. He gets out of the car, starts back toward the Jeep.

"You guys are in the wrong," I hear him shout.

"Go to hell, you tree-hugging asshole," they yell back.

I'm thinking, they have a gun in their glove compartment. I know this with absolute certainty. This as I weigh whether to get out in support, or stay put. I have my hand on the door handle.

It flashes through my mind that this is how so many of these situations veer out of control. Everyone is minding their own business until some quirky confluence of circumstance throws things out of whack, tempers flare, someone decides to do something about it, and suddenly, a gun appears and before anyone can say, "Hold on a minute!" there's a body on the ground making a red puddle.

Luckily, my friend starts back. Maybe the same thought train is running down the rail in his mind.

"I gotta stop," he says, "or this could be bad."

"If we leave, are you all right?" we ask the bikers.

"Think so," they say. "Police are on the way."

We look back at the Jeep. The two men are sitting inside, waiting for the police to arrive. The situation seems stable, tense but stable. We give the bikers a card, in case they need witnesses, and we go on. But for the rest of that day, despite the beauty and exhilaration of the river, the good company, the morning altercation squats on the horizon like a brooding storm.

That it has come to this. That a couple of bike riders and drivers can't get along on a quiet country road on a stunning morning in a postcard part of the world. That it would even cross my mind that one of us could end up bleeding to death on the side of the road. That this stew of anger and vitriol and misunderstanding could come to a boil so effortlessly, and what that says about our times.

It brings into focus all the ways that things explode in places like Ferguson or Baltimore or New York; simple, misunderstood, stupid things, and how many times someone ends up lying in a pool of blood over it. And then, the real kicker, how none of us are immune. How it isn't some bad guy far away, but it is all of us, any one of us, even on a pretty Montana morning.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a writer in Montana.

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