The Montana Bar is a town anchor plopped on Main St. Miles City, next to the Bison Bar, across from the Trails Inn Bar all with their colorful neon humming a welcoming tune. The locals have appointed hours when they haunt the bar stools. Many of them have spent time behind the bar as well. Miles City is a town of only a few major industries: agriculture, mechanics, service; and it’s a place where people can and do just about every job at one point or another.
Scott Fogel swings by the bar around 2:30 most days after his shift welding at the local train shop. The bartender is his high school classmate. He worked as a bartender at the Montana and Bison bars. He’s one of the jacks of all trades that make Miles City so close to self-sufficient and resilient. Of course, Scott grew up about an hour out of town in Jordan. He claims this town of 8,500 is just about as big as he can handle and looks longingly to the rural towns on the outskirts of this railroad hub. The country is still home for him.
Scott spoke of a life largely hung on the actions of his family and personal choices. He told of his freedom to run off and ride around, his time trying to get a Shetland pony to be anything other than unhelpful and stubborn, his time at parties and hanging around his grandfather's machine shop. Childhood life in his memory is self-reliant, self-contained and carefree. With a major exception.
Scott’s distaste for doctors has continued, and not with lack of reason. His limited exposure to hospitals and care have done little to inspire confidence.
His experience is not uncommon in the area. Moments like these are often the root of people’s distaste for the far-off bureaucracy of healthcare, government, regulation. This far off from the source, they often come in ham-handed and do more harm than good. Or at the very least, their process seems to run a textbook case of how not to inspire trust. Perhaps because of his friction with the formal institutions of care, he understands and advocates the need to be cared for and care for people.
Caring for each other is probably what kept the town from becoming like the ghost towns on the highway on the way there. This part of Montana is close enough to oil that many of the towns along the drive are closed or diminished. The most recent declines are due mostly to the global oil glut that keeps prices well below production costs in expensive-to-drill shale fields.
Sanjel was an oil field services company that employed more than 200 people in Miles city back in 2015. Its closure was like the many closures at the time, brutal for small towns around Montana whose economies often become fully attached to the fortunes of single industries or even single companies. In Miles City’s case the damage was limited by the diversity of industry available to people there. They could always rely on agriculture. But without this supplement, the town’s fortunes depend heavily on the irregular luck of farming and ranching money.
All things considered it seems an easy thing to understand why towns like this want to leave and be left alone by outsiders. People coming through are welcomed warmly as friends but people are wary of being told what to do by institutions outside their sphere and outside their control. The feeling has roots even back to the beginning of the town.