We have good neighbors here at the VX. Well, except for the guy who’s convinced we’re stealing water from him, but we’ve decided he’s a few geese short of a gaggle… so he doesn’t count.
Yesterday we went a-visitin’ to some of our closest neighbors. The Hansons live about 14 miles southeast of us. I’ve known them for a long time — their boys were in 4-H at the same time as me — but never knew them real well until we moved up here last year. Though none of our country borders their ranch, they’ve been really good about checking in on us periodically, and we’ve gone to visit them a couple times now.
A cup of tea for the ladies, a beer for the fellas, our kids playing with the toys they keep on hand for their own grandkids, the men touring through their Hereford bulls then stopping by the shop to check out Mr. Hanson’s collection of coyote pelts… these folks epitomize the meaning of “neighbor” in Eastern Montana.
The Hansons had read my story, http://prairiemom.me/2016/01/08/when-to-panic/, when it printed in the Western Ag Reporter recently. (In the story I tell of going out to look for my husband in single-digit weather, after dark, with the children in tow; turns out his vehicle had broken down and he was walking home.) Mr. Hanson gave me a stern talking-to about what I am to do if anything like that ever happens again: I am not to take the children out of the house, but I am to call the Hansons for help instead!
Most of the people of The Greater Ingomar Area (all 12 of them!) have welcomed us warmly into the community since we moved here last year. But our thirsty neighbor to the south, a greenhorn, could definitely stand to pick up a few pointers on Neighboring in the West… so here goes:
How to Neighbor in the West
- Way out here… you really can’t afford to burn a bridge. You might not agree with the way we do things. We might not agree with the way you do things. But the glory of it is that we’re neighbors, not coworkers or family, and we both have plenty of country to stretch out in. We don’t have to have holidays together. We don’t have to trade work. In fact, it might be better if we don’t. But do try to be civil. What’s the point in not speaking when we run into each other in town? Does that do anybody any good? This is the big open out here and people are few and far between. If you’ve got one neighbor… you might as well make the best of it.
- Have our back and we’ll have yours. We don’t have to talk regularly, but we do have to trust that you’ll let us know if something’s amiss. Keep your fences up. Let us know if our cows are out. Watch for fires on our land. In hard country like this where help might be an hour away, you might as well be neighborly enough that you’d ask for or come to help in an emergency. You might not have the privilege of being self-reliant if something unexpected happened, and how silly would we, or you, feel if any of us missed that one chance to save another’s shorts?
- We don’t own this place. We only work here. The West is increasingly being bought up by wealthy, non-resident employers. We are often balancing our own sanity with the complicated ladder of command that structures this corporate ranch. If you’re mad about something we’re doing, remember that we’re only humans caught up in something bigger than us… and that our employers’ goals are likely a lot different than yours. And some days, ours.
- Sir, you seem to be confused about what a real cowboy is. Real cowboys don’t bump buckles. Please stop trying to convince us that the man who owns your absentee-owner-outfit has more money than our absentee owner. We’re pretty sure you’re wrong, and anyhow, real cowboys don’t brag about the size of their outfit. And they settle problems with a handshake, not a lawyer.
- We don’t steal. This is 2016, not a John Wayne movie. Repping is out of date. If we invite you over for a weaning day, it’s so you can get acquainted with the crew and share a meal with us… not so you can look through the cattle to make sure we’re not stealing your stock. Do your research. We come from an outfit with a reputation of integrity and a history of good neighboring. We have a capable crew horseback looking at brands, and a conscientious bookkeeper tallying the cattle that come in and out of this place, and you can bet your bottom dollar we will return your cow if somehow she ends up in our pasture. It’s the way folks do it in this country.
- We believe in God. And we don’t cheat. Please know that we know: if we were trying to cheat you out of water, we’d be committing homemade sin, and both God and our mamas would be upset. Not only is there enough water for both of us, but we as individuals are equipped with that inner code of honesty and fairness. We would never purposely try to keep your water from getting to you. Folks out here are raised better than that.
- Forgive, forget, and move on. Like as not, this land is going to outlast all of us. We’re only stewards here, and only for a short time. There’s a story about two homestead-era families, the Creeks and the Hayeses, who neighbored each other in the South and could not get along. Both families pulled up stakes and left to homestead in the West… and wouldn’t you know it, they ended up with adjoining homesteads way out in the hills of Montana. Now, a hundred years down the road, we laugh at the foolishness of their predicament. And in a hundred years somebody else will be laughing at us. What seems like a big deal to you right now is, in reality, just a bump in the road. And speaking of roads, if by chance we see you stranded on the side of one, we’ll stop and help you. Hope you’ll do the same.
© Tami Blake