Finding a bar in hot Springs, Mont., is easy: there's Fergie's Pub, right there on Main Street. Finding a bar on your phone is another matter. Hot Springs has no cell-phone service. The closest spot for a decent signal is 15 or 20 miles away, depending on whom you ask and which way they're headed.
Whether that needs to change is an argument that has divided this town's 544 residents. Their debate distills all our ambivalence about our hyperconnected age to one question: Do we really want a cell-phone tower here?
Until recently, the question was moot. Rustic places like Hot Springs aren't high on the list of areas where big companies want to build out their services. But even hinterland hamlets get their day: Alltel and then AT&T started talks with cattle rancher and county commissioner Glen Magera about putting a tower on his land above town. Concerned about jobs at the local landline company, Magera tried to secure it some revenue in negotiations.
Meanwhile, citizens began holding meetings, discussing how the tower might affect their health and lifestyle. Many here say they like to feel removed from society's trappings, to live at a slower pace. Scott Wigton is glad he doesn't have to worry about his employees at Buck's Grocery neglecting customers while they bury their faces in a screen. Workers at the Symes Hotel say their guests feel freed by being unreachable. The high school principal says teachers are thrilled not to have the disruption. Others simply don't like how cell phones seem to encourage distracted or even obnoxious behavior. "More and more, when I go out of town," says Mayor Randy Woods, "I'm glad we don't have cell phones."
People in Hot Springs actually do have cell phones, for use when they're out of town. Residents say they know cell service is convenient and can save lives, especially in such a remote location. And even those who appreciate life off the grid see upsides. Wigton, whose family has run the grocery store for 75 years, says cell-phone service would "connect this little town with the rest of the world."
Despite all the misgivings, Hot Springs is likely going to get its bars. Magera signed a contract with AT&T with approval of the Hot Springs Telephone Co. ("You lose, so you might as well join them," says owner Sandy Prongua.) Still, the cell tower has yet to go up, and AT&T won't say when or if it will.
For now, Hot Springs seems happy enough to wait. "There isn't any cascading, growing voice of people saying, 'Damn it, we need cell-phone service,'" says Robert McDonald, an American Indian who works for the local tribes. "I would equate it more to the nuisance of running over a deer on your way to work."