The strange allure of tipsy trips in Montana

  Drinking and driving in Montana has begun to be something of a cliché. Locals tell out-of-state newspapers that we measure distances in beers. A Los Angeles Times story a few months ago included a quote from Bill Muhs of Bozeman: "Bozeman to Billings is a six-pack drive.... Crossing the state would be a whole case."

Even politicians take it for granted. Brian Schweitzer, the leading candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, told a documentary film crew that he might "suck down" a cold one while returning home from his hay fields. His rationale? It's "the Montana way."

Drinking while driving in Montana is legal, but a confession like Schweitzer's carries political consequences. Montana Gov. Judy Martz, R, jumped at the chance to criticize him. But don't think she's a conventional governor. She's not, which may explain why she's chosen not to run for a second term.

. Martz's most notorious acts in office revolve around a 2001 drunk-driving fatality near Helena involving her top aide, Shane Hedges. When Hedges crashed his SUV, it killed his passenger, state House Majority Leader Paul Sliter. The county attorney publicly considered indicting Martz and another top Republican on charges of obstruction of justice for destroying evidence and impeding the investigation. Editorials in papers around the state echoed dismay about the "appearance of impropriety" in the "cover-up" scandal. Martz's approval ratings since then have hoveredin the mid-teens. A frequently seen bumper sticker in the state says, "My governor is dumber than your governor."

So it seemed when Gov. Martz, speaking at the state Republican Convention, lambasted Democrat Schweitzer on the matter of drinking: "The candidate on the other side thinks (drinking and driving) is the Montana way.... Can you imagine that mentality?"

Well, yes, I can. Almost all rural states have a serious problem with drinking and driving, though Montana (usually with Mississippi) sits at the bottom as one of the worst. It seems counterintuitive, but rural America is significantly more dangerous than urban and suburban areas. Highway deaths are the leading contributor.

Why this is true ties together with the easy logic of a highway accident report. Rural citizens consume more alcohol, and they begin drinking earlier in life, than urbanites. We drive farther, too. Last year, Montana's per capita highway deaths were the second-highest in the nation. Every Western state except Utah ranked above the national average. But Montana had the dubious distinction of ranking first in percentage of fatal crashes caused by drunk drivers, according to data compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. It stands to reason that the teen years are when most of us form our driving habits. That was the case with me. I'd go so far as to say that a lot of small-town teenagers get an alcohol primer in high school.

Our training ground was the 12 Mile Marker, along U.S. 87 north of Billings, just off a gravel road and down a dirt track. In the late 1980s, when I went to high school in Billings, word of keg parties passed through the halls with a startling lack of discretion. That evening, columns of cars and pickups streamed out of town. Someone would have grabbed a few crates from behind a grocery store for a fire. Soon, a circle would form around the blaze. A few hours later, a handful of law officers would break up the party, and everyone would pile into cars for the drive home.

I loved the 12 Mile Marker. I remember coming over the lip of a hill in the blackness of a cold evening and seeing the circle of parked cars surrounding the silhouette of the crowd gathered in the blazing light of the fire. I loved the almost-spicy taste of the carbonation in those icy plastic cups of beer. If the evening went according to plan, I'd be stumbling drunk by the time a police spotlight flashed across the crowd.

By my senior year in high school I had lost a half-dozen acquaintances to wrecks. One night on the way back to town I saw the taillights of the car ahead of me suddenly veer from the pavement and roll. No one died, that time.

Once I drove to the 12 Mile Marker on a spring afternoon. It was odd to see the place in daylight. On the return trip to Billings I passed several crosses along the road marking recent fatalities.

Almost 15 years later, it seems that about once a year I lose someone I know to the state's highways. Drinking while driving increases those odds. Yet I can recall the appeal, especially when certain songs play on the radio, of drinking, and knowing the night will end with me climbing, with a heavy buzz, behind the wheel.

Robert Struckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an essay service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives near Flathead Lake, Montana.

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