From the eyes of a visiting Journalist


September 18, 2019

Bryan Smith was in Big Sandy doing an article about Bob Quinn,

Editor Note: I met him walking down the streets of Big Sandy. Bob Quinn introduced him to me. Bryan Smith had 25 years of experience in journalism. I was intrigued. He had attended the University of Maryland to become a journalist. "They have a terrific journalist school there", he said. He's never looked back. He started writing for a newspaper in a small town, and worked his way up to the Chicago Times. Bryan is a long form writer in magazines now doing free-lance work. He mostly writes 5,000 words features.

Bryan has won Writer of the Year twice by the national City and Regional Magazine Association. And other numerous national writing honors.

I asked him what his favorite articles would be and Bryan said he once wrote an article about a woman, who was in a terrible accident and lost her memory completely. She had to relearn everything, how to talk, how to walk, relearn who her children were. She was so depressed she wanted to take her life and yet found a way to rebuild. Bryan had received a letter that informed him because of the article a reader found her own way and decided not to take her own life.

Bryan also wrote a first-person feature about his father of whom he was estranged for 30 years. It was the story of his forgiveness and how it altered Bryan's life.

We talked about how important it is to get people to tell their stories. It is only by sharing those hard times, those redemption times, those times we forgive, that the story becomes powerful.

I asked Bryan what he saw when he walked the streets of Big Sandy.

One of the best parts of my job as a magazine journalist is traveling to places I might otherwise never see. There was the trip to Santiago, Chile, to write an article for Men's Health. And the journey to India to wander the turmeric spice fields for the same magazine. Often my work takes me to big cities, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and I find something to enjoy in them all.

Some of my favorite trips, however, have been to the smallest towns, especially when those places sit in the midst of vast natural beauty.

Which is why I was so excited about an assignment from The Rotarian, the official magazine of The Rotary, to visit the town of Big Sandy. I hope the readers and residents there are not offended that I had not heard of it. I knew of the more populated burgs and points of interest, of course-Billings, Missoula, Great Falls. I knew about Glacier National Park. But other than a cross-country train trip through the state a lifetime ago, I had never ventured into The Big Sky Country.

I landed in Great Falls on a Monday and was going to write that I wound my way north to Big Sandy, an hour and a half away by my iPhone navigation app, but of course, you don't really wind up Interstate 87. You settle in for a straight shot, rising and dipping in places, but hardly worried about hairpin turns.

I didn't know what to expect as I made my way past Fort Benton and then Loma. The 2010 census told me that it was a town of 598 souls, give or

take; Wikipedia said its claim to fame was that from 1997 until 2009 it had been home to Big Bud 747, the largest farm tractor in the world.

All the clichés sprung to mind – one traffic light, a general store, sidewalks that roll up at 7 p.m. Those were all true, but what a poor summary of your lovely town.

One of the things I always look for when I drive to a small hamlet's downtown is whether it still has a newspaper. I love reading local news and the local paper provides so much richer of a picture than a Wikipedia entry. So, I was delighted, to see the green façade of The Mountaineer and that it was a going concern.

It is at the behest of the newspaper's new owner, Lorrie Merrill, that I'm writing this. She asked me to set down some of my impressions of Big Sandy as someone who has traveled a little bit.

I enjoyed most everything about it-even when on a Monday night I had trouble finding a place to get something to eat. Strike that. I couldn't find a thing, an inconvenience remedied the next day when I stocked up at the grocery store.

What I saw was the sort of lovely, history-rich town that informs so much of the history of Montana: a place that persists, defiantly and proudly, when so many forces-from the punishing winters to the invading forces of the Big Business to the new realities of brick-and-mortar killing shopping websites.

There was football practice in the Magic Hour, the sound of grunts and pads crashing together against the Bear Paw Mountains, painted orange and purple with long slivers of brightest gold by the quickly setting sun. There was the main street, Johannes Avenue, with the Bear Paw Coffee Shop and Deli, the senior citizens center, and the Odd Fellows Temple; the Mint Bar and Pep's. There was the building

bearing, without controversy, the 10 commandments and The Motel (which motel? my editor asked. "The Motel," I answered. "That's the name of it.)

There were tidy homes on streets where children could play unassailed. There were struggles-the Wells Fargo pulling up stakes, the closing of the hardware store for lack of business.

And there were the people, every one of whom was friendly and welcoming, if slightly wary of the new face, to me.

There was the beauty. The last daylight pouring onto the foothills of the blue-black Bear Paw range seem to set fire to long slices of the plains. I thought I was being clever when, under the endless blue vault overhead marred by not a single cloud, I turned to my colleague and said, "I wonder why they call it Big Sky Country?" The name, I did know, came from the seminal A.B. Guthrie novel.

But until you experience it, it's a little like trying to get the full effect of the Northern Lights. Can't be done.

So those are my impressions, superficial though they may be. I didn't have time to dig into that rich history, though I have since done some reading on the homesteader rush, paged through the thick history of Big Sandy families book on a table at the coffee shop.

But, standing in wheat fields, riding in a combine, walking down the main drag, crunching down the gravel roads, watching football practice in the gloaming, and ducking into the grocery store and coffee shop and library and the offices of The Mountaineer, I felt it. And I loved it. And didn't want to leave.


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