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Barn dance

August 31, 2009

You guessed it, a dance in a barn.  I went to one on Saturday night at a ranch 10 miles north of the reservation.  An elderly ranch couple cleared out their barn for the birthday celebration of the husband, for which friends from far and wide descended upon the barn to dine and dance late into the night (“late” being about 11:30pm for the crowd of mostly sixty and seventy year olds!).  My friend Ernie and I had a blast dancing to old two-step and polka tunes among his dad’s friends, who tried to recruit us to join the Billings polka club.  Who knows, maybe we will!

According to Ernie, barn dances used to be held every month at different ranches across the area, but as more and more folks have left the ranching life behind, the dances have died off with the exception of this annual birthday party.  It makes me sad to know that this fun-for-the-whole family tradition will likely end with the passing away of the elderly generation that still participates in it. 

Having spent a full year now in the rural West, I am very much able to empathize with conservative folks who resist change and so-called “progress.”  Many old-west towns and cities are becoming inaccessible to the people who grew up in them as wealthier individuals from the coasts buy up more and more of the land to support hobby ranches and getaways.  I can see the transformation occurring in towns such as Sheridan, WY, and Bozeman, MT, where the cowboy bars and ranch-supply stores are turning into upscale restaurants, lounges, art galleries, and boutiques. 

I feel defensive myself about the waning popularity of country bars, which seem to be converting to jazz/blues lounges and hip-hop and karaoke joints.  I sense the homogenizing elements that non-locals have been bringing to the area in the last decade or so and it makes me worry about whether the Montana I’ve fallen in love with will still exist a few decades from now.  I think of Jamey Johnson’s lyrics, “Who’s gonna ride them away when the last cowboy’s gone?”  Where will the western pleasure seekers find the true elements of western culture when all of the working ranches are gone and there is no more employment for genuine cowboys?

When that happens, Montana and Wyoming won’t be any different from Vermont or Massachusetts – they will simply have bigger mountains.  I wish more of the folks who transplant themselves from the coasts to the West would come with more of an interest and desire in immersing themselves in the local culture, not just the gorgeous local landscape; but it seems a lot of the people who move here want to transplant their accustomed culture and lifestyle with them.  It’s a shame to drive through a place like Bozeman, MT, and feel as if I’m in State College, PA.  If diversity is the spice of life, we might have a flavorless future.

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