Rube Wrightsman tells readers what to expect when moving to Paradise, Montana.
LIKE DARK BEER AND SQUARE dancing, moving to Paradise, Montana, isn't for everyone. At one time, I worried that the eastern hordes would someday discover this place and turn it into a slice of Manhattan, but that possibility doesn't bother me anymore. Every year, about a dozen people move in and about a dozen move out, often the same ones.
The reason for leaving is always the same: no jobs. It's possible to make a living around Paradise, but not a good one. Most jobs are seasonal, low paying, physically wretched and still hard to find.
In Paradise, people live on their wits and their valor instead of working for "The Man." Being eternally semi employed creates occasional anxieties, but it also brings an elegant sense of freedom. Every day offers the chance of adventure, and those who stay aren't so much the ones who can accept uncertainty as the ones who thrive on it.
Accordingly, the folks around Paradise tend to be a tad different from mainstream Americans. Nestled among these craggy draws and gulches lives a motlev collection of the most independent-minded bunch of merry misfits you're likely to find anywhere in the Galaxy. To say that no two of them are alike is to commit a felonious understatement. It's as if Beethoven, the Sex Pistols, and Homer and Jethro were on the same record album.
In spite of this melange, or perhaps because of it, Paradise lacks the rowdiness and cosmic energy that characterize other parts of the West. No particular bizarreness prevails, because each person has his or her own, and the resulting balance creates a genial amicability. Trolls live in Wyoming, Oregon has elves, and California is overrun with wizards. Paradise is populated by hobbits: sturdy, unassuming folks with furry toes, who cheerily go about their daily business with a modicum of indifference toward the rest of the world, but who can always be counted on in a pinch.
Paradise's resemblance to Hobbiton is its greatest attribute. People still care about each other here, and everyone has a niche in the community, whether thev want it or not. In a place this small, everyone knows who and what everyone else is, and "nobody gets away with nothin'."
In many ways, we're a boondock anachronism. So many people live up in the woods without electricity or plumbing that no one considers it an "alternative lifestyle." In fact, after a while, one gets to believing that Paradise really isn't any different from the rest of the United States. A trip to the city, even a little nerdy one like Missoula, quickly dispels this myth. Moseying around the shopping mall, despite being all duded up for town, the average Paradisian still looks like Jed Clampett. Get one of us in a real city, such as Denver or Seattle, and it's like Attila the Hun at the Bolshoi. It's not that we're crude or lacking in the social graces; our priorities are just a little different. Life in the fast lane is difficult on Forest Service roads, and fashion doesn't count for much in a town where getting an elk brings more status than getting a new Mercedes.
It's a lifestyle that some people like, some don't like and some dream about. Some of those dreamers come to Paradise, and a few even end up staying. They don't come here to find good jobs, because there aren't any. They don't come here to homestead, because no one is going to sodbust their way to financial independence on a 40-acre stump farm so steep and rocky that it's only fit for raising wood ticks and rattlesnakes. The reason people here endure grunt labor and low wages is as elusive and as difficult to explain as the sound of one hand clapping. But as that infamous poet, Jerry Garcia, once put it: "Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right."
On a crisp fall day up in the mountains, coming out with a full load of firewood, the left rear tire goes flat. Nothing for it but to swear and sweat, unload the wood and dig through the empty beer cans and other assorted trash for the jack and lug wrench. Then a miracle happens! Amongst all the junk is a full can of beer that somehow survived the last cookout on the riverbank. After receiving such a Holy Gift, all activity ceases except for popping the ring and lowering the tailgate to use as a bench.
Suddenly, everything stops, and the world is revealed in its timeless clarity. All around, the larch are turning yellow and the mountaintops are dusted with early snow. The smell of pine rides through the air on the sound of the wind, and the afternoon sunlight filters through the dark conifers as if for the first time. Away in the distance and far below, barely visible between two steep ridges, sits the little town of Paradise beside the green ribbon of the river. Even from this far away, it looks like a very humane place to live.
All too soon the beer is finished, and it's time to get on with changing the tire and reloading the firewood, but somehow that brief glimpse of Paradise makes it all worth it.
Rube Wrightsman—philosopher, guitarist, amateur astronomer and master mead maker—writes an award-winning weekly column, "Hey, Rube," for The Clark Fork Valley Press from his cabin in the woods. Once, when asked how he plans to support himself in his old age, Rube replied, "I'll get a shillelagh."
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