Is east of Billings riding off into the sunset?
I started this website with a very specific purpose; to write to people in southeast Montana about the issues the media wasn’t covering regarding the Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek mine including boring policy stuff, rallies, events, gatherings and public hearings.
The title east of Billings came from my friend Wally McRae. Getting to know Wally and learning from him has been one of the great privileges in my life.
Over coffee he would tell me about how the environmental laws weren’t enforced in eastern Montana. State agencies looking the other way as groundwater was contaminated from the Colstrip coal plant. Politicians treating the region like a sacrifice area. I could keep going.
He said, “no one cares what happens EOB.”
Then and there the idea for an east of Billings blog and photographic site was born. I was slightly naive and energetic and committed. I wanted to make people care. I bought a fancy camera and started teaching myself how to use it.
My goal was to provide information to people in a way that was accessible. The goat stories were just for fun. I never thought that people who didn’t live in southeast Montana would read it but they did; more than I ever imagined. Some came for the goats, some came for the coal, some came for the photos.
But then I stopped. We won. The coal mine and railroad died a glorious death at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. I hoped my blog and photos contributed a little to the victory. I was also tired of coal.
I now write for publications that pay me to write. I now take pictures of other places for people who pay me to do it. Both of these outcomes of starting EOB surprised me. Have you heard of imposter syndrome? I think I might have a little of that.
I’m literally always shocked when an editor comes back to me and says they like what I wrote. Really, I think? You must be mistaking me for someone who knows what they are doing.
What jarred me back into east of Billings was an article by David Crisp in Last Best News about the state of Montana blogging sites. When I started reading it I didn’t expect to be mentioned. Or maybe I was hoping I wasn't going to be mentioned. The guilt of letting the site go dark was creeping up on me but I didn't think anyone noticed.
I was nearing the end of the article and then this,
“East of Billings, by Alexis Bonogofsky, focuses mostly on the joys of life in Eastern Montana, with occasional essays on politics, environmental issues and photography. The site's last political post, in April, was titled 'Why Denise Juneau will beat Ryan Zinke in November.”
My first thought was, well thanks for pointing out how fucking wrong I was about the race. I appreciate that. Second, I don’t write about the joys of living in eastern Montana, I write about goats and coal. I don't even live in eastern Montana. I live south of Billings if we are getting all technical about it. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
Crisp did me a favor though. It made me think about east of Billings again and what it means not just to me but to people with whom I spent countless hours with fighting for a place we all loved. EOB isn’t just a specific geography. I've never thought of it like that. EOB is all the people who have a place that they would do anything to protect; which is pretty relevant in the world we are living in today. EOB is about bringing attention to people and places that get overlooked or ignored.
I have questions, uncertainties and doubts. In the entire scheme of things not many people come to my website; a thousand to a couple thousand per blog if I'm lucky. I wonder if I am wasting my time throwing words out into the sea of internet noise? Also, the time I spend writing each blog is not insignificant.
But then I read something today that gave me the motivation I need to continue writing for EOB. It came from the lead political columnist for Politico who is retiring from his duties after a life long career writing about politics.
“I decline to accept the end of man,” William Faulkner wrote. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. It is the writer’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
Have I lifted a heart? Just once? Just for the most fleeting of moments?
Then I leave you a happy man, one filled with joy. And don’t worry. We will always have each other.
Hope gets me every time.
If I am able to write and occasionally help someone think a little differently, help someone smile or help someone take action against an injustice in this world then it is worth it. But this go around I’ll be broadening the scope of what I write about in the spirit of EOB and the people who live there. If you are worried I’m giving up writing about eastern Montana, don’t be. I’ll continue to write about it and take pictures of its amazing landscapes and people because, in the words of Wally Mcrae, goddamn I love this country.
If you are going to read one thing I've written this year please read this one, it's important.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read what I write. Let’s see what we can do together.