My wife and I spent most of the week in Glacier National Park, with spotty or no Internet. We were on our way home, stopped in the grocery store Roundup, Montana that advertised “Montana’s Best Doughnuts,” when my phone buzzed. It was a news alert with the Roe v Wade ruling, along with a profane text from my brother, something that accompanies most recent Supreme Court rulings.
Roundup, population 1,742, is the county seat of Musselshell County, population 4,669. Musselshell is 93% white, and Trump’s margin of victory was just a hair under 70% in 2020. Unlike many rural counties, Musselshell experienced slight population growth (roughly 200 people) between the last two census readings. Still, with a population density of 2.5 humans per square mile, there’s lots of room left.
Around 28% of Musselshell county is over 65, versus 16.5% of the US as a whole, though you wouldn’t know it from walking through that IGA store. The Roundup public schools (Go Panthers!) have a total of 166 students in attendance from K-12, and roughly 30 in the graduating class. At least a couple of those kids were working in the store yesterday, and more were waiting to buy doughnuts or deli food.
You might be surprised to learn that the doughnuts were pretty good. I wasn’t, once I saw the bakery in that store. It was clear that the bread and pastries were made from scratch, not trucked in frozen. The general rule of the upper plains is that a local bakery that is still in business is probably at least decent, because Northern European immigrants love their carbs. But take a good look before you buy, and don’t expect anything better than fruit filling out of a can.
The teenage girl checking us out had a combination of bright pink and jet black hair, false eyelashes, and some kind of top that featured a belt made out of black crosses. Not every kid in Roundup wears jeans and cowboy boots. (Her goth look was in sharp contrast to her polite and cheerful demeanor.)
It is hard to overstate the love and attention that rural towns lavish on their children. Local newspapers devote pages of coverage to high school sports and other school news. Many towns have banners hanging from streetlights, each with a picture of a member of the graduating high school class. Each graduate also gets a sponsored picture in the local newspaper, with a paragraph detailing their parents, siblings, and plans after graduation.
While driving out of town, I thought about how most of the kids we encountered would be like my wife and me — people who moved away from their small plains town and only came back occasionally to visit. There’s a lot of talk in Cletus safari pieces about how rural Republicans feel the condescension of city folk, and their resentment drives their votes. Maybe, but the constant exodus of their beloved young people probably cuts a lot deeper than whatever some urban snob writes in the New York Times. Rural towns pour their scarce resources into school kids, and most of them end up moving to either bigger towns in the state, or to big cities out of state. That’s real, not manufactured, rejection and loss.
The movement of rural kids is mainly driven by lack of opportunity in small towns, but I can’t see that the Republican desire to revert to Sharia Law will do anything but accelerate the exodus. It’s easy for a 70 year-old to put up an “abortion stops a beating heart” sign, a common sight along rural plains roads. It’s quite another thing to be a 19 year-old young woman who has to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to get an abortion, or to live somewhere they’ll get hassled if they want contraception.
Montanans were smart enough to enshrine the right of privacy into their constitution, so at least they won’t lose the abortion right because of a trigger law (unlike all the bordering states). But who knows how long that will last. And why stick around to find out? Better to get out of town, get a college degree, and move somewhere where freedom is more than a bumper sticker slogan.