Not Trump Country

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“I need to run into the house for a minute.” Jim told me. “Wait here with the yaks.” 

There were two Tibetan yaks in the pen. An adult and a child. The adult was sauntering slowly toward me.

“Is it safe?” I asked, as the yak approach at a speed slightly slower than a riding lawn mower going up a hill.

Jim chuckled. “He’s charging you right now,” he joked and then headed off toward the house with the long strides of a man who walks many miles each day. 

The small yak has was munching on grass. I pulled out my GoPro to try and get a selfie with him. This is what happened.

His name is Goliath. Here are a few more photos of he and the other yaks, just because they’re so damn cute.

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Meeting Jim Watson

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Jim Watson is the personification of Kalispell — a small city of 22,000 in the Flathead Valley of northeast Montana surrounded by lakes and mountains — as I came to know it during a recent assignment there. (Check out my photoessay from the trip here.)

Jim is a well-read rancher, hunter, entrepreneur,  and — from what I could tell — a libertarian in the truest sense. 

According to Wikipedia, “Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association, and the primacy of individual judgment.”

That is to say, they think the government should have little or no role in people’s lives and people should be left to manage their own affairs. If all people were like Jim, a libertarian country would probably be a pretty great place.

I met Jim because he is on the board of Herron Park, a privately-created 440-acre conservation area with 15 miles of trails for public use. During our conversation he told me about the US forestry service’s mismanagement of public land and explained the selective logging and natural reforestation practices that he had helped to put in place on both his own ranch and the conservation area. 

Having worked in the Canadian forestry industry as a young man I have a fair understanding of sustainable land management practices. The land management system Jim was using was the most responsible I’d ever heard of actually being practiced.

Here are a few shots of Heron Park. As you can see, there is no sign of logging, unnatural reforestation, or machinery, which is exactly what sustainable logging practices should look like.

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Jim also runs the 1000 acre Spring Brook Ranch where he mainly breeds Tibetan yak and bison. The yak are raised primarily for breeding, but some are also sold for their meat. The majority of the bison and yak meat Jim does sell, however, is only sold locally as part of a growing farm-to-table movement in the area.

This was exactly what I didn’t expect to find in Kalispell. 

Now Entering Trump Country

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I grew up in Cranbrook, British Columbia, which is just a 3-hour drive north of Kalispell. I had visited Kalispell and the surrounding area many times with my family as a child and felt I knew the area fairly well. 

Montana has a reputation for being a state of gun-loving pickup-truck driving Republicans. 

On my way to Kalispell my mother and I drove past a rust-spattered pickup truck with a gun rack in the rear window and a bumper sticker that said “My dog is smarter than a democrat”.

“Don’t go around talking politics down here.” My mom warned me. “This is Trump country.”

I was an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter on an assignment for a Chamber of Commerce deep in the heart of Trump country during the most politically polarized period in the USA that I could remember. I would be meeting with tourism officials, business people, and community leaders. Talking politics was probably the dumbest thing I could do. 

So, I decided I would ask about the politics of every person I met, starting at dinner that night with the woman who would be signing my paycheque (probably). 

What I learned was more surprising than random meeting with a baby Tibetan yak. 

Elk Sausage And Polite Politics

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Kalispell’s slogan is “Discovery in Every Direction.” The city sits in the Flathead Valley surrounded by the finest natural landscapes in the state. North of Kalispell is Glacier National Park, one of the most-visited national parks in the USA. South of Kalispell is Flathead Lake, the largest lake (by surface area) west of the Mississippi. To the east and west are the Swan Mountains and Salish Mountains, which are comprised mainly vast swathes of pristine Rocky Mountain wilderness. 

I had been commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce to photograph the city and surrounding area, a job that introduced me to a wide variety of local folks. 

The first was Diane, the Director of the Convention Centre and Visitor’s Bureau. We ate at the the Desoto Grill, where I had a sausage hoagie made from locally-sources elk (pictured above). That was my first taste of the strong sustainably-focussed farm-to-table ethic in Kalispell. 

From the outset I decided not to ask people about their personal opinions on Donald Trump. Knowing that he is such a polarizing figure, people would probably craft their answer to avoid conflict. 

Instead I would say something like, “I know this is a pretty conservative area. How do the around here people here feel about Donald Trump?”

Being a representative of the city, her answer was unsurprisingly diplomatic. 

“I think a lot of people around here are not happy with the choices they have.” 

This answer was revealing, though. If you have to choose between the lesser of what you think are two evils, would you say you ‘support’ the person you choose?

I think a lot of Americans of all political inclinations feel that way right now.

America prides itself on its dedication to personal freedom. Often, the American idea of freedom manifests itself a freedom of choice. Freedom for companies to compete in the market and for consumers to choose what they like. 

The American political system stands in stark contrast to this ideal. People are only provided two real choices (which I feel obligated to point out, that is just one choice short of a dictatorship) which have been widely criticized as being too similar to each other. 

This was my first step toward understanding the layered and nuanced relationship between Americans and their government, particularly from the point of view of the residents of Kalispell. 

Outdoors Adventures And Political Inquiries

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I spent most of a week galavanting around Kalispell’s wild surroundings with my camera, and eating and drinking with the owners of the better-known pubs and restaurants in the evening, as part of my job.

It was beautiful.

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It would be silly to describe every conversation I have about The Donald. So, here I’ll summarize the most meaningful tidbits that I can recall. 

I ate lunch one day in the Tamarack Brewing Company, where one of the people working told me that around the bar, a lot of patrons said they were so disappointed with the choices available, they were considering not voting at all. 

Aside: Tamarack Brewing Company is an award winning craft brewery that has won some serious awards for its IPAs. It also happens to be owned by the daughter of hockey legend Lanny McDonald, who happened to show up while I was there and was gracious enough to take a selfie with me.

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When I visited the Kalispell Brewing Company I heard the same thing. 

I also met more than a few Republicans during my visit, whose replies would be best summarized as, “I don’t like him, but I’m sure as hell not going to vote for a Democrat.”

How About Bernie?

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I’d often follow up my Trump questions by asking what people thought about Bernie Sanders, to explore both ends of the spectrum. 

To my surprise many of the party-line-towing Republicans I spoke to responded with a comment about his integrity, often saying something along the lines of, “I may not agree with ‘em. But he ain’t full of shit.”

As a person who grew up in a rural redneck community, I can tell you that there are few qualities despised more than “being full of shit” and few character traits more valued than “not being full of shit.”

The general respect for Bernie Sanders — even among those who strongly opposed his politics — was surprising and refreshing. 

I was having discussions about politics in the USA with people who were willing to acknowledge the qualities of people they disagreed with, which, in retrospect, probably shocked me mostly because those kinds of opinions so rarely appear in media and political campaigns.

I only met one man that seemed to genuinely support Donald Trump. He was an employee of the Historical Society who I met to teach me about the Kalispell’s history. 

After he told me he supported The Donald, he seemed to feel the need to justify his position as if it were it were socially unacceptable, like an 70-year-old man explaining his love for his 24-year-old trophy wife by explaining the qualities of her personality. 

“Don’t watch what Trump does.” He told me. “Watch what the people he hires do. As a businessman, he knows how to find and hire good people.”

Is Montana Really A Conservative State?

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Before my visit to Kalispell, I thought Montana was extremely Republican. I worried that I’d run into intolerance and ignorance that liberals tend to associate with conservatives that live in rural areas. 

But I encountered the opposite. I encountered friendly, open-minded, gracious people regardless of their political preferences. 

Is Kalispell elephant country? No. Is it donkey country?  No. 

It’s bear country. 

From based on my experience, the character of the local folks there don’t fall within any American stereotype. 

That’s the point of this whole article.

During my time there I met one of the finest breeders of Tibetan yak in the USA, a hockey legend, restaurants owners and ranchers working together to create crazy creative and delicious locally-sourced food, volunteer-run parks benevolently purchased and maintained solely for the benefit of the community, and a former professional telemark ski racer. 

(For those of you not familiar with telemark skiing, it’s a form of skiing in which every turn requires a lunge-like movement. In terms of physical effort, comparing skiing to telemarking is like comparing jogging in place to doing squat jumps. Anyone that does it has my respect. The idea of doing it competitively blows my mind.)

I haven’t been to Portland, so please excuse the following stereotype. 

From what I saw, Kalispelians’ passion for craft brews, individuality, one-of-a-kind farm-to-table cuisine, and crazy outdoors activities, makes it look to me like a city that embraces a lot of the same progressive ideas as Portland, except in a more genuine way, without the stereotypical Portland hipster posturing (that I’ve seen on TV, but never in person, and cannot confirm actually exists there.)

The people there are hearty people who engage with adversity eagerly. 

The beautiful ruggedness of the Flathead Valley has long attracted outdoors lovers and rugged individualists; good people who believe in the good of others and the reward of a hard day’s work. I think that at some point this either made the area attractive to Libertarians, or started turning people into Libertarians, or, more likely, a mixture of the two. 

But, with that came an attraction for other people with anti-government ideas, such as Ted Kaczynski. 

Back in the day, the Republican Party used to be rad. Now I hate it. 

Surprisingly, although many of the people I met in Kalispell were Republican, I did not disagree with many of their ideas.

A Libertarian is a community-focussed person who believes that local communities — rather than bing government — should solve their own problems. So, they generally prefer a small government.

The way they ran their affairs in Kalispell, I can see why they would like it that way. They do a good job of it.

A Libertarian believes that people should be responsible for themselves, their own actions, and their own safety. So, they are generally opposed to gun control. 

I personally disagree with this idea. But Libertarians hold it as an ideal that it right for its own sake, rather than clinging to an outdated amendment to the constitution that is no longer practical. 

I may disagree with them, but I can respect a person standing up for a principle.

A Libertarian mainly believes that people have the right to live freely with the fewest restrictions necessary. 

Again, I disagree. If everyone were like Jim Watson (or most of the people I met in Kalispell), Libertarianism would work beautifully

But sadly they are not. 

On the other hand, I believe it’s a respectable idea to stand for if you are the kind of person who enjoys contributing to that kind of community (which Jim certainly was). 

Libertarians tend to vote Republican, but a Libertarian is not a Republican. 

I really like Libertarianism and I really dislike Republicanism (whatever that means now). 

There are some significant differences between Libertarians and Republicans.

*A Libertarian’s reverence for personal freedom should not accept systemic discrimination. 

The Libertarian Party website states:

“Government should neither deny nor abridge any individual’s human right based upon sex, wealth, ethnicity, creed, age, national origin, personal habits, political preference or sexual orientation.”

* A Libertarian’s reverence or personal freedom should not accept the criminalization of recreational drugs. 

The Libertarian Party website states: “We favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes” without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.”

*A Libertarian’s reverence for personal freedom make’s them de facto pro-choice. 

The Libertarian Party website states: “We believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.”

*A Libertarian’s reverence for personal freedom makes them tolerant of all religious beliefs and against the promotion of any belief over another as it will inhibit a person’s freedom to make an informed choice.

The Libertarian Party website states: “We favor the freedom to engage in or abstain from any religious activities that do not violate the rights of others. We oppose government actions which either aid or attack any religion.”

*Ideologically speaking, of course.

The thing about Montana is that the first few policy goals I mentioned are the most influential in people’s decisions. So, Libertarians tend to support Republicans for their views on the size of the government and gun control. However, they support those ideas for very different and — in my opinion — noble reason. 

I believe that is why Montana is a state where, in the primaries, Donald Trump got nearly as many votes as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined. 

But is it full of ‘Trump Supporters’? It didn’t seem that way to me (or the New York Times).

What it did seem like was a small, friendly community of caring hard-working outdoors-loving people. 

On my last night in Kalispell I’d finished drinking a few beers at the Kalispell Brewery in the midst of a gathering of the Forest Fire Lookout Association when I decided that I had to go to Hops for a burger. A yak burger. You see, Hops is the only restaurant in town that sells Jim Watson’s yak meat. 

When I arrived I ran into a few of the forest fire lookouts I’d spoken to earlier, so we ate together. 

When I asked them about The Donald one of the fellows became livid. He hated the man more than I. 

We had some beers and I ate my yak burger and I reflected on how much I liked the people I’d met in Kalispell. I wondered how I could be in a state where Donald Trump won nearly almost as many votes as both Democratic candidates combined, but only meet good-hearted, open-minded, community-and-family-oriented people.

Oh, and by the way, here is a photo of the yak burger. It was delicious.

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This post originally appeared on Xpat Matt.