Myth and mending in the true West

People in the region are willing to take time for self-reflection, support and tolerance of differences.

Most Western towns aren’t resorts, and most Westerners aren’t billionaires. It was only certain corners of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada that saw an influx of people during the pandemic. In many rural communities, life seemed to change little — no mask-wearing, no telecommuting, no private jets. People lived day-to-day, as they always had. Still, a deep seismic movement was afoot. In a period of quarantine, the rural West became more culturally and politically isolated, largely due to the discord being sown via social media and news networks. As with the rest of the country, people grew ever angrier as political aisles widened and lies fueled mistrust. As people severed relationships, either intentionally or inadvertently, with those who saw things differently, the result was a divergent sense of reality. I saw this in Idaho, where polarization created splinters in the community. Parts of Montana show signs of following suit.


This brings me to a story about a cowboy — the real McCoy, not a cartoon version portrayed by John Wayne or Kevin Costner. On the day I met him, it was hard to tell if Lance Kalfell was completely enraged, or just on a roll. He seemed spitting mad, telling me how he hated President Joe Biden and the Democrats. This was a man who had lost faith in any federal policy intended to address issues affecting him and his community. Kalfell was raised in the town of Terry, Montana, the seat of Prairie County, a little place built amid the breaks and sage, and folded between the Powder and Yellowstone rivers. The Old Milwaukee train depot in the middle of town once served passengers coming west, but now Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains sail through without stopping. There are a great many stories inscribed on the lands around Terry, from the conflict between Sitting Bull and his Lakota people with the U.S. Army to the state’s deadliest train wreck. Although the population is small, just 549 people, Terry boasts two museums. That’s a whole lot of museums per capita, a curious point to which we’ll return.

When Kalfell and I met, Biden had recently canceled the Keystone XL pipeline project, an enterprise commissioned by a Canadian oil company that would have delivered 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta’s tar sands, where they were extracted, across Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska. Though many Indigenous leaders, farmers and ranchers were against the project, Kalfell had been counting on the taxes that, he said, were attached to the pipeline’s revenue and which he was certain could benefit Terry’s schools.

 “I’ve become radicalized.”

This wasn’t his only bone to pick; lots of things were troubling him. “I’ve become radicalized,” he told me. He had joined the NRA and bought some guns. Kalfell is a man about 5 feet, 10 inches tall who wears rectangular glasses with tinted lenses that adjust to the light. He speaks with a gravelly, fast-paced authority. I confess his word “radicalized” gave me pause. He listed the issues that pushed him toward his so-called radicalism — hypocritical Democrats, wildly off-base media, environmentalist “carpetbaggers,” and public land managers, specifically those from the Bureau of Land Management. Although I’ve interviewed many people with similar opinions, I’ve never heard someone be so forthcoming about them, and I wanted to understand his frustration. For the last several years, I have worried that people in rural communities are feeling so disenfranchised that they would embrace the ways of the Bundy family and other anti-government agitators. I feel it’s important to hear them out because so much of the country has stopped listening. With Kalfell, although it seemed especially worthwhile, it was also a bit stressful; his candor unsettled me.

For nearly 100 years, Kalfell’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents raised cattle and sheep on a parcel of sage-and-grass range, a hard place to make a living as a rancher. For instance, the winter of 1886 was a bad one. The ferocity of the storms that winter buried lands and downed animals. Blizzards scattered and killed thousands of cows and sheep across the state of Montana, leaving ranchers helpless as their animals froze in drifts. The tribes suffered even more, as corrupt government agents left them to starve, forcing people to eat the horses found dead in the snow. Nelson Story, the man who inspired the novel Lonesome Dove, lost thousands of heads of livestock that winter and decided to quit the cattle business altogether. Several people across Montana’s Eastern Plains — mostly Native people — froze to death.

Over the years, the Kalfells raised livestock, fought brutal snows, endured crippling droughts, and engaged in quarrels between the generations who worked the land. The family almost lost their place during the 1980s, due to debts and reduced income from failed crops and plummeting prices for livestock. But they persevered, experimenting with various livestock-management styles, implementing no-till farming practices, and digging extensive trenching that provided water to dry corners of the property. Unlike the hobbyists of the Madison Valley, most ranchers in eastern Montana live at the mercy of commodity market prices, weather and their relationships with banks. Ranching is a hard livelihood, especially in a land so unforgiving.

AS WE TALKED over coffee, Kalfell told a story about the time in the 1990s when he became a member of the Foreign Agricultural Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As part of a multi-day training program in Bozeman, he’d been instructed on the service’s sexual harassment policy, a requisite for his membership. At the time, this exercise bothered him, though he has since come to find it funny. “I’ve always respected women,” he told me. “They wanted me to go through sexual harassment training?” he asked rhetorically. “This was during the Clinton administration!” The training mandate convinced him, Kalfell said, that Bill Clinton himself was deflecting his own lasciviousness onto others. He felt resentful and mistreated. The whole thing persuaded him that liberals were downright dishonorable — another reason why he can’t stand Democrats.

Although I’ve interviewed many people with similar opinions, I’ve never heard someone be so forthcoming about them, and I wanted to understand his frustration.

The restaurant where we met that first morning in June 2021 was very noisy, making the exchange difficult to record on my phone. I took notes instead, sitting at a long wooden table next to the busy kitchen. Michael Bugenstein, Kalfell’s biographer and a progressive from Ohio who had moved to Montana decades ago, joined us. During the hour or so we were together, Bugenstein pushed back on Kalfell’s political perspectives in ways both cajoling and quarrelsome. I’m prone to woolgathering when others argue, even when among friends. I was only half-listening to their conversation, but it grew louder as Bugenstein talked more and more vociferously over Kalfell.

“Are you going to take it down?” Kalfell asked.

“Sorry?” I replied.

“I’ve asked you three times,” he said. “Are you going to take down my information?” He wanted to know if I would be interested in visiting his ranch, the Kalfell spread between Miles City and Glendive. He also asked to read my book, American Zion.

“You’ll hate it,” I told him. I had given Bugenstein a copy the day before, in reciprocation for his gift of the Kalfell family book, and he had suggested that I give one to Kalfell as well. American Zion is a history of Mormonism and public-lands battles in the West, including Cliven Bundy’s fight with the Bureau of Land Management and federal law enforcement over public-lands ranching. I wasn’t sure that I wanted this man, who had told me he was radicalized and buying guns, to read what I’d written about certain ranchers. The Bundy family, even though they are hardly typical, had gained sympathy among those tired of government oversight. Nonetheless, I walked out into the hot mid-morning to grab Kalfell a copy from my car. We then exchanged contact information, and I honestly didn’t know if I’d see him again. I thought he might rescind my invitation to his ranch after he read my book. But when I arrived home a few days later, I emailed him and asked when I might come and visit. This was his response:

We must be on each other’s mind!

I was about to send off an email. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to finish the book first. I am a little over half done. (which surprises me)

Your book is very engaging. (like being in a battle for survival!)

Not an expert, but your writing is charming, witty and filled with sarcasm. 

Reminds [me] of a ranch woman, on which I am an expert! (this statement is a compliment to you

My ranch wife says that the apartment is open, so I look forward to seeing you on the 26th.

I will chill some red wine and see if I can find some tofu.

Don’t forget your white board, I am a slow learner. 

I will lock up my guns, if you promise not to shoot me in the back.

I will brush up on my pocketbook “Rules for Radicals”.

I might even call Saul.

Feel free to contact me at any time.

Your friend, Lance   

It’s hard to explain how much this note moved me. It showed me that this was a curious man, capable of irony and good humor, who was also familiar with Saul Alinsky, the pioneering community organizer who wrote Rules for Radicals, a book I’ve never read. A few weeks later, I found myself touring land that has been in the Kalfell family for five generations. When I arrived, Kalfell told me that I should have talked to him before writing about ranching and chastised me for being way too easy on the government. His admonishment was breezy, but his consternation was not. I met his wife, Lisa, a funny, vivacious retired nurse and the very woman who had helped her husband earn his expertise on ranch wives. She had moved with her family from California in the 1970s and attended high school in Terry, where she met Lance.



During my visit, we spent a day seeing the best of Terry, a town named after General Alfred Howe Terry, a full-bearded man with a prominent forehead and the wild eyes of Edgar Allan Poe. He served with the Union Army during and after the Civil War, and later as military commander of the Dakota Territory. General Terry’s troops were the first to come across the bodies of Custer and his men following the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Our first stop was the Kempton Hotel, established in 1902, making it one of Montana’s oldest continuously operating inns. Russ Schwartz, who owns the hotel, collects Western art and maintains a private library filled with books on the West that he ships to other collectors throughout the world. In addition to accommodating lodgers, over the years the Kempton has served other functions too — as an infirmary near the end of World War I, for example — and it is said to be haunted by nurses who died tending victims of the Spanish flu. Schwartz tells of guests hearing the disembodied sounds of spurs dragging heavily along the second floor — presumably worn by the phantom of some long-dead cowpoke who showed little regard for woodwork. We took a quick turn around the narrow, spooky halls, glancing into small tidy rooms, before settling together in the lobby. As guests wandered in and out, asking questions of Schwartz, we began a wide-ranging dialogue on current headlines.

Schwartz, like Kalfell, grew up in Terry. A libertarian who left Montana to embark on a career in engineering, he came back with his wife, Linda, to run the Kempton (named for a local family to which Schwartz is not related). Sitting around a table, we discussed the issues of 2020 and 2021 — political conflicts, protests and climate.

The talk turned to the Bundys, a hot topic out West. Schwartz and Kalfell are both familiar with the family’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the death of LaVoy Finicum, who was shot and killed during the Oregon occupation. A group of Oregon state police had recently stayed at the Kempton during a hunting trip in the area, and they told Schwartz that Finicum, though he’d courted a violent confrontation with law enforcement, did not need to be killed. After hearing from the officers, Schwartz felt that Finicum’s death could have been avoided.

The talk turned to the Bundys, a hot topic out West.

 “What about George Floyd?” I asked. Before Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, he’d been resisting arrest, Kalfell said. “LaVoy was resisting,” I pointed out. I wouldn’t wish death on anyone, but I reminded them that Finicum didn’t comply with officers during his arrest and had reached into the pocket holding his gun.

It was different, they said; Derek Chauvin didn’t wake up wanting Floyd dead, Schwartz contended, implying that Finicum’s death may have been premeditated on the part of the government. I told them about Finicum’s apocalyptic novel, in which the hero goes out in a blaze of glory, exalting in violence as well as martyrdom. It may have been the way Finicum envisioned his own end.

“Death by suicide?” Schwartz offered.

“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t really know.”

Both men also expressed doubt that climate change was behind the West’s soaring temperatures and parched lands. Kalfell later sent me home with several Wall Street Journal articles by climate skeptics. “I think it’s a natural phenomenon,” he told me. Schwartz brought up the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and remarked that weather statistics only go back one hundred years. Still, we agreed that it was a rough time, and that prolonged drought was particularly problematic for agricultural communities.

It felt good to be talking face-to-face, rather than sitting at home and stewing over social media hot takes on political differences.

It felt good to be talking face-to-face, rather than sitting at home and stewing over social media hot takes on political differences. Though Schwartz, Kalfell and I were coming at these divisive issues from different angles, we were able to discuss them without anger. Sitting at a table in an old hotel in very rural Montana, we talked about police violence, race and climate while listening to one another. Though perhaps no minds were changed, this discourse felt like headway in a country paralyzed by fury.

Schwartz suggested I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, a book on the Dust Bowl and the prolonged drought that defined the High Plains during the 1930s. I picked it up after our visit and read of the record-breaking heat and drought, when waves of dirt rose from homesteads on lands ill-advisedly sod-busted. Dust choked the roads and buried whole communities, from the Texas Panhandle to eastern Montana. It was clear why Schwartz had suggested it — the Dust Bowl stands as a shocking story on the ferocity of Mother Nature. Though I know he mentioned the book to show that we have seen extreme weather patterns in the past, what struck me was that the dusters of the 1930s, like our recent emissions-driven climate change, were a phenomenon brought on by human actions — in the older case, breaking up the Plains and planting crops in place of wild grasses. Now we know better, and do better, in our agricultural practices, though we have a way to go — we still spew too much methane, carbon dioxide, pesticide and herbicide.

We also spew too much bile. Real dialogue is different. And as we experience more extreme weather, no matter what people think is the cause, it’s going to be essential for us to be talking to each other about it. Ongoing drought, floods and fire are affecting food production, damaging property, and killing people and animals, both wild and domestic. We are going to need to plan together, take care of, and rely on one another as we consider our future. Tim Egan’s book, in addition to being a great read, emphasized the story of communities and neighbors who supported one another through hard times. We need to be ready to do the same.

This story is an excerpt from True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America by Betsy Gaines Quammen, forthcoming from Torrey House Press in October 2023.

Betsy Gaines Quammen is a historian and the author of American Zion:Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West and True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America (Oct 2023). We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Image credits: NRA sticker. Thomas Hawk/CC via Flickr; “Since the Days of the Buffalo” book cover by Michael Bugenstein. Keystone XL pipeline protest banner. Peg Hunter/CC via Flickr; General Alfred Howe Terry. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection; Downtown Terry, Montana. David Schott/CC via Flickr; The Kempton Hotel. Jimmy Emerson/CC via Flickr; Terry Badlands. Brad Purdy/Bureau of Land Management