Cooke City, Montana: I am sitting here in the Super 8, perhaps the only new building constructed in this small gateway to Yellowstone in the past fifty years. It brings the illusion of modernity. It is probably a franchise. It is however, just like every other business in this town, undercapitalized. It doesn’t take much scratching to see under the surface.
I have a history here. I grew up in Billings, Montana, 124 miles away. My dad in his younger-to-late-middle aged days was a heavy drinker, so much so that Mom at the dinner table one night threatened him. She said that if he did not quit drinking, she would stop going to church. Failure to attend Sunday mass in those days was considered a “mortal” offense, so in effect she had threatened him with her own eternal damnation. He was cornered. (I sat at the other end of the table, maybe ten years old. It was a first for me: I looked at him and thought, man, he’s really drunk. I had never noticed before.)
Dad was a neon glass bender, a useful skill. He was employed as such in Billings. Not too long after the threat, a business came up for sale in Livingston, Montana, and Dad made the leap. He bought it and began spending weekends there, 115 miles away. Of course his objective was to carry on drinking, but I was a kid. I could not know this. Mom did. Among neighborhood kids, she was known to be angry all the time.
Livingston sits adjacent to Paradise Valley and Gardiner, Montana, the NW entrance to Yellowstone. Part of Dad’s acquired business included many hotels and restaurants in Gardiner, Silvergate, and Cooke City, Montana. During summers Mom would insist that I go with Dad on his trips to these places. His weekends away had become a full time pursuit in making his undercapitalized business a bare survival mechanism. Thus did I come to know every building in Cooke City. My job those summers was to hold the ladder as Dad went up and down fixing and installing signs. Much of his work is still here, the General Store still bearing his company logo sixty years later.
Dad was cranky, never had much time for me. I don’t recall having a conversation with him, as he was always preoccupied. He did let me loose now and then to fish. His living hovel was a small motel in Livingston, a filthy dive. I was left to my own, and attended movies at the outdoor theater. But I must not have been that bright, as I did not know that my presence with him was Mom’s way of trying to bring him under control.
Years later, to his credit, Dad did give up the drink, moved back in with Mom, and in our family was known as a sweet little man. But my adult reflections are this: Mom was trapped. If not Catholic, she might have left the bum and took us to Wisconsin to live with her mother and sisters. She had no resources, no way out. Of course she was angry, supporting the family by wrapping meat (and listening to political radio all day) at a local grocery store. Hers was not an easy life. Her refuge was her sisters, six of them, all strong and clean and sober. They lived in Wisconsin, Washington and California. I loved them all. One is still alive, 98 years old.
Montana health officials have never given a rat’s ass about Cooke City, but now with the scamdemic have visited every business and laid out the means of survival – six feet so that restaurants now must survive on half their former business. Plexiglass is in every establishment. Supplies are short – the place we had dinner last night, Log Cabin Cafe in Silvergate, served salad that was surely locally grown lettuce. That’s not a problem, but shows that supply lines are stressed. These health-Nazi monsters, who never before gave two shits for any business here, will shut them down if crossed.
During March-May, Governor Steve Bullock, a creepy, dangerous and insincere man, closed Montana’s borders, anyone entering quarantined for 14 days. That anvil hangs over our head now as fake testing is producing fake positives. The Gubbner is again making rumbling sounds about new restrictions. We are with our grandson. I have asked his mom to watch news reports closely, as if Bullock strikes again we will get the boy safely home in ten hours. That is, if we can get through Wyoming, where Governor Mark Gordon is also showing signs of suffering a power boner.
People come to this area on vacation, and fantasize … they can escape here! Businesses are always for sale, and a few folks make the jump thinking they can work during the week and spend weekends in the fabulous Beartooth Mountains. Soon they find that they are slaves, as the businesses do not run themselves and do not attract good help. Many employees (there are good ones too) often lack a full set of teeth and Social Security number, are paid in cash and cannot be trusted to show up. This is not the end of the Earth, which is up in Alaska. This is merely the lower-48 gateway.
There are some tough and resourceful people here – the owners of the General Store and the Elkhorn Lodge, for example. Cooke City during winter has given over to snowmobilers, a survival bargain. My daughter once worked in Yellowstone at Old Faithful during winter, and said something I’ve never forgotten: “Park Rangers were chasing drunk snowmobilers, but I repeat myself.” They are rowdy, the town is drunk every night, business owners strive to preserve their rooms from damage. Why is it that snowmobilers both drink and smoke?
We have come here in the winter to ski, and stayed in Silvergate, three miles away. Snowmobiles are not allowed there, so quiet people get to enjoy winter in Yellowstone Country as it is meant to be enjoyed, in mountain solitude. Colorado is too far away for us to do that anymore.
You can’t go home again. I do not want to go home again. I just want to be here in the Montana I know … harsh climate at times, survival skills required, unimaginable rewards. Cooke City is surrounded by the Beartooth Mountains. Like the town, they are as they were when I was a kid.
Cooke City would not be here save for a piece of legislation called the 1872 Mining Act. Gold was discovered and abandoned mines are all about. The New World Mine nearby was part of one of the largest scams ever pulled off – a Canadian company, Newmont, spun off a subsidiary to run it. It was unprofitable and was polluting everything around it. With the help of the crook Senator Max Baucus, a public land swap was put together. The miners walked away with new resources, and taxpayers were left to reclaim the place. I recall a man named Dave Rovig as part of this scam. He had an office down the hall from where I worked. Is he still alive? Not that I care.
(Steve Kelly can fill us in in details here, get the names and spelling right. One thing he won’t correct me on: Max Baucus is slime.)
Miners came to Cooke City in the late 1800s. Jay Cooke was a Philadelphia financier who was behind much of it. Like now, they could not make a go of it. They needed a railroad spur. There just wasn’t enough ore to justify the investment. The place would not exist today save the failed mining ventures. Mining claims are an avenue to privatizing public land. Every business and home here sits on mining claims. That is its history and its present … never quite enough to make it.
The 1988 Yellowstone Park fires nearly consumed Cooke City. Fire fighters lit a backfire for protection, but winds shifted and the backfire became the fire. It took days of heroics to save the place. The hills above the town still show the dead stumps of that disaster.
But then again, sparing loss of lives, maybe it should have burned. Locals now say that the Park Service deliberately tried to burn the town down. That is not likely. Fires did not destroy the town. A fake virus might. I do not see much other reason behind the scamdemic other than to scare and herd the sheep and put small businesses out of business,