We often say we knew when we came to the VX that we were moving farther away from everything… and closer to nothing.
But there is one exception to that rule, and that’s Jordan. We discovered this summer (en route to a ranch rodeo which we were, inevitably, late for) that (in dry weather at least) we are only 68 miles from Jordan. And because people within a 60-mile radius of the actual town claim to be “from” Jordan, we are pretty much just outside city limits.
For the unenlightened reader, let me set the tone:
You know that big spot at center right of the Montana map that’s devoid of roads and water? That’s where Jordan is. It’s 84 miles north of Miles City, with no significant outposts of civilization in between. It’s stranded on Highway 200 right between Sidney to the east and Lewistown to the west (both over 100 miles distant). The Missouri River Breaks (the backdrop for much of C.M. Russell’s historical cowboy artwork) begin their rugged march toward the sea-like Fort Peck Lake just north of Jordan… which is your last stop on the way to the aptly-named Hell Creek Marina.
Founded in 1896 on Big Dry Creek, Jordan hosted a homestead boom in the 1910s. Many of those homesteaders, unfortunately, discovered that they’d been duped into setting up residence on a piece of land not only too small to survive on but at least inhospitable and at worst uninhabitable. Those who survived the homestead era and still live there include tough cows, sheep, wild horses (especially historically; the offspring of those abandoned when homesteads were abandoned), fantastic dinosaur fossils, and, well, folks who prefer to live on the edge of civilization.
As the Garfield County seat and last stop on the road to nowhere, Jordan is basically self-sufficient, serving as a social and shopping center for people from the badlands stretching in every direction. It also boasts the county’s only high school, though there are several K-8 (one teacher) country schools scattered in the hills of Garfield County, which measures in at 4,848 square miles. The population of the town of Jordan at the last census was just over 300; the population of the county was 1,290. I’ll do the Garfield County math for you: that’s 0.27 people per lonely square mile.
The Jordan high school pulls tough, ropey, basketball-savvy ranch kids from the scrub-pine-covered breaks to the north and west and from the desert-dry prairies to the south and east. It’s the only high school I’ve ever been in that has trophy saddles displayed in its front lobby. Jordan was in our sports district when I was in high school in Hysham; their teams were bewilderingly unbeatable.
I always think of Jordan as home to the last of the wild bunch. It’d make a good hide-out. Its cowboys are tough. Its drinkers are the hardest-drinking you’ll find (I have a theory that the farther north you travel in Montana, the harder folks drink… it has something to do with surviving the winters. That said, I’ll take a moment to share this information I found on Wikipedia: Jordan ranks 10th in the U.S. in extreme temperature range. It has tested the limits of the thermometer from the record 58 below in winter to the record 112 above in summer.)
Because it’s so darn remote, Jordan is kind of its own little world. I’ve noticed that Jordan people have their own set of social rules and little regard for what the outside world is up to. Garfield County people are devotedly loyal to their fellow citizens, and they can also be a little radical and old-fashioned (hate to bring this up, but… remember the anti-government Montana Freemen, circa 1996? Yeah, they were from Jordan).
But you know what? I like radical and old-fashioned. And I must say that I like Jordan. And its people. I mean, I practically am a Jordan person. I’m right at city outskirts here 68 miles out of town. And when you have so few neighbors, you think of people who live 30 miles away as your next of kin.
Generally speaking, when you move closer to Jordan, you move farther away from everything else. As I said, Jordan is 68 miles by road to the northeast of us. Ingomar, our “hometown,” is 17 miles southwest of us. Before our move to the VX 16 months ago, we lived 24 miles south of Ingomar, so we are closer to Ingomar now too. But if you’ve ever been to Ingomar, you know there’s not much there except the Jersey Lilly. And don’t get me wrong, I love the Lil. But one can get to the Lil and still need to travel much farther for anything one might need excepting beans, sheepherders’ hors d’oeuvres, cheeseburgers, Pendleton, and postcards. So we travel through Ingomar to get to the rest of the PV Ranch, to get groceries and mail, to get to most social functions, and to get to the interstate that leads to places like Billings and Miles City, where they have modern things like doctors and Wal-Mart and Costco and chain restaurants.
Enter Beau’s imaginary friends.
Along about this past winter Beau came in from feeding cows and announced that he’d met a neighbor from north of us while driving down the county road that goes by our house. Hmmm. I was suspicious. We know the folks who own the pastures that border the VX to the north, and those people bring their cattle in seasonally for summer grazing and then retreat to civilization for the winter, taking their cows with them.
Of course I know that real people live somewhere to the north of us. But in my mind they are Jordan people — inhabitants of the obscure, blurry, boundless, indefinable expanse of Garfield County. Why would they be driving through the VX?
Obviously, very little traffic travels this county road. Yes, you can get to Jordan on said road. It’s a fair-weather passage that ought not be traveled if there’s even been a rumor of moisture. But say you’re on it in dry weather. You would drive 25 miles past our house before you saw sign of another ranch house. Beyond that first ranch house, you would see a few more ranch houses as you drew nearer the highway between Jordan and Miles City, and then you would meet the highway at the hamlet of Cohagen (home to a country school and a Post Office). Then it’s just a 20-mile jaunt on the highway to Jordan from Cohagen.
Therefore, any people living to the north of us would definitely be Jordan people. And yes, I could conceive that sometimes those neighbors might drive by us in dry weather, using our road as a cut-across if they were headed for Billings or an evening at the Jersey Lilly. But for the most part their world — their highway, their route to Miles City, their community at Cohagen — is in the opposite direction of the VX.
Still, Beau started talking about seeing his imaginary friend a lot. Here we are in the middle of nowhere, and the poor guy was starting to imagine he was having chance meetings with interesting people on his daily road of life. I just shook my head doubtfully and went back to sorting laundry.
Fast forward a couple weeks. Beau’s mind conjured up another imaginary friend from the Jordan side. These two “friends,” Beau reported, lived on neighboring ranches to the north and were our two closest neighbors on the Jordan side. Sheesh. I was already dealing with a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old with imaginary friends. Now my husband, too?
I started to wonder at Beau’s mental stability. Were those long hours in the feed truck getting to him? Was he developing a symptom of snow blindness? Were pine trees turning into people on him?
Then one day Beau came in and mentioned that he’d seen one of his new friends on the road and the friend had offered him a slug of homemade moonshine.
That. Was. It. I decided I’d better try to get to the bottom of the story. I grilled Beau on the details. Why were these Jordan people — if they were actually real people — straying down into our territory? I wiggled my eyebrows to express my disbelief.
As they often are with men, the details were vague and disconnected. His story was largely full of holes. According to Beau, he didn’t need to know his new friends’ life stories. He just wanted a slug of moonshine.
After a certain amount of interrogation, I became distracted with dirty diapers and peanut butter and thus decided I had more pressing issues to focus on than Beau’s mental stability. If he wanted to pretend he had new friends hanging out in the Upper Fall pasture, well, fine with me.
Then. One day. The kids and I were out on the county road with Beau when one of Beau’s imaginary friends drove by. I saw him to be a real young man in a real pickup. I discovered that his real wife was dealing with a risky pregnancy which required medical attention in Billings, and so on our dry winter roads he was often driving the cut-across past our house en route to Billings.
The evidence had mounted against me. I had to admit to Beau that, indeed, at least one of these imaginary friends seemed to be real.
Life moved on. The next couple months sped by in a fog of nights disrupted by a still-doesn’t-sleep baby and days made manageable by caffeine and sugar.
Then. One day. The wife of my husband’s imaginary friend called me to invite me to a get-together at Cohagen…
To Be Continued.
© Tami Blake