The Montana Paradox

The more eloquent and seasoned writer, as a matter of standard, typically does not begin an article with a blunt expression of purpose, but the topic of this article begs an immediate explanation. What follows is one of the more important reasons our family started Montana Fitness Magazine.

I began visiting Montana in the Summer of 1996, spending time with friends and relatives on one of the seven Indian Reservations in the State.  Though I am white as a snowflake, my grandfather was a Native American and I wanted to learn more about my roots. Being from Illinois, I had no preconceived notions about Montana, but I would find, as the years wore on and my discussions with non-Montanan friends continued, that many people in the nation, and even in Montana, had some very distinct beliefs about the state and its inhabitants.

When I decided to move to Montana permanently, reactions ranged from “Isn’t is colder than Alaska up there?” and “Does the city you are moving to have electricity?” to “You better buy a gun – everyone owns one there” and “Bring your bible, they’re all God fearing conservatives.”

I first lived on the reservation where I encountered many people in outlying rural towns, who at first glance, seemed to fit the stereotypes I would continue to hear from non-Montanans, and Montanans alike.  But this is not an indictment of those folks, which included ranchers, miners, and blue collar workers. In fact, the stereotypical attitude often attributed to these people was mostly false.  They weren’t intolerant angry racists. They were kind, helpful, and welcoming. Yes, there are most certainly intolerant racists in the state… and the entire nation. I have come across many of them.  But by and large, the “live and let live” attitude of tolerance that is also a commonly held view about Montanans holds true.  But how can a state be known for intolerance and tolerance at the same time?  That seems to be what defines Montana.  It is a paradox in that a multitude of contradictory realities exist.  Montana is rife with instances in which two completely opposite assumptions are true… or somewhat true. The problem is that typically, only one side of those realities is held as truth by non-Montanans, and sometimes, by Montanans as well.

“Everyone in Montana owns a pickup truck…” or is it a Subaru?
As an example of this paradox, the belief by outsiders that everyone in Montana drives a pickup truck is widely held. (Google it.)  When I lived in rural Montana, it certainly seemed closer to truth than fiction.  But it wasn’t until I moved to Billings and began travelling all over the State that I began to see the Montana Paradox being played out.  I frankly always thought Subarus were driven by sandal wearing granola eating hippies. I’m sure some do, but you’re just as likely to see a Subaru Outback on the highways of Montana as you are a Ford F-150.  Our family owns two Subarus.  This has nothing to do with health, wellness, and fitness – the topics of concern for this magazine, but it sets the table for the key notion that though Montanan’s are not known for their focus on health and wellness, they should be.

“Montanans’ idea of fitness is chopping wood and wrestling bears”
Not quite.  Montana ranks third amongst all states in percentage of residents who “exercise frequently” and though many of us chop a lot of wood from time to time, we’re runners, bicyclists, skiers, and hikers too.  There are nearly 90 annual running races held in Montana.  There’s only a few wood chopping contests in the state.  Skiing? We have some of the best runs in the world.  And we like our gyms.  The YMCA in Billings boasts a membership 15,000 strong. With over 20 gyms and health clubs of various sizes in Billings alone, we can only assume that at least 25,000 people hold gym memberships in Billings, though the exact number could not be found.  And we are fit too.  Montana ranked 3rd of all states with the lowest rate of obesity in 2014.

“Montanans who don’t eat meat are harder to find than unicorns”
According to one blogger, “Living the lifestyle of a vegan is next to impossible in Montana… hunting is so intertwined with the culture, it’s difficult to find anywhere that will cater to a strict meat-free diet…”  Hmm.  Though finding a primarily vegetarian restaurant in Montana is perhaps more difficult than in New York City, vegetarians and healthy lifestyle eaters are not only welcome in the state, they are a dominant force.

According to Happycow.com, there are 71 vegetarian friendly restaurants and health food stores in Montana that are either entirely vegetarian or have substantial vegetarian options. That is 1 vegetarian friendly restaurant/store for every 13,900 people.  In comparison, the state of California, known as the haven for vegetarian living, has 1 vegetarian friendly restaurant/store for every 13,450 people.  We’re basically even in such choices with the Left Coast.  New York’s ratio is 1 for every 19,000.  Colorado’s ratio is 1 for every 111,000.  In fact, per capita, Montana has the 10th largest concentration of health food/vegetarian store/restaurants in the nation.  Hawaii is number 1 by the way.  Additionally, there are 37 farmers markets in Montana – more per capita than most states.

In Montana, the TV show “Man vs. Wild” is called “Camping”
Well… OK.  But the stereotype is that we are all survivalists and are just as happy to munch on raw meat as we would eating a donut.  Though this is clearly untrue it is true we have a large population of hikers and campers.  And it’s a good thing. Most of the best places to do such things are in our State.  According to the National Recreation Trails online database, 53 of the 1,265 designated National Historic and National Scenic Trails in the country are in Montana.  That is to say, for every 20 such trails, 1 of them is in Montana.  Alaska has only 19. Colorado – 39.  Though California boasts 93 trails, they also have about 38 times the number of people in their state.  And as far as Billings… there are so many trails in our city limits that a map of them looks like a street map.  According to billingstrailnet.org, there are 43 miles of trails in the city along with 23 miles of bike lanes along our roads. The city limits are contained within 41.6 square miles by the way.

Starting a fitness and health lifestyle magazine for Billings is akin to opening a surf shop in the Heights.
We disagree.  And that is the point here.  The stereotypes about Montana may hold true in some respects, but the exact opposite holds equally true in many cases.  And that is where the concept of health and fitness comes in.  To paraphrase, there is a belief outside of the state (and by some in the state) that “health freaks and vegetarians are not welcome.”  The granola set are vacationers, not residents.  “Healthy living” to a Montanan means field dressing your own deer.  The opposite couldn’t be more true for many Montanans.  The outdoor activity that crops up as the snow begins to melt around Billings and other cities in Montana is truly remarkable. Runners, hikers, bikers, golfers… the number of people engaged in active lifestyles rival that of a coastal California town.

This is, in part, why Montana Fitness Magazine was created. The stereotypes of Montana are often reinforced by Montanans, and that is absolutely OK.  MoFi is not a liberal nor conservative publication – we don’t hold such political views as fitness and health should be apolitical.  Many Montanans are hunters, Christians, and conservatives.  But there are a lot of vegan atheist liberals as well, and they don’t all live in Missoula.

There are a heck of a lot of people in this state who identify themselves as “healthy, fit, and active,” period.  Of course, some of them are “healthy, fit, and active conservative hunting Christians.”  Whether conservative or liberal, vegetarian or meat eating, Montanan’s from all political, religious, and lifestyle leanings lead a fitness driven, health conscious life geared at well being.  That is the Montana Paradox.  We can’t be labeled as being one “type” as often, the opposite is just as true.  Regardless, we don’t see much focus on these “opposite” stereotypes in the news or via other media outlets.  Even Montanan’s, it seems, tend to forget about the other facts about us that define Montana.  We are a healthy, fit, and active lifestyle community of people, and MoFi is hoping to give it a little bit of a spotlight.

 

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