In his new book, author Russell Rowland says most people in Montana are optimistic, they drink lots of alcohol, and the state is completely bipolar.
Russell Rowland: Everyone sort of focuses on the fact that Montana’s one of the most amazing places in the country. And I certainly agree with that. People love living here. But it also has one of the highest suicide rates in the country and it has for a really long time. So, I talk a lot about that in the book, about why that is and how it started and what it is that sort of continues to nurture that kind of problem.
Chérie Newman: Russell Rowland spent nearly two years traveling from his home in Billings to visit every county seat in the state. His book, published by Bangtail Press in Bozeman, is titled "Fifty-six Counties: A Montana Journey." But Rowland didn’t write a travelogue.
RR: Each chapter focuses on a specific industry, so there’s mining, logging, the railroads, farming, ranching, fuel.
CN: When he wasn’t traveling, Rowland spent countless hours reading books and scouring the internet, looking for perspectives and facts. In "Fifty-Six Counties," he merged Montana’s history with his personal commentary about everything from farm subsidies and the stares he got from people in small towns, to the state’s love affair with alcohol.
RR: When you talk to people that are not natives of here, a lot of them will point that out saying 'You know I just couldn’t believe when I moved here how much people talk about drinking and how much alcohol plays a part in every social activity, you know everything is planned around it.' And you know when you read the history, I think one of the things that was very striking to me, especially very early on with the prospectors and the fur traders that really started the first trek out here, a lot of those guys were veterans. A lot of those guys had just fought in the civil war or they had just fought in the Indian wars. So it kinda makes sense that there would be a lot of drinking going on because these guys, they’d just been through these horrific wars. And I think there’s a lot of really damaged young men that started this place. You read about the number of saloons in those early towns … it’s just staggering.
CN: And what about that persistent old myth that Montanans are independent, self-reliant people who don’t need help from anyone?
RR: That is so much a myth, and I really do believe that that contributes a lot to the high suicide rate here, too. I think that people here feel a certain amount of pressure to live up to that even though, you know, most people know by now that some of us need help sometimes. But it’s very hard, I think, for Montanans, a lot of us, to reach out for help when we need it because of that pressure.
CN: Overall, however, Rowland noticed most people look on the bright side.
RR: Montanans, no matter how hard things are still or how it appears that their town is really struggling, there’s still just an incredible sense of optimism all over the state. And it’s almost to the point of denial in a lot of cases, but this idea that things are going to turn around any day now is still very much alive all over the state.