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Know the West

Helicopter wild; five drives; isolation tips

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.



F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that “the very rich … are different than you and me.” He didn’t add that it’s because some of them own helicopters, but apparently helicopters do make their owners feel special, perhaps even entitled to break a few laws. Two friends riding horses through Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness recently were surprised to find a couple fishing close to a helicopter that was conveniently parked on a sandbar. It’s illegal to fly or land a helicopter in designated wilderness, so one rider asked the man if it was his helicopter. The man replied, “Yeah, nice way to go, ha.” When the rider then asked,  “What makes you think that’s OK to park it in the wilderness?” the man replied, “We are below the high-water line. It’s OK. Please move along, and if there’s any problem you have our tail numbers.” The rider, who would only give his name as John “for fear of retribution,” found that answer insufficient, reports the Hungry Horse News. “The conversation became heated,” according to John, and the helicopter couple “thought it best to leave.” Helicopter owners Sam Schwerin and his wife, Sara, who is on the advisory board of Montana State University, later had a public-relations firm release a statement about the incident, which the Forest Service says is under investigation. The statement said the Bozeman couple thought they’d landed outside the wilderness and not on the South Fork of the Flathead.


A highway patrolman just outside Ogden, Utah, pulled over a swerving Dodge Journey recently, expecting to find a seriously ill driver inside. Instead, he discovered a 5-year-old named Adrian, whose head barely reached the top of the steering wheel. Adrian had a perfectly reasonable story: He was driving to see his sister in California, where he planned to buy a Lamborghini, because that’s what you do when your stubborn mother won’t buy one for you. “He might have been short on the purchase amount,” reports CBS News, “as he only had $3 in his wallet.


Who better to give tips on life under quarantine than that master of social isolation, Billy Barr? For almost 50 years, Barr told the Mountain West News Bureau, he’s been the only full-time resident of Gothic, a former mining town almost 10,000 feet above sea level, just outside Crested Butte. In the 1970s, he started measuring snow levels “because he was bored.” That inspired his first rule of successfully living alone: “Keep track of something,” whether it’s the rainfall or the birds outside your house. Because once you start doing that, he said, you become part of a network of people doing the same thing. Over the decades, Barr’s snowpack records have informed many studies of climate change. Rule 2 is “Keep a routine,” so that even if you forget what day it is, “you know what time it is.” Rule 3 says to “celebrate the stuff that matters, rather than the stuff you’re supposed to celebrate.” For Barr, that’s Jan. 17, when the sunrise goes back to what it was on the solstice. And because visits to town — an 8-mile ski trip each way — can be stressful, he celebrates his return by watching a favorite movie and eating a good meal: “Woohoo! Big party time.” Rule 4 says: “Embrace the grumpiness,” because sometimes it helps to complain about, say, endless snowfall. Fortunately, Rule 5 provides his antidote for irritability: watching movies. Barr owns 357 movies, and especially enjoys “fluff-oriented” ones like The Princess Bride and Love, Actually, as well as Bollywood spectacles like Bride and Prejudice. About 20 years ago, Barr added a movie room to his cabin, furnished with a comfortable chair for himself, plus “two other chairs with the idea that I’d invite people up. And I never do.” He’s a happy man.


When Yellowstone National Park was still closed due to COVID-19, an impatient woman sneaked in to photograph the hot springs. But while walking backward near Old Faithful to get the perfect shot, reports Big Sky Town Crier, she “tumbled into a thermal feature.” Burned and probably embarrassed, she drove 50 miles before park rangers intercepted her and called in a helicopter to fly her to a hospital in Idaho. No word on how the unnamed woman fared, but last fall, a tourist staying at the Old Faithful Inn suffered a similar fate. Out on a stroll one night, poking around with a flashlight, he tripped into a hot spring near the geyser’s cone and suffered severe burns.

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column.  Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.