Rushing headfirst into the apocalypse: Can Netflix save the world?

Communicating the message of climate change is the main reason I started writing this newsletter. I figured I’d try and work through this existential crisis with the people I’m closest to, and then once we figured it out, we could all use that messaging to save the world, or whatever.

This weekend, between NBA Playoff games, I watched “Our Planet” the new Netflix nature documentary that represents a fundamental shift in how mainstream films portray the world around us. 

It’s a version of “Planet Earth” for the climate change era.

Not since “An Inconvenient Truth” — and really not even then — has a film been able to depict the gravity of the situation human beings have gotten ourselves into. Even the title “Our Planet” implies a sense of ownership that something like “Planet Earth” doesn’t.

The documentary shows dying polar bears surrounded by melting ice. It shows dying coral reefs, and the death of fish that is likely to happen because of the dying coral reefs that could likely be gone in the next decades. 

The portrayal of death is one thing, and it’s powerful, but it’s powerful in the way that attending a funeral is powerful. You develop a desire to live a life that will be fondly remembered by those around you, and it lasts for awhile, but it’s not often life-changing.

But the more powerful part of the film are the parts showing the remarkable beauty of the world around us that we’re at risk of losing.

For example, I didn’t know that 90 percent of sharks have died across the planet. Sharks? Even sharks? I didn’t know that. In one scene, a school of sharks chases a fish, showing the dominance a top predator can have, but it also makes sure that you realize the fragility even those at the top of the food chain are feeling.

The breathtaking scenes provide a reprieve from the doom and gloom, though they’re transparent telling you — hey, this cool thing is happening, but it’s only happening in this small area because humans killed them all, and also soon it may not happen at all if you don’t do anything.

Sure, the film feels like an invasion on your personal time, on your personal space, and it’s an impending sense of doom on your free time. But at least someone is making this film, and people are watching it.

The film even offers suggested action our society can take and tells you: “The future doesn’t have to be like this.”

“Our Planet” is a magical journey turned into a giant *gulp* that drains in the blood in your faith, forms a pit in your stomach and forces you to look yourself in the mirror.

I would call it a bait-and-switch, if it weren’t just showing our reality.


Sorry it’s been a bit since I last wrote, but hey, just because you start something and then you get busy doesn’t mean you should give up.

In the time since I last wrote, I’ve published some things that matter, and worked on some other things that will matter once they get published.


I generally try not to include too much New York Times in this because of pay wall reasons, but also they do very good work, and it’s essential reading, so sorry for including them too much.

The New York Times Magazine published a “Climate Issue.” I’m going to be honest that I’m not very far into it, but stories include the reckoning between climate change and capitalism, how companies like Exxon Mobil are hedging against the apocalypse and how the Pinkertons, a modern security firm, are preparing for climate change.

From ruined bridges to dirty air, EPA scientists price out the cost of climate change

The U.S. Government is still working for the people, despite the disbelief of some people at the top.

Want to Escape Global Warming? These Cities Promise Cool Relief

“Still I like the quiet of Duluth in the winter.”

Unless you know people flock there to avoid climate change.

Climate change is making allergy season worse

I’m having trouble breathing already, and there was snow on the ground this morning.

Midwestern Towns Prepare to Navigate More Flooding (and a Climate-Denying President)

Sean Neumann gets a Friend of the Newsletter mention here. Sometimes our friends are out here doing cool stuff, and Sean, when he’s not busy touring, is out here writing about important things like climate change and WWE. Catch Ratboys on tour.

What I’ve Been Working On:

Guardians of the Gulch: How locals of all political stripes banded together against mining proposals

Speaking of friends doing dope shit, here’s a story I wrote about the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, many of whom I consider my friends.

Volatile pesticide to be sprayed on soybeans and cotton starting this year

“This is absolutely going to be a disaster,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Thanks for reading.



Rushing headfirst in the apocalypse: A pressing issue and unremarkable options

People can handle the truth. 

That’s the fundamental thing that I must believe as a journalist. People deserve to know what is happening in the world, and when they have that information, they can make better decisions on their future and the future of the world around them.

The thing that continues to haunt me about the 2016 presidential election is the lack of dialogue about climate change. The differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump couldn’t have been more apparent, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, yet climate change – the most pressing issue facing the United States and the entire world – wasn’t addressed at all. Not in the debates. Not in commercials. Not really even in news articles.

The differences were obvious, so what’s the point of focusing on them? I guess that’s the logic that followed. Yet the future of the planet was at stake. And people need to be reminded of those stakes, but they weren’t.

So far, that lack of dialogue has had dire consequences. The Trump administration is slowly but surely destroying the environmental progress made under the Obama administration, as demonstrated in this week’s stories. Though those stakes are incredibly high, maybe the direness of the situation is now more apparent because Trump was elected president.

Maybe if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, we could have met the Paris climate agreement, but what would the end goal be? If she’s elected, maybe people don’t realize the problem at hand and maybe we can’t mobilize the way that’s necessary. Maybe we continue on the slow march toward death, rather than realizing we need to do something. Maybe. I don’t know. No one does.

Maybe that’s the problem with the overall problem of climate change. The problem is so insurmountable that doing something is overwhelming and difficult. Maybe that’s why people our age have such a hard time dealing with it all.

Combine climate change with student debt, low wages, a lack of health care, everything being sprayed with pesticides, and doing something becomes so difficult that it’s almost impossible. Taken together, all of those things might mean that you don’t want to do anything, even laundry, even tying your shoes, even getting a winter coat that zips up or sewing on the button that fell off. Maybe you just want comfort.

So far, I have been skeptical of every Democratic presidential candidate for 2020.

I like them all, but I don’t like any of them. None of the announced assortment of Senators, Governors and other politicians seem to have the experience or passion to properly address the threat of climate change. None, even Jay Inslee who is leading the charge, seem to make it a priority issue. Even though they’re all making it a priority issue.

Yet in the past couple months, the conversation has changed. It’s almost as if, since the U.S. House of Representatives’ was sworn in, the country has tried to catch up with the threat that’s haunting the world.

It almost seems like since the Midterm elections we’ve slowly become more aware that ignoring the problem until it goes away is going to be a solution. Even some Republican members of the House agree with this.

The ignoring of climate change – the most pressing issue facing the United States – was a defining issue in the 2016 presidential election. The complete lack of attention to the issue not only demonstrated the lack of understanding of the issue, but also the lack of media around it.

If we want people to take the issue seriously, we need to arm people with information. Without information, educated decisions are impossible. It’s such an immense issue that coming up with policy is almost impossible.

Climate change seems to be ever more present, but the question remains: What can we do about it?

Like everything else facing young people in the world, doing something can be extremely overwhelming and difficult. Maybe talking about it is the first step. 

People can handle the truth.

School lessons targeted by climate change doubters

“You can’t talk about two sides when the other side doesn’t have a foot in reality,” said University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles.

Does too many candidates who care make it hard for one candidate to stand out? Or is it good because there’s a consensus that something needs to be done.

Climate change pervades Congress after years of quiet

People are paying attention now. At least Congress is.

Even some Republicans.

Energy and Commerce Republicans ditch climate denial

“The chummy atmosphere on the House’s pre-eminent climate panel is raising hopes among Democrats that they might be able to substantively tackle climate change in the 116th Congress, after all.”

How Much Would Trump’s Climate Rule Rollbacks Worsen Health and Emissions?

The Trump administration has tried to rollback six major climate change rules, from fuel efficiency standards to the Clean Power Plan. Again, the lack of discussion on climate change in the 2016 election didn’t demonstrate a consensus, but instead a stark difference that apparently wasn’t even needed to be discussed.

White House pressures automakers on fuel rules, blocking California: sources

The administration is confused about why automakers don’t publicly support the rollbacks of the higher standards for fuel efficiency, which were a main Obama administration objective.

Carbon Tax Plans: How They Compare and Why Oil Giants Support One of Them

A carbon tax is needed. How do the two main options stack up?

America’s Light Bulb Revolution

After climbing for decades, electricity use by American households has declined over the past eight years.

Wheeler on climate: ‘I don’t see it as the existential threat’

Wheeler responded: “No. You know, as far as the largest environmental issue facing the planet today, I would have to say water. The fact that a million people still die a year from lack of potable drinking water is a crisis.”

He continued: “Is climate change the existential threat? I don’t see it as the existential threat, no. We have a lot of environmental threats. We have a lot of environmental problems. But we’re working to address all of them.”

They’re all connected. Each and every one of these issues. We are losing freshwater because of climate change. We are facing food shortages that lead to overfertilization and spraying of pesticides because of climate change. The threats and problems he talks about don’t just exist in a vacuum. The world is interconnected. We need both air to breathe and water to drink. You can’t really isolate these problems when the biggest existential threat looms over all of them.

Thanks for reading.



Rushing headfirst into the apocalypse: Weather and conversations we should be having

I have never really been that interested in climbing mountains. Sure, in theory, it sounds like a neat thing to do, but when I go outdoors, I’m more interested in experiencing things like wildlife, flowing water and wildflowers than getting on top of the biggest thing around me.

Still. I feel like my life is somewhat governed by Livingston Peak. If not in actuality, in emotions. The mountain towers over the town, but it also peers down on me at my desk.

Lately, I have not seen the mountain. For the last week the peak has been hidden behind clouds. Snow came almost every day, totaling at least 30 inches. It snowed even it was like -5 degrees, something I didn’t realize was possible. Snowfall has always been the product of temperatures above 20, at least.

This morning, it was -28 degrees, but Livingston Peak made an appearance, towering over Livingston, peering through the windows at my office at my desk. I went out on a photo assignment and the mountain seemed to want a picture of itself.

Overall, Montana has been less cloudy than most places I’ve been, and the reemergence of the peak today reminded me of one other time the mountains reasserted themselves after being obscured, which was at the end of wildfire season.

Both wildfires and extreme cold and snow are all-encompassing weather events that make themselves known, that change the way you live, that establish the Earth doesn’t adjust for you, you adjust to it.

Most of the time, in most of the places, we live our lives as if we are impervious to weather and natural elements. We might stay home during a tornado or a blizzard, but after one day, we get the itch to go to our appointment, to grab coffee, to get that thing we absolutely need at the store.

But things like 30 inches of snow, temperatures reaching 28 below and smoke so thick you can’t see the local landmark change that. People used to change their lives for weather. They didn’t have to go go go, they would cancel appointments because of weather, not just power through regardless of the road conditions.

These extreme weather events – the ones that disrupt our lives – are increasing because of climate change. But they also present a question: Why do we continue to live our lives as if we’re impervious to the planet?

Sure, we drive through blizzards and crank our heater or our air conditioner. But we also continue to drive, eat meat, spray pesticides and do other things that we know damage the world around us and even contribute to these disrupting events.

This week, The New York Times wrote a story about the weaponization of weather. How politicians and climate scientists use weather events to suit their desired case – either pro-science or anti-science. The article discusses how dangerous it can be to do this because it can be turned around by people like President Trump.

On social media, I saw people paint this story as a form of “climate denialism.” Those critics argued that The New York Times is performative toward climate deniers because, instead of recognizing that these extreme weather events are actually happening because of climate change, they act like scientists are using them as a tool to show why action is necessary. Basically, framing climate scientists as reacting to a trend, rather than speaking the truth, is a form of climate denialism. Or providing equal weight to that idea is a form of denialism.

It is important to have these conversations.

I have also seen many people who are active on climate change issues on social media discuss their personal decisions they have made to adapt to climate change, eating less meat or giving up a car. 

It is also important to have these conversations.

But often, it just seems like it is a small group of self-important people who end up having these conversations among themselves in order to seem holier than thou. 

While those conversations are important, I’m not necessarily interested in having those conversations. I’m more interested in recognizing the extent of the problem we face and doing something about it.

We don’t let weather dictate our lives, but soon, the climate may. The way we grow food, the way we get water, the air we breathe, the rivers, the forests are changing so much that we can’t help but adjust our lives to it.

Recognizing the extent is the first step.
How the Weather Gets Weaponized in Climate Change Messaging
Weather can be a powerful teaching tool, except when it gets turned around on you.

Wiped out: America’s love of luxury toilet paper is destroying Canadian forests
What you wipe with might help save (or destroy) the planet.

The West’s Great River Hits Its Limits: Will the Colorado Run Dry?
We treat the world, including rivers, as if they’re our own commodities. What happens when they start to disappear?

Iceberg twice the size of New York City is set to break away from Antarctica
‘More instability is possible.’

Evidence for man-made global warming hits ‘gold standard’: scientists
It’s happening, no matter what President Trump and the Republicans say.

At least the kids are sticking up to them.

Hundreds of young protesters confront McConnell over Green New Deal
Even if the Democrats aren’t taking much action…

Senate Democrats to offer unanimous climate resolution that’s not the Green New Deal
At least they’re making Republicans talk about it.

 Coastal Flooding Is Erasing Billions in Property Value as Sea Level Rises. That’s Bad News for Cities. 
Oceans don’t care about our interspecies debates.

The World Is Losing Fish to Eat as Oceans Warm, Study Finds
Neither do fish.

What I’ve been working on:
28 below zero: Cold record ‘demolished’A taste of winter in Livingston.

Thanks for reading,

Rushing headfirst into the apocalypse: Imagine having a viewshed

Joseph and I went cross-country skiing up Suce Creek in Paradise Valley, Montana, on Friday evening.

Often, when I talk about journalism to people, they ask whether journalists can actually be unbiased. Can you actually write a story without projecting your opinion? How do you do that?

I, like all journalists (and all humans for that matter), do often have opinions about the things I cover, but I like to think I do a good job of staying out of the way. Usually, I feel like when I’m writing something, the facts can speak for themselves and people can make their own decisions based on those facts. Who am I to project my value system on the reader?

Sometimes it’s hard, but sometimes it’s much easier than having an opinion.

This week, I sat in the courtroom in Livingston, Montana, for three days, watching testimony in a lawsuit that is attempting to stop a proposed wind farm between the Yellowstone River and the Crazy Mountains, an absolutely beautiful stretch of land so attractive that it has become a hub for millionaires and billionaires looking for an escape from the world. And that brings us to the case.

Two local ranchers are wanting to erect wind turbines on their land. The ranchers say they want to pass down their land to their families, and this project would help them do that. One is 87 and wants to retire. The other has Parkinson’s and cried at the thought of his family not being able to follow in his footsteps.

The plaintiffs are a group of extremely wealthy individuals (a Texas oilman, a Las Vegas attorney who has represented Bruno Mars and Paris Hilton and Shaq and Martha Stewart, a wealthy Colorado businessman who is trying to sell his ranch for almost $20 million) who own luxury ranches and are alleging that a wind farm would decrease their enjoyment of their property. They bought the land here because it is unsoiled, and they want to watch golden eagles and bald eagles fly over one of the premier trout rivers in the United States. An industrial wind project will get in the way of their viewshed and the viewshed of every other person who comes to this area to enjoy its pristine beauty.

It’s a typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) case – except it isn’t. Their backyard has value for many people. The views they see are also the views we see when we retreat into our public lands in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, either in the Absaroka mountains or the Crazy Mountains. The birds that brought them here also bring in tourists. Those views benefit regular people like fishing guides and hotels and restaurants.

The commoditization of things like views is somewhat sickening. I don’t recall ever having heard the word “viewshed” until I moved to Montana in May. The level of wealth that owning a property and being concerned about its viewshed demands is unfathomable to me. I don’t think I will ever in my life have a viewshed. But I also understand there is an inherent value in its preservation.

If you lose the value in an unsoiled place – one of the few places left with the charisma able to inspire regular people to take action to help save about the world around them – then what’s left preserving? Are 26 500-foot-tall turbines, structures that would be the tallest manmade structures in the state, worth disrupting that? I mean it’s not that many turbines, but they matter as much as any turbines, I suppose. At a time when the world is heating up, anything helps.

It reminds me of that wild and pessimistic piece in the New Yorker from a few years ago by Jonathan Franzen, arguing that earth is a terminal cancer patient and we need to decide whether to make the most of the time we have left or try to fight the disease to prolong our life.

This is something I’m glad I don’t have to weigh in on.

For my birthday, me and a group of friends got a cabin in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. On January 13, it was more than 50 degrees. We walked to the top of a hill with views of at least four mountain ranges: the Crazies, Snowy’s, Beartooth’s and Absaroka’s. There were wind turbines visible from the top of the hill. The pictures I took from the top of the ridge don’t have the turbines in them. Standing there, they didn’t take anything away from my view. I don’t know that my experience would have been any different had the wind turbines not been there.

But here I am, more than a month later, and I remember those turbines, one of the few anthropogenic structures in an otherwise natural landscape.

Stories for this week

A Centuries-Old Idea Could Revolutionize Climate Policy

The Green New Deal isn’t some far-out idea. It has the roots in Alexander Hamilton’s view on how the federal government should function, with the public sector driving private sector innovation.

But not everyone, even progressives, is supportive of the deal.

The Hard Lessons of Dianne Feinstein’s Encounter with the Young Green New Deal Activists

Much has been made of the interaction, which isn’t as bad if you watch the full video but still isn’t exactly inspiring. But the best thing to come out of it was this Bill McKibben piece. The whole thing is fire.

“This means that youth carry the moral authority here, and, at the very least, should be treated with the solicitousness due a generation that older ones have managed to screw over.”

Australian Rat Declared Extinct Due To Man-Made Climate Change

Climate change claims its first mammal:

“The 2016 report concluded that the ‘key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation,’ which resulted in ‘dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals.'”

Pay attention to the growing wave of climate change lawsuits

It’s not just the kids anymore (though they’re getting closer to going to court). Fishermen, farmers, cities and states are suing on climate change.

Is the Insect Apocalypse Really Upon Us?

Following up on last week: Are all the insects really going to die? Probably not, but let May Berenbaum, of the lovely University of Illinois, explain: “The loss of even a small percent of insects might also be disproportionately consequential. They sit at the base of the food web; if they go down, so will many birds, bats, spiders, and other predators. They aerate soils, pollinate plants, and remove dung and cadavers; if they disappear, entire landscapes will change.”

“Do we wait to have definitive evidence that species are disappearing before we do something?” Berenbaum asks.

Climate change may affect ecological interactions among species

This week in interesting studies that I haven’t seen anyone write about is this study from Brazil on how predator-prey relationships will likely be disrupted by climate change.

Did Bernhardt once try to blow up Endangered Species Act?

A group affiliated with the new Secretary of the Interior tried to get protections for species that would be so widespread they would almost certainly have to change the way the law works.

The 3 Big Things That People Misunderstand About Climate Change

The three things? Speed, scope and severity.

I talked up David Wallace Wells’ book last week, and my copy should be coming tomorrow.

100% Renewable Energy Needs Lots of Storage. This Polar Vortex Test Showed How Much.

“During the Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 polar vortex event, the analysts test case of 50 percent wind, 50 percent solar would have had gaps of up to 18 hours in which renewable sources were not producing enough electricity to meet the high demand, so storage systems would need to fill in.”

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview

A few weeks old but:

In 2018, there were 14 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. These events included 1 drought event, 8 severe storm events, 2 tropical cyclone events, 1 wildfire event, and 2 winter storm events. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 247 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted. 

And it’s worse outside of the United States.

Climate change ’cause of most under-reported humanitarian crises’

Millions went hungry because of climate change-induced food crises, and no one wrote about it.

Just getting to games a major challenge for Mackinac Island basketball team

This isn’t climate related, but Boswell wrote about how the Mackinac Island (Mich.) basketball team gets to games: snowmobiles, an ice-cutting ferry boat, a school bus and sometimes small planes. In a winter wonderland, could that change because of the climate.

Which brings us to…

What I’ve been working on: A changing scenery

As the world changes, it’s important to take stock of what we have before it’s gone.

Thanks for reading,


Announcement: Rushing headfirst into the apocalypse

The one aspect of our current lives that will be of interest to people in the future is why, if we knew climate change was coming, didn’t we do anything? I imagine that for future people, that question will be a constant nagging feeling of incredulity toward the past, the same way we don’t understand the worlds our parents and grandparents and great grandparents grew up in and were complicit in.

I can’t help but think of the future tainted by a dystopian unhappiness, a dream of what could have been had we planned a little better, had we recognized the future we were headed toward, rather worrying about the all-consuming and inconsequential travails of our daily life. Instead, we passed off the unnerving task of saving the planet to future generations until it became insurmountable.

Well, I think the reason why we don’t do anything is because we don’t know how to do anything. When just 100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions, what do one person’s actions matter? That’s the closest answer I can come up with right now.

I’m starting this new series “Rushing headfirst into the apocalypse” as a result of that powerlessness.

Each week, I plan on compiling the best environmental stories and posting them here, along with some of my own musings and writing. This will both serve as a way for me to make sure I hold my own feet to the fire when thinking about and writing about climate change, but it will also hopefully help you, the reader, find a place where you can get easily digestible information about climate change.

Feel free to come back or don’t. I’m going to start a newsletter, where this information will be emailed out every week. Please subscribe if you’re interested.

Without further ado…

Sunday, February 17

So far, I’ve found winter more redeeming in Montana than in the Midwest.

Since my birthday in January, when my parents bought me cross-country skis, I have been going out at least a couple days a week, largely to Custer Gallatin National Forest, north of Yellowstone National Park. The trails I’ve gone on aren’t extremely busy but have semi-consistent use.

Last weekend, I went down to Yellowstone National Park to ski on the road from the Tower-Roosevelt junction up toward Tower Fall and farther. I went back about 4 miles, then turned to go back down the road.

Though bears are hibernating right now, I couldn’t help but feel jumpy. Every time a little snow fell off a tree, I had a heart palpitation, though I calmed down as the day went on. On the way back toward my car, I saw elk along the side of the road and then some bison.

After turning one corner, I saw three bison standing on the side of the road about 75 yards ahead. I slowly moved closer, making noise and waving my arms. As I got about 25 yards away, I stopped because the bison, two adults and one calf, had yet to move. I explained that I was just trying to get back to my car and asked if it was OK if I continued along my way. The bison didn’t say anything, so I tried taking a step forward. The bison closest to me, which was a mother bison, threw her head back and snorted, taking a step toward me. I backed up, apologizing, and the three bison ran down the hill on the right side of the road. I waited for a moment, and a baby bison ran down the hill from the left to the road and followed the other three down the hill. It turns out I was between a mother and her calf.

In Yellowstone, there are so many bison that you often forget they’re wild animals, not just cattle in a field. But that was a stark reminder of the power the animals have, and the wild places they need to live.

Stories for this week:

Heading south: Warming to change how US cities feel in 2080

Chicago is going to feel like Dayton in 2040 and Kansas City in 2080. On average, the 540 cities move 528 miles to the south.

Opinion: Time to Panic

Really, the inspiration for me to start this series. It’s almost certainly going to be worse than we think. Two degrees warming, long considered the ceiling of warming to mitigate disaster, is looking more and more like the floor. I don’t know what else to do, so I guess I’ll try writing. Also, if you haven’t read David Wallace Wells’ story on “The Uninhabitable Earth,” you should. It’s being published as a book this week.

Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’

“The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.” Why so much death? Pesticides being sprayed on more and more GMO crops.
Speaking of pesticides…

New study: Pesticide levels in children and adults drop dramatically after one week of eating organic

A new study found that eating an all-organic diet will drop pesticide levels in your blood by 61 percent after just a week. This includes pesticides associated with increased risk of autism, cancers, autoimmune disorders, infertility, hormone disruption, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This includes a drop in chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to damage children’s brains that is only being sprayed because of the Trump administration’s decision to reverse a ban on the pesticide.

And GMOs…

Plan to plant genetically engineered trees throughout US to save dying forests

This affects both elm trees back in Illinois dying of emerald ash borer and whitebark pine trees in Montana dying because of mountain pine beetles.

The Green New Deal Has Put Climate Change Denial Out to Pasture

I read Charlie Pierce almost every day. He writes that maybe the Green New Deal will make it so Republicans start to have talking about talking about a solution to climate change.

And last but not least…

State of emergency is declared after more than 50 polar bears invade Russian town and ‘chase terrified residents’

2,000 people. 52 polar bears. I don’t much like my chances.

What I’ve been working on (I’m going to feature something I’ve written every week, mostly to make myself write something):

US Senate advances Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act

A bill that bans mining on 30,000 acres of Custer Gallatin National Forest passed the Senate. More news coming as it passes the House.

Thanks for reading,

The Sages’ state championship, 1,000 miles away

From the top of the ridge looking east, the headlights stretch for miles behind in a straight line, flanked on either side by the dark of harvested corn and soybean fields with the occasional farmhouse light glowing in the distance. Looking west, brake lights illuminate the entrance to Monticello, going straight down Washington Street toward the Square, everyone careful to not go more than 30 miles per hour because a police car is likely sitting in the entrance to either the Chimneys or Ridge Point, two subdivisions on the edge of town. Cars are already starting to fill up the parking lot of Monticello Middle School, though people are likely going home to get a bite to eat or use the restroom prior to the pep rally.

That’s the scene as it is described to me by my mother, as she drives home from Monticello High School’s first state championship in football on Friday. The Sages won 24-20, avenging a loss in the playoffs last season and staying a perfect 14-0 on the season. The scene is also imagined by prior experience driving down that road more times than I could possibly count.

The road is called Monticello Road because it is the road from Champaign, Illinois, to Monticello, my hometown of 5,500 people. The name of the road is not exactly unique, but it gets the point across. Many locals also call it “Ridge Road” because right before you enter into Monticello heading west, you go up a hill and can see for miles behind you. Now that I live in Montana, I don’t know that most people would consider that a hill, but Central Illinois is among the flattest places on earth and any land that is slightly elevated is a hill.

More than 6,000 Sages fans traveled Friday to Memorial Stadium – just 20 or so miles down the road on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign – for the Sages’ first state championship game. In the 2010 census, Monticello had a population of 5,548 people. Yes, a couple of other towns feed into the schools – White Heath (population: 290), Cisco (population 261) – and the district also includes those farmhouses and a few subdivisions in the middle of the country. But more than the population of Monticello made it to the game.

That’s not surprising to me, as I watched the game more than 1,000 miles away in Livingston, Montana, a similar sized town that I have lived in for the past six months and would not show out the same way Monticello did.

This is the first season in my memory that I have not attended a Monticello High School football game, but I kept tabs. I checked Twitter every Friday night to see as the Sages blew out one team after another (50-0, 52-7, 35-6, 50-0, 56-8, 41-0, 42-14, 49-20, 50-7, 50-7, 49-14, 63-21, 40-14). They really weren’t challenged until the state championship game. I tuned in to listen to a couple playoff games on the radio, likely the only livestreamer of Clinton’s 95.9 WEZC in the history of the state of Montana.

On Friday, I waited anxiously for the start of the game. I had to drive back from Thanksgiving at a friend’s house in White Sulphur Springs, normally an hour and 15-minute drive that turned into about an hour and 45 minutes after a freshly fallen snow lubricated U.S. Highway 89, but I still made it to work at the newspaper a little after 8 a.m.

In one stretch of good road – Montana has many places without cell phone service – I called my mother to talk about the Sages. I knew she’d be Black Friday shopping, but she took the time to talk about her plans for the day and whether the Sages had a shot. Of course they did.

At work, I anxiously wrote 3 stories for the afternoon paper, and streamed the earlier 1A and 2A state championship games, just to make sure I could.

I left work a little early to go on a long walk to help calm my nerves, heading along the Yellowstone River.

At around 2:15, I headed to the grocery store, Town & Country. It’s a wonderful grocery store, and it reminds me of County Market in Monticello, a place where you’re bound to see friends. In my family, like many families I assume, we have a tradition where we buy snacks instead of food for big football games: the rare Illini bowl game, the Rose Bowl, any other game I get excited for. We usually have something cheese-based (pretzels stuffed with cheese), chips and salsa or queso, frozen pizza and Diet Coke. I decided to get that spread for myself and I went home to watch the Sages football game. I even wore my Sages beanie that I got in high school, so it is at least 8 years old.

Tuning in, the announcers talked about the size of Monticello’s crowd. Once the game started, I heard the cowbells, bringing me back home to Friday nights in Monticello in the fall – the clanging of the bells rang by excited mothers, the blasting of trombones during “Monticello Loyalty,” the smell of body paint and feel of body-wide goosebumps while chest painting during high school games, the tight grip of a football that I used as a hat after I filled it too full with air in fifth grade during the Sages’ run to the state semifinals, one of a number of trips to the Final Four that didn’t result in a trip to Memorial Stadium, the taste of bad hot cheese and salty chips, the slight chuckle that accompanies underwhelming fireworks after touchdowns, the awkward pangs of seeing people you went to high school with but haven’t talked to in five years and the genuine flutter in your chest when Monticello is driving down the field against Unity, a school that encompasses a number of towns, some just 20 or so miles down the road that is the town’s biggest rival.

The pomp and circumstance of small-town high school football can feel ridiculous, but it balances all of those emotions, not putting too much burden on the serious but also hefty enough to carry the weight of a town’s expectation and excitement.

That might sound aggrandized, but that’s the beauty of it. The high school football team embodies the town.

Don’t get me wrong. The story of Monticello isn’t one of some broken town that pours all of its hopes and dreams into a bunch of teenagers’ on-field success. I’ve always thought of Monticello as a diverse community. No, not racially or ethnically. The town is 99 percent white. God knows it could use an injection of new ideas. Instead, it’s socio-economically diverse. There is great wealth and great poverty and it’s such a small town and school that you must experience both, which adds a great value to those who are empathetic enough to embrace it. Life doesn’t stop when the golden tassel is turned on a purple graduation cap.

Located halfway between Champaign and Decatur on I-72, Monticello residents commute to work at the University of Illinois and Archer Daniels Midland. Many parents have advanced degrees. The town can support pottery businesses, sandwich eateries and a frozen yogurt shop, plus a brewery and a coffee shop, each in their own old church. Even though the majority of town was at Memorial Stadium, the square still hosted a sold-out “Reds of Winter” wine-tasting event downtown. As a high schooler, the theater program, the marching band, the scholastic bowl team and the bass fishing team all had widespread, school-wide support.

Monticello football brings the entire community together. The town has been playing football for as long as the high school has existed. My sister, Claire, found a story from the Nov. 22, 1895, edition of the Decatur Review newspaper, when the University of Illinois football team traveled to Monticello to play.

This is the transcript of the article:

University Team Defeats High School Boys By a Score of 16 to 4

“The best game of football ever played in this city was played at Kratz path this afternoon between an eleven of the University of Illinois and the High School Athletic team of Monticello, which resulted in a victory for the varsity boys by a score of 16 to 4. The visiting team was much heavier than the home boys and made all their gains by center rush plays, and gradually forced the home team back to the goal for touchdowns. At every attempt at an end play the varsity boys would lose from five to ten yards. Some excellent playing was done by Piatt, Kratz and Prackard of the home team. The game was full of snap and football vim from the start to finish. Time of Halves – Twenty minutes Touch Downs – Champaign 4 Monticello 1”

I don’t know if that’s still considered the best game ever played in Monticello – I’ve seen some games that would probably be more entertaining than that – but that shows the importance of the game to Monticello.

The high school that stands today is not air-conditioned and it’s the same one that my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, myself and my sisters all attended. If you walk down the hallways and look at the photos of each graduating class, it’s a family history, not only for my family but for many, with photographs of everyone from me to my cousin to aunts to grandparents to second cousins to great uncles to pretty much everyone in town. Almost haunted by a visceral connection to everyone that has come before, their realized and abandoned dreams.

The football field still stands on Kratz Road, maybe in the same spot the Sages played the Illini. The green striped field between the two goal posts is among the most sacred places in Monticello, something I say both as a joke and with complete seriousness.

I have made fun of the field and the affection that many people hold toward it a great deal. When Monticello hosted its semifinal playoff game and it snowed a few days before the game, the town was put on alert. Anyone with free time and a free shovel was asked to come move the snow, even though the weather forecast predicted it would melt before Saturday. The sheer ridiculousness of that notion blew up a group chat. Also, the field is watered extravagantly, much to the ire of my friends from high school who were on the soccer team, which had patches of dead grass. In high school, our principal and a bunch of teachers rode their motorcycles onto the field in an attempt to seem hip and relatable. My senior year, a group of girls in my class forked the field as our senior prank.

But there’s also something gravitating about that space. During summer, my friends and I would sometimes sneak onto the field and eat Filippo’s pizza at the 50-yard line. Or we’d play catch on the healthiest grass in town. That draw might have been because we weren’t supposed to be there. But nevertheless it felt like a sacred place, a holy ground connecting generation after generation, tying the community together the way only football can.

I wasn’t a football player. I played in fifth grade and was a cornerback and even got a pass break-up and had fun. In sixth grade, I had an early growth spurt and was moved to defensive end, which was much less fun, the most memorable part of my season being pancaked by a Villa Grove tight end and having a sore tailbone for months, struggling to do sit-ups in PE class without out hurting my rear end. In high school, I had a job working on the chain gang for those middle school games.

But I loved going to the games. Me and my friends would lead cheers of “Football!”, something that seems almost mocking but was genuine. It got students who weren’t interested in the game to be excited about the grandeur of the Friday night rituals.

The “Football!” cheer was the second-most popular among students, who preferred the “Sa-Ges” chant, where one student would yell “Say” and the rest would yell “jizz”, a double entendre that still elicits chuckles to this day.

During my senior year, I was a chest painter at football games, wearing the exclamation mark. But after one game, the school decided to ban chest painting after complaints about girls wearing just sports bras in public. The student body organized, sending letters to the principal, calling the local news and petitioning for the tradition to come back. After one game without chest painters, the administration relented, as long as we put on shirts to go into the cafeteria. On Friday, at Memorial Stadium, I saw students without shirts on and remembered that tradition and the value our organization had.

Despite being in Montana, I was able to feel connected to the game. I texted friends at the game, my mother at the game, friends watching at home and high school preps writers that I worked with at the student newspaper in college who were likely only watching because of my incessant talking about the Sages for four years.

There’s plenty to say about the actual game, a 24-20 win that can be placed on a team-wide effort, but also on Alek Bundy, who scored all three of the Sages’ touchdowns, including a 95-yard screen pass that became a touchdown, and had the game-winning interception, but what was most surprising was the connection I felt.

More than 1,000 miles away from Memorial Stadium, I started crying as the clock ticked down on Monticello High School’s first state championship in football.

That may sound like a ridiculous thing to say, but I guarantee it feels even more ridiculous as you’re sitting alone in the dark, watching a bunch of high schoolers play a game a two day’s drive away from you.

I’ve always felt that the cyclical nature of the state championship games minimizes the experience. Not that I’ve ever actually been to a game, but I would watch on TV at home as our family set up our Christmas tree or Christmas village on the day after Thanksgiving as local schools would play and we would root on conference rivals. But the on-field reporter conducts an interview with the player of the game, with the coach, then send it back to the booth, where they say “What a game! Next, we have the 4A state championship game,” cycling from the greatest moment of the young players’ lives to the next. But that minimalistic approach almost made it more intimate because in order to celebrate you couldn’t sit in front of the screen watching highlights. You had to talk to someone.

Shortly after the game ended, my mom called me from the Memorial Stadium parking lot. She had gone to the game with my sister, Claire, a few of me and Claire’s friends, and my mother’s friends. But she drove to the game by herself, so she had a more-than-half-hour drive home that normally takes 23 minutes but had a non-negligible amount of traffic.

“It’s like getting out of a busy Illini game,” she said.

Anyone who follows Illini football – which is 95 percent of Monticello Sages fans – knows that it has been a few years since there was an actual Illini game of significance, but their lack of success contributes even more to the joy of the Sages’ success.

Someone tweeted thank you to Coach Cully Welter for making them have fun at Memorial Stadium, something that hasn’t happened in a few years.

My mom told me about my classmates that sat near her at the game. Ones I haven’t talked to in years but would have gladly celebrated a state championship with.

“People were sitting with their parents,” she said. “I was kind of surprised.”

But to me, that made sense. The generational connection of Sages football is the reason the connectivity is so special. The players said this, but they were playing for each team before. I might not know Braden Snyder and Alek Bundy, but I knew Will Lieb and Matt Palla. My mom might not know them, but she knew Mitch Bloom, Barry Elson, Rusty Ernst and Chuck Foran. The former players all took a photo together. I might not know the parents of the children now, but I know the love and work the parents of my peers poured into raising their kids. I might not know very many of the band members, but I know how hard each of my sisters practiced and how excited they would be to play at Memorial Stadium. Monticello doesn’t rely on the football to realize its collective dream, but the team plays a role in the realization of the blood, sweat and tears parents and kids and teachers and business owners put into making the town unique.

That’s why people my age still want to go back to high school football games, to thank their parents, to thank the town, for making them who they are. That’s what makes the community special, and the football team gives everyone a chance to celebrate that distinctiveness. That’s why 6,000 people from a town of 5,500 came out to watch a high school football game in the rain on the day after Thanksgiving.

My mother drove around the Square once she got back to town. She said there wasn’t a place to park in all of downtown Monticello. She said she thought about going to the pep rally but was cold and wet from sitting in the rain all afternoon and felt like it was more for the high schoolers and their parents.

Later Friday night, Monticello Sages Athletics posted a live video on Facebook of the team getting back to town. The procession was led by two fire trucks, blaring their horns and illuminating trees with their blue and red lights. The two coach buses were also flanked by five police cars, as well as a train of parents and other supporters. Whoever was taking the video was standing in the cold rain, surrounded by other drivers who were honking their horns in support of the team. Fireworks exploded in the background.

That might seem extravagant, but the video gave me chills more than 1,000 miles away.

Green bills

The bills of official “Make America Great Again” hats are green on the bottom, according to a video that played on loop outside of the ER-3 hangar at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Saturday prior to the arrival of President Donald Trump, who was in town to stump for two Republican Congressional candidates Rep. Greg Gianforte and Senate Candidate Matt Rosendale. The video, which described the making of the trademark hats, explained that anyone with a red bill on the bottom was wearing a knock-off. The knock-off, which costs $5 less, at least at Saturday’s rally, cannot guarantee you all of the benefits of the official hat, which include being made entirely in America.

That video was one of the first to play after the doors opened and three thousand or so people filtered through security, past the food trucks, past the portapotties and past the screen showing the video. Other videos included a veteran talking about how Trump administration tax cuts helped him give a raise to all of his employees at his brewery, and another was Lara Trump (the wife of Eric Trump) explaining how to deal with protestors at the rally that included such lines as “President Trump supports every person’s right to the First Amendment” and “He supports the First Amendment as much as he supports the Second.” But explains that protesters are not welcome – except for in the designated protest area, which I was unable to find but did exist because the Bozeman Daily Chronicle wrote about it – and anyone who is next to a protester should hold their signs up and chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” until that person is removed.

A large number of the Trump supporters attending Saturday’s rally in Bozeman were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, but not very many had green bill-bottoms. The people outside of the official gates were selling ones with red bill bottoms, and maybe they got them there or else somewhere else that was selling knock-offs in the past.

I did not hear anyone talk about knock-off hats other than the man on the video who manufactures and sells the hats, so maybe it’s not an actual point of pride in that community.

At 6:30 a.m., the line to get into the hangar was a few hundred people long. A group of men dressed in camouflage said that they had been there all night. They were all able to get in, as was anyone else who showed up before President Trump, as the hangar was half empty (the rally was held just outside of the hangar, with risers, a podium that was surprisingly close to the crowd and a backdrop of the Bridger Mountains and Air Force One). Security guards said that 4,000 people would be allowed inside before people were forced to watch on the screen outside that had been showing the ads for the MAGA hats. A few people, including a man in a wheelchair, chose to watch it on the screen, but not for lack of space inside.

“See all those hats? All those hats. Look at those hats,” Trump said during the rally. He did not remark on whether they had green bills or red bills. He was not wearing a hat.

Anyway, as Trump is wont to do, he praised the crowd size, saying he has the best and biggest crowds. This would not otherwise be noteworthy, as all politicians say this, but since the President has a tendency to exaggerate and tout his crowd size (he said there was a lot of media at his event Saturday, but there was plenty of room on the risers), I thought I would bring it up.

Trump also said that the MAGA hats will be be replaced by “Keep America Great” hats.

“Your agenda is Make America Great Again. That’s what your agenda is. It’s very… It’s a simple agenda. It’s a very simple, very straightforward agenda. You know, the new campaign, it’s going to be ‘Keep America Great’, right? I don’t think — as much as I love ‘Make America Great Again,’ I don’t know that we can carry it forward, because people will say, ‘Well, what did we do for the last four years? Are we still trying to do that?’ No. We’ve done so well, and we are ahead of schedule,” Trump said.

Keep, and even buy more MAGA hats, though.

“I wouldn’t sell the caps yet. Keep them for old time’s sake. They’ll be very valuable someday. But our new slogan will be “Keep America Great,” because that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

No word on whether the ones with the green bills will be more valuable.

Anyway, before Mr. Trump arrived but after Congressman Gianforte and Senator Daines spoke about how you should vote for Gianforte and Republican Senator Candidate Matt Rosendale in order to further Trump’s policies, a few young men in suits and a woman in a winter coat came out with quite a few MAGA hats to throw into the crowd.

These hats all had green bill-bottoms. As did the ones for sale for $25 at the back of the hangar.

But the pure joy of watching these young men go out there with MAGA hats, and try to decide which direction to throw them in was something that I had only seen a few times before in my life and it immediately brought me back to those moments.

At a frat party, a few brothers had just accomplished what seemed to be among the greatest deeds of their lifetime – they raced while shotgunning a Natural Light beer in a contest and had tied exactly (at least exactly to people who are shotgunning Natural Light, which can be a time difference of a few seconds, the distance required for a tie lengthening with the number of Natural Lights they had consumed) and after their race when they had thrown their empty, crushed aluminum cans to the ground they opened their mouth to shout and pulled their arms down, with their fists clenched and let out a roar and then other fraternity brothers came over and hit them in the chest and pulled their arms down and rubbed their head. At the rally, these men in suits were throwing out MAGA hats and they became so overwhelmed with joy and elation that they did that same exact thing, clenching fists and roaring. It was so similar it was striking. As they ran out of hats, the joy became even more palpable. The last man standing – with maybe three hats (all with green bill-bottoms) – went from one riser to the other, then from one side of the stage to the other, holding his hand to his ear and trying to decide which side was the loudest. After a few fairly successful attempts at making the crowd louder, he just threw them in three separate directions and exited the stage.

The man in the Canada Goose jacket, who had the purest elation, must have been extra proud of his green bill-bottomed hats because at 6:30 a.m., an older man who had driven to Bozeman from Houston but lives in California but just follows Trump around to rallies to sell merchandise, had just set up his table under a tent.

His wife was rearranging the table and a young couple, likely Montana State University students based on their attire, came up.

“Oooo, you can get your hat here,” the woman in the MSU beanie said to the man whose arm she was holding.

“Hats are $20, beanies are $15, t-shirts are $25,” the woman working the table said.

“T-shirts are $20,” her husband quickly corrected.

Beanies seemed to be the more appropriate choice based on the chilly weather, but it seemed that ball caps were the more popular item – despite their red bill bottoms.

The woman, who said they were next driving to Orange County because they heard Trump might be there soon, said she very much enjoys following the President around to his rallies.

“It’s kinda fun, you get to meet a lot of nice people,” she said.

The husband gathered a wagon full of MAGA hats, which were red on the bottom of their bills, and started walking the line of a few hundred people lined up. The man was making his way to the front of the line when the young man in the Canada Goose jacket stopped him and told him he wasn’t allowed on their property.

Now, according to a hunting land ownership application, that land belongs to the Gallatin Airport Authority, and I believe with all my heart that this man in the Canada Goose jacket, with his slicked back black hair and very expensive coat, was not a member of the Gallatin Airport Authority.

But the old man persisted.

“Can I make a donation?” he asked.

“That’s bribery,” the man in the Canada Goose jacket said.

Well, the old man turned around, and slowly made his way back down the line, selling MAGA hats along the way. Canada Goose returned to his Very Important job of standing at the front of the line and harassing whoever he could.

At around 7:30 a.m., the man and wife were still there but by 9:00 a.m. they had left, so someone with the Gallatin Airport Authority must’ve made them move their shop to the road, where at least four other groups were selling MAGA merchandise, including two black men, presumably father and son, who were the only minorities I saw at the event all day that were not media members or a part of the security detail or the Native Americans that arrived at 11:50 a.m. and were promptly rushed behind Trump for the photo op.

Anyway, after Canada Goose’s power trip was over, he got to throw hats, so it must’ve been a great day.