A friend of mine who ranches in eastern Montana asked me if I had seen a political commercial from Troy Downing attacking Senator Tester. I hadn’t.

I looked it up and watched Downing, who recently moved to Montana from California, strut around like a cock in front of some fighter jets (if you saw my roosters you would know what I say is true). Then you see a Jon Tester impersonator sitting on a small tractor playing a trumpet getting buzzed by a jet. He makes fun of Tester for being an elementary music school teacher and a farmer.

Wow.

It is a tempting position to take that politics is so out of control now that political ads aren’t worth reacting to. Some might argue I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But today, right now, I can’t ignore this one. I am so blown away by the arrogance and ego of Downing that it is hard for me to articulate, in a thoughtful, calm way, how angry it made me.

Last month, I went to North Dakota to visit my 94-year-old great uncle who fought in World War II. He is a farmer. His dad was a farmer. His grandpa was a farmer. His mother was a teacher. His sister, my grandmother, was a teacher. You get the point.

Oh, and he also plays the violin. He taught himself during the Great Depression to pass the time and so he could play music for the community after harvest and planting. He told me they would roll up the rugs in their two story white farm house and dance the night away. He also brought the violin to Osaka, Japan and played for the men he was stationed with. He said when he played, the men would dance with each other since there weren't any women around.

I'll stop. The unmanliness of that is probably making Downing super uncomfortable.

The other side of my family homesteaded in Conrad, Montana. They were farmers. My partner’s family homesteaded near Williston, North Dakota. His grandmother was a school teacher, his grandfather and great-grandfathers were farmers. They all played instruments, lots of instruments, as many as they could get their hands on because they understood the value of music and community.

My sister and I play the piano. My dad played the trombone. He even received a music scholarship to attend Rocky Mountain College.

Somehow Downing wants us agree with him that people who play music are what? Effeminate? Weak? What? I can’t even wrap my head around this. If Downing believes this and thinks it is a valid criticism then he needs to use his words and say it instead of using innuendo and a pathetic attempt at humor.

I believe Montana still has a shot at overcoming the toxicity of national partisan politics but people like Downing aren’t helping us, instead he’s trying to drag us down into the muck with him.

To Downing, the people who grow food for us, educate our children, and create music that help make life beautiful, aren't worthy of respect. It is astonishing really, that someone who wants to represent Montanans would denigrate who we are and where we came from.

If he is so concerned about being accepted as a “real” Montanan, a good first step would be to show some respect to our history and the people whose professions are integral to our democracy.

Here is what the commercial told me about Troy Downing. He is small-minded. He is mean. He doesn’t understand what governing entails. He is incapable of speaking about policies and issues so instead he calls people names. He doesn’t understand Montana or Montanans.

However, I’m not going to give up on this guy quite yet. I’ll send him an invitation to my next “Don’t Be A Dick” training. I doubt he’ll come to it but if he did, I promise he’d learn a couple things that would help him in his political career.

For instance, I would tell him that even when you feel like telling someone to go fuck themselves, it is better if you take a deep breath, think about what you are going to say, use your words, and then write a calm, thoughtful blog about it.

Dear Corey,

Six days ago you sent me a message from the past. You had traveled back in time to try to save the Otter Creek coal mine from its future, or I guess to be more accurate, the lack thereof.

Your brilliantly crafted email was an argument to encourage the Montana State Land Board to lease the Otter Creek coal tracts.

[Well, we really can’t call it an argument now can we Corey? It was more like you just decided to write down a fleeting thought you had without any real evidence or facts to back you up, but that’s not important now days right? We just say whatever we feel like even if it doesn’t make sense or is an outright lie. But that's not important, the important thing is your unwavering and illogical commitment to the Otter Creek project.]

To be honest Corey, I didn’t think you had it in you.

In the limited spare time you have from your day job as Montana’s Secretary of State spending taxpayer dollars searching for non-existent voter fraud, you managed to somehow build a small time machine in order to travel back in time and try to save an expensive coal mine project that the surrounding community didn’t want and there was no market for.

It's courageous. Really.

From the past, you wrote,

“The Otter Creek coal tracts will bring economic activity of $5 billion to Montana. Billion. Billion. Billion.”

Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion.

[Oops, sorry, I got distracted writing the word billion over and over again for no apparent reason.]

Are you still there? Have you managed to stop natural gas drilling and save the coal markets?

Wow. Corey. I just re-read the email and realized that you didn’t travel back in time. The email was dated March 2018, not March 2008.

I am really disappointed. You’re not the time traveling hero I thought you were.

And, I have to say, there are some sentences that really stuck out to me like,

“The current land board is dinking around.”

[Super weird word choice by the way. You don't help your case by using words like 'dinking', but hey, you do you.]

Correct me if I’m wrong Corey, but the current Land Board is made up of all Republicans besides Governor Bullock. I guess what you are saying is that the Republicans are not doing their job but the Democrats did do their job in 2010 when the Land Board leased the tracts to Arch Coal.

Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, that’s the way you feel about it.

And then you wrote this, which makes me think you really were speaking to me from the past.

“Coal will be America’s primary source of energy for the coming decades. That is a fact.”

I think it’s time someone had this talk with you and it should have happened a long time ago. It’s my fault. I never expected you would make it this far. I guess I should have because when you keep running for different offices over and over again sooner or later you're bound to make it right?

There is a government organization called the U.S. Energy Information Administration, EIA for short. EIA collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment. They have a website with information on it, where you can do something called research.

If you go to EIA’s website, you can read that coal is not our largest source of energy. In 2016, natural gas was 34% of U.S. electricity generation and coal was 30%. The coal percentage is expected to keep declining over the next couple of decades.

There are so many gems in your email but I have go make hay while the sun is shining so just one more thing.

In your last paragraph you wrote,

“Let’s provide leadership from the Land Board and develop the Otter Creek tracts. The revenue to Montana from this single act will dwarf all other Land Board activities combined.”

I know this might be hard for you to hear so you should probably sit down.

In order for the State of Montana to make new money off the Otter Creek coal tracts, there would have to be someone who wanted to lease them. Arch Coal spent quite a bit of money the first time they were leased and failed pretty spectacularly. There is no coal company with enough capital to invest in a mine and a railroad that no one wants and no one needs.

A coal company would have to have billions of dollars to lease the coal, build the mine and build a railroad. Billions of dollars they don’t have.

Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion. Billion.

[Oops, sorry, I got distracted writing the word billion over and over again for no apparent reason.]

Oh yeah, and they’d have to have someone that wants to buy the coal. It's called a market. And there isn't one.

So keep tilting at windmills man, I’m sure it’s a good use of our taxpayer dollars.

Sincerely,

Alexis

I think you tried, dad. I really do.

In the dark I can move through the old farmhouse. Easy. Quiet. My muscle memory knows every corner, every light switch location, the subtle slope of the living room where the foundation is sinking into the earth, and where the trim has been worn down from three generations of our family’s hands lightly touching the edge of doorways.

I wonder what it was like for you when you brought my sister into this house, old even then, for the first time, new parents. Mom told me you almost passed out when she told you she was pregnant.

The sleigh bells on a leather strap that hang on the front door are still there. The old refrigerator finally gave out. I’m having a hard time getting rid of it. It’s still sitting on the porch, probably irritating mom. It's real classy.

When I walk around this house I can’t help but run into you. You are always here. I just have to hit play in my head and can watch you struggle to put on your work boots with five hunting dogs vying for your attention or watch you stand over the stove frying up some sausage you just made in the butcher shop, me coming in from behind snatching pieces.

When you died, I worried I’d forget you. And now, three and a half years later, I’m starting to lose some of the exactness of my memories; grief sharpened them, time is now softening them. But the house holds them for me.

***

Do you remember that time we both fell asleep on the couch listening to Kris Kristofferson on vinyl when I was around eight? When you were eight your dad was making you fight bigger neighborhood boys. You got beat up until one day you were stronger than everyone else.

A friend of ours who met you once, in a pleasant encounter, told us later, "strikes me as a dangerous man."

He saw something in your eyes.

***

In this house, I can watch you stack wood, a proper stack, all the way up to the ceiling. I see you walk behind me while I’m eating breakfast at the counter and poke me in the sides to make me jump. I see you walking in the door exhausted from a day of busting tires at the store, or plowing snow, or cutting wood. I hear the phone ring in the middle of the night and see you walking down the stairs, knowing it’s a service call and you have to drive somewhere and change a tire.

In this house that we both know so well, in late fall, I hung up the phone and walked into the living room, the one that is sinking slowly into the earth, and Mike put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted so badly to keep walking. I heard mom in the kitchen. I didn’t want him to open his mouth but he did. "Don’t," I thought. But he had to. You would be happy he was there for me, dad, he’s a good man, but you knew that.

“Your dad shot himself.” Mike said. He was strong for me.

Do you remember the first time you met him? You shook his hand and said, “if you make her happy, I’m happy.” Thank you for that.

The mind works so quickly. In a split second I thought, “why would you say something like that to me?” and then “but he’s not dead right?” and then I collapsed on the wood floor.

***

I want to ask you about the day you told your mom that your little sister took too many pills and drank too much vodka. I remember it so clearly. When you found out, you and I got in the truck and drove to grandma’s. We took the elevator up four floors. We didn’t talk. I was scared of you sometimes. My grandmother opened the door and saw your face. I saw her buckle and sway. That is what I must have looked like to Mike.

You said, “She’s dead Ma.” You always called her Ma. And then you grabbed her for a hug. It was a tight, big hug that felt like you were being swallowed.

After you let her go, she composed herself. She wasn’t crying but you were. She asked you how. You told her. She said, “Well, I guess that was a waste of money on rehab.”

I can feel the stillness in the room.

Now this memory is only mine.

***

When is it appropriate to tell these things about a family? I don’t think you’d mind. In fact, I know you wouldn’t. There’s a lot more to tell.

***

I am glad now that it was this house that held me up when I fell, that I was in the house you loved. We sat in the kitchen all day. I don’t remember what we talked about but it seemed right that we were all sitting around the old kitchen table that hasn't moved in decades. I know now that a place can make pain and grief easier to bear. Every time I consider tearing it down and building something new, I am stopped because of what it holds for me.

When I fall asleep in the bedroom that I’ve always known, I dream that you are not dead. In these dreams we are talking and I am flooded with relief. You dying, I think, that was just a big mistake. Thank god.

When will those stop, do you think?

***

Do you remember when you were in rehab in Colorado and I came to visit? We broke the rules and you came out to my car to see Lena. You weren't supposed to leave the campus. I was nervous we would get caught. You were always breaking rules. She whined she was so happy to see you.

I was having a hard time, the hardest time I could remember, and for a moment you weren't thinking about your own pain.

You held on to my hand while I talked. You gave me a huge hug, my ribs hurt, and you didn’t let go.

I don’t want to write about human shit. I really don’t. There are hundreds of other things I’d rather write about and should be writing about. But I feel compelled because the last couple of years, while hunting, I came across five piles of human shit right next to or directly on public land parking areas. Huge piles of people shit. Sometimes there were unnecessarily large wads of toilet paper on top of the piles. Sometimes I’d see long strands of toilet paper with brown streaks flying off over the prairie grass, getting hung up on sage brush. When I first considered writing about this topic I thought I might go in to detail about my shitty experiences, but I think you can probably imagine what it is like. If you’ve spent any time in the woods, you’ve most likely had similar ones. Be thankful I didn't include photos of these finds. Although, to the people whose shit I found, I might offer a piece of unsolicited advice: eat better food. These piles of shit, although the most disgusting and most memorable, are not the only things I’ve found scattered about our public lands when I’m hunting. There is a type of public land user who seems to think our shared landscapes - places that were set aside for wildlife, recreation and the nourishment of our soul - are a dump. People who think these places exist only to be used how they see fit and treated carelessly. I find empty beer cans lying in my path. I find old bike helmets, used condoms, candy bar wrappers, energy drink cans, empty shotgun shells, used hand warmer packets, toilet paper and, of course, human shit. Sometimes I find animals that someone has killed and left lying - proving to his buddies what a man he is. I find ruts and tracks where people drove in places they shouldn’t have. In my walks through the prairies and the woods I never fail to find the evidence that this type of public land user has preceded me. I doubt anyone who treats our public lands like this can be reached through an ethical appeal. Although, I do point to these experiences when hunters complain about some private landowners not allowing public hunting. The stories I’ve heard from ranchers would make any ethical hunter cringe in embarrassment. This may seem like a small problem to some readers compared to the current threats to our public lands; selling them off, shrinking the boundaries of protected areas, impacts from climate change, and our current Interior Secretary’s fetish with energy dominance. The list goes on and on. To me though, all the threats, including trash on our public lands, come from the same mentality. They come from the person who thinks public lands are only places to be used, places to extract from, places for more and more consumption, whether the prize be game, oil, coal, gas or timber. I was struck by a passage out of Wendell Berry’s essay A Native Hill. And it made me think some of what our public lands need is not more owners, but more friends.
“The false and truly belittling transcendence is ownership. The hill has had many owners, but it has had few friends. But I wish to be its friend, for I think it serves its friends well. It tells them they are fragments of its life. In its life, they transcend their years.”
**Photos of trash provided by a friend to our public lands, Nancy Anderson Porter.

The 2018 east of Billings calendar is ready to order. The calendar is 8.5 x 11 in full-color with some of my favorite photographs I've taken this year in eastern Montana. You'll see big landscapes, big skies, big sandstone rocks, and some iconic eastern Montana wildlife. This year the calendar is designed by a talented graphic designer out of Helena, Luke Duran, who also is the photo editor for Montana Outdoors magazine.

Important note: I won't start shipping the calendars until December 1st. If you need them shipped faster than 2-3 day priority shipping, please send me a direct message.

The cost this year is $15.00 per calendar + $6.65 USPS priority flat rate shipping.

Here are the ways to get your calendar: 

1. Paypal:

If you would like to pay by credit card online please click on the Buy Now button and follow the instructions provided by PayPal.


2. Check

If you would like to pay by check, you can send a check made out to me, Alexis Bonogofsky, 2020 Tired Man Road, Billings, MT 59101. $15/calendar plus a flat $6.65 shipping rate. Once I receive the check, I will put the calendar/s in the mail.


3. East of Billings ArtWalk Show on December 1, 2017

I have a show at ArtWalk Billings on December 1 at the Downtown Billings Alliance at 2815 2nd Ave N, Billings, MT 59101 from 5 - 9 p.m. You can come by there to pick up the calendars and see the rest of the show. We'll have beer and wine and music by Ed and John Kemmick!

As always, I appreciate your support!

Alexis

Young willow trees slap me in the face as I weave my way through the island. I can’t see more than two feet in front of me even with my headlamp on. I’m tripping on dead cottonwood branches and occasionally stepping into pools of water. I have cockleburs in my hair, stickers in my legs, and my stomach is growling.

“F****** goats.”

If you think it would be fairly easy to find a whole herd of goats in a relatively small area even at night, you’re wrong. You don’t know anything about goats. They don’t care about you or your life or what you have to do the next day. They do what they want.

I am down on my hands and knees, belly crawling through a particularly dense area of vegetation. I’ve gone too far to turn back and try to find an alternate route. Lena, my border collie, has tried to abandon me twice already. It is 9:00 p.m. on a Monday and we have been looking for the goats for over an hour and a half.

When the water is low on the Yellowstone River during late summer and early fall, a large island near our farm becomes accessible to livestock. It's a jungle: willows, cottonwoods, Russian olive, tamarisk, woody debris piles – all packed in as tight as can be. The goats hit the island hard in the fall, going straight for the leafy spurge and the other noxious weeds they love.

Tonight, they didn’t come back to the barn. Ungrateful bastards. I take care of them: feed them, doctor them, make sure they have a good life and they repay me with a late night trek through a river bottom.

I know this island. I have played on it since I was a kid, following the game trails, swimming in the river and exploring, but right now, in the pitch black, it feels unfamiliar. I can’t see any lights that would help orient me besides the red flashing radio antennas that I occasionally glimpse through the trees. Walking through the willow trees is disorienting and I feel like I’m walking in a circle.

The movie the Blair Witch Project pops into my mind. It doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that I am about to stumble upon an old cabin with a crazy witch in a corner waiting to kill me. It would be the goats’ fault and I bet they wouldn’t even care.

As I exit the willows onto a sandy beach I hear a loud KABOOSH. It sounds like a large person doing a cannonball into a pool. I look over and see a dark mass moving through a small side channel of the river. It’s a very angry beaver. Lena runs to the edge of the water with her ears up.

“Sorry Mr. Beaver,” I say. I turn and head west.

KABOOSH!! It’s louder this time. I quickly turn, feeling like he is right behind me and he is. He sensed victory as I retreated down the beach and he swam as close to me as he could for one more “f*** you” tail slap. I think about the fisherman in Belarus who was bitten to death by a beaver, and all he was doing was trying to take its picture. Ok, so no Blair Witch death for me; Death by beaver bite it is. Still I’m sure the goats won’t care either way.

We walk. We walk some more. We get on the four-wheeler and Lena sits on my lap. We drive up and down the river. Raccoons are up in the Russian olive trees eating the berries. Owls fly by carrying tiny rodents. And the goats, well, the goats are probably bedded down chewing their cud, most likely somewhere fairly close to me, but they’ll stay still and quiet because they're assholes. I’ve probably already walked by them numerous times.

A plus is that no one has called yet to tell me my goats are in their yard or running wild in the nearby trailer park. Not that that has ever happened before. There is one neighbor whose number I have programmed in to my phone whose first name is “the goats are out,” and last name is, “stop whatever you are doing and pick up the phone now.”

We give up and go home. I worry about them all night. There are a couple old does with the herd and it wouldn’t take much for a coyote to take them down. But they are goats, not sheep, which means they try to avoid death, not run towards it.

The next morning we find them bedded down next to one of the sloughs in a place I didn’t think to look the night before. As we walk up to them some of them stand and stretch in the sun and others keep snoring, oblivious to our presence.

This is how the conversation went.

Me: Hey!

Goats: (sleep)

Me: (louder) Hey!! Do you know what you put me through last night? I was looking for you for hours.

Goats: (shrug)

Me: Seriously, you are all really lucky that one of you isn’t dead.

Goats: (stretch)

Me: Well, are you gonna follow me or what?

Goats: (chew cud)

Me: Will you please follow me?

Goats: (look up)

Me: Pretty please?

I lure them with a fresh branch off a cottonwood tree to show them the path back to the gate they need to go through. They love cottonwood leaves so they begin to follow me slowly, unsure if I can be trusted. Twenty feet from the gate the smallest doe, and the leader of the herd, sees a part of the fence where ground dips, making more space than usual between the bottom wire and the ground.

If you think a full grown goat is not able to fit under a six inch gap between the ground and wire, you’re wrong. You don’t know anything about goats. They don’t care about you or your life or if you have time to fix fence that day. They do what they want.

I turn just as the little goat sticks her head under the wire and begins to belly crawl through.

Me: The gate is right here. You can’t walk an extra 20 feet?

Goat: (continues to belly crawl)

Me: Seriously?

I watch as the entire herd, all of whom are two to three times the size of the little goat, follow her underneath the fence.

Me: F****** goats.

Once upon a time in land not so different than our own there was city built along a mighty iconic river with towering mountains to the west and never ending prairie to the east. It was the largest city in the state.

During one of the waning days of summer a council of citizens, who were elected by the residents of the city to make decisions for the good of the people, gathered for their weekly meeting. They had an important decision to make: whether or not to allow medical marijuana shops to open within their fair city.

Citizens came in droves and lined up to speak. Many gave heartfelt and compelling testimony about the ways medical marijuana improved their quality of life, helped them kick opioid addiction, and made cancer treatment bearable.

And then one man stood. We shall call this man Jeff. Jeff ran an organization in a nearby town that protected the citizens of the state from imaginary things. We shall call this organization the Family Foundation. Jeff was nervous but he steeled himself for his testimony.

He thought, "If not now, when? If not me, who?"

Jeff walked up to the podium and cleared his throat. He told the council that he knew a man, a man who lived in a city not so far away, who had trouble selling a commercial building because it was next to a medical marijuana dispensary. He paused for dramatic effect.

"The smell," he said, "we have to consider the smell."

"Nailed it," Jeff thought to himself, with a little fist pump he hoped no one noticed.

Some members of the council solemnly nodded as he spoke. "Yes," they thought, "Jeff makes a good point, we must consider the smell. The residents of our town should not be asked to smell the smell of weed if they don’t want to smell the weed. And what if someone at some point is a little inconvenienced when they try to sell their commercial building?"

"How much can we ask of this community," they thought?

As the council considered the wise words of Jeff, outside, there were three nearby oil refineries along the banks of the mighty river. Occasionally, or maybe frequently, those refineries flared off some gas and stuff, the smell of chemicals and sulfur so ubiquitous that most citizens didn’t notice it anymore. The smells of the refineries were famous throughout the state.

Jeff continued. He spoke of the evils of the marijuana. It is a gateway drug. It is addictive. Addiction is bad, said Jeff. If you allow this, you, the government, are encouraging an addiction.

As the council members considered the evils of addiction, thousands of citizens were in one of the 127 casinos playing at one of the 2,229 gaming machines within the city limits. These citizens weren’t at the council meeting — because they were gambling — but that’s only because they were certain that the council was looking out for their best interests. They weren’t addicted or anything. Also, in this community, there were 82 painkiller prescriptions for every 100 people.

One council member thought about the stiff whiskey he was going to have when he got out of this interminably long meeting.

Jeff went on.

"Marijuana tears at the moral fabric of our society," he said. "It destroys families. And the children, he said, we must protect the children."

As the council members considered the moral fabric of their society, outside there were around 30, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, “spas” and “massage parlors” in this town. They were open 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week and were located all over town; on main roads, in shopping centers and one was even across from a local high school. The windows were darkened and the neon lights never shut off.

CREDIT.ALEXISBONOGOFSKY.-8719

These spas were places where men, no matter their standing in the community — doctors, lawyers, politicians, truckers, mechanics — could go and pay for a hand job, or maybe a blow job or maybe even sexual intercourse with young Asian women whenever they wanted. Ride your bike or park your car a little bit down the street and throw on a hat and you’re good to go.

Many of these women have their passports taken, their visas confiscated and are forced under the threat of violence to have sex with strange men. They are moved around to keep them uncertain and scared about their surroundings.

These women are slaves, they are the face of human trafficking.

If a man had enough money, he could buy a 14-year-old girl for $900 for the first hour, $800 for the second and if he wanted to keep her for three or more hours, the price keeps going down.

CREDIT.ALEXISBONOGOFSKY.-8718

But this story is coming to a close boys and girls. In the end, seven out of the eleven council members determined it was in the best interest of the community not to allow medical marijuana shops within the city limits. And we were all saved, oops, I mean the people of this imaginary city were all saved from a smell of marijuana and most importantly, the horrendous impacts of people feeling better by smoking or eating pot if they have cancer or another disease.

Jeff was pleased. He could now focus all of his efforts on making people scared of transgender people. Don't thank him though, he's just doing his moral duty to the citizens of this state.

The end.

If you want more information about human trafficking and what you can do to help, you can start with the Polaris Project.