Flipping the Central Montana Finger

March 2021

You better expect to be given the finger as you drive the Central Montana roads. It's just a thing we do. People around here flip the finger to truly anyone they meet while on the way to church or when passing each other on the gravel road on the way to work a field. And if you don't give them the finger back, that's as rude as leaving a party without taking the 15 minutes to say "welp" and "alright" as you nod to everyone in the room, finish one more beer, tell that story about sheep wrestling, then leave with some excuse about the cattle and "the damn wind."

I actually lost the habit of flipping everyone the finger when I moved away to Minneapolis. There, you don't even look at people as you walk by them on the street — making eye contact seems to be what comes across as rude in the city.

So when I moved back to Lewistown and was greeted with the Central Montana finger by everyone that passed, I was reminded how absolutely cozy it is to live in a place where people wave to everybody. It's like we all assume that if you're in the Central Montana area, you're a neighbor, and we're happy to treat you like one. Sometimes, this perceived familiarity can backfire, for if you pull over on the side of the road for any reason — to take a nap, to take a phone call, to take a pee — rest assured, someone will assume that you are in trouble and will pull over to help...which can be a less than ideal situation.

There was a story that went viral on Reddit a few years ago about a guy that broke down on the side of the road. He'd had a really crappy day (well...crappy year) and his breakdown was just the icing on top. After hours of people passing him on the side of the road, an immigrant Mexican worker with four kids and a wife stopped to help him change his tire. The fellow was so grateful for their kindness that he tried to pay them $20 as a thank you. But they wouldn't take it — all they said was "today you, tomorrow me."

This story of strangers helping each other spread across the internet like the wildfires we had last summer. People were BLOWN AWAY by the generosity of this immigrant family and their philosophy of folks helping folks.

When I heard this story, I realized that while this story was touching, it wasn't at all surprising to me. And that's because, unlike most places in the US, we live inside this narrative on a daily basis here around Lewistown and in Central Montana at large. Nobody hesitates to pull over for someone who's stopped on the side of the road. Nobody hesitates to run toward a wildfire with a truck full of water regardless of whose land is in jeopardy. Nobody sees a problem and walks away assuming somebody else will take care of it.

And so, we give each other the finger without even thinking about it. This is our home, these are our people, and what hits you today will very likely hit me tomorrow, so we may as well give each other the finger — and a helping hand — and carry on.

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