I have neighbors in Livingston, Mont., who have geared up for every potential Armageddon since the Cuban missile crisis. From the cold war to the Gulf War to Y2K (how quaint it seems now, that odd abbreviation), a certain vocal minority hereabouts has been hoarding ammunition, boiling water and stockpiling gold coins in hopes of riding out some vast calamity that will devastate the unprepared while leaving savvy country folk untouched. That was the vision, at least, until last month, when the attacks on New York City and Washington proved to all but the most stubborn of mountain dwellers that that's not the way it's going to be.
The disaster could not have happened farther away. That was the first rebuke to the survivalists. International terrorists, it seems, just aren't interested in Montana, and guns are useless when the enemy is 2,000 miles out of firing range. They're doubly useless when you can't get parts for them. Like so much of the isolated, rural West, Montana is inordinately dependent on UPS and FedEx for supplies, but suddenly such services were grounded. The lack of fresh seafood was a minor annoyance; the stalled shipments of car parts and medicines were serious, as was the disappearance of the tourists who keep Rocky Mountain towns afloat in U.S. currency. An economy based on the trading of beef jerky can't hold up for long. For those few planeless days, our remote Montana valley felt uncomfortably like an actual wilderness. The howling coyotes never sounded so loud.
Worse, our TVs continued to operate, revealing just how psychologically entwined Montanans are with distant urban centers. Though the fact might embarrass some rugged individualists, the Western outback is satellite-TV country; normal transmissions can't make it between the mountains. There's a dish on every cabin, every ranch house. And since the service that many other people and I use features network affiliates from New York City but not a single station from the West, the bad news from Manhattan was local news. Electronics trumped geography. To feel separate from the horror was impossible, and there were times I walked out of my house after long sessions of compulsive viewing and was startled that Livingston was not on fire too.
From a strict mathematical perspective, the toll of the attacks was easy to translate into local terms. There are only about 7,000 people in Livingston, and if what had happened back East had happened here, almost everyone in the town would be dead. Every house, every office, every vehicle, the schools, the stores, the hospital--all empty. The instinctive rural resentment toward city folk, whose perceived wealth and influence can make country folk feel like sharecroppers or peasants, was swallowed up by that awful calculation. The ghost town is a familiar Western image--just drive up into the hills; they're everywhere--and suddenly it was possible to picture another one: ours.