Ed Kemmick showed up in Montana, in 1973, as a “citified teenager” who quickly developed a strong romantic desire: “I wanted not merely to live in Montana,” he writes in retrospect, “but to live out, in my own small way, the story of Montana as constructed by A.B. Guthrie.”
Emulating Boone Caudill — the central character in Guthrie’s famous novel, “The Big Sky” — turned out to be impractical. But Kemmick’s career in journalism has allowed him to experience another type of adventure. For 30 years he has written stories about Montana’s real-life characters. Now, some of those stories are available in a new book, “The Big Sky, By and By: True Tales, Real People and Strange Times in the Heart of Montana.”
Kemmick’s “real people” live in out-of-the-way places like Molt, Alzada, Fishtail, Culbertson and Fromberg. They also live in population centers like Billings, Livingston, Miles City and Butte. A few began life in Montana. Most did not. They range from the bizarre (a petrified man) to the saintly (a woman who makes the choice to care for her violent and cruel father during his old age). They are the flamboyant friends of Evel Knievel and a man from Fort Smith who has ridden motorcycles around the world — the long way — four times. They run the Dirty Shame Saloon, the Stoneville Saloon, a cowboy museum or a junks hop that has become a Chinese cultural museum. One woman “used to be the madam at the Wild Horse Pavilion and now she’s working as a greeter at the new Wal-Mart.” One man “used to eat a teaspoon full of arsenic every day to keep from dying.” They are black and brown and white and red. Musicians: Kostas, Dobro Dick, Roy Young, The Hogback Five.
At the end of each story, you will likely wonder what happened next. Did Jeff Hansen’s doctors find the right drugs to treat his inoperable brain tumor? Did the Bar Diamond Ranch sell? Was Johnnie Thomas able to finish writing the story of her husband’s life before she died?
Kemmick’s relationship with Montana began when he was an 18-year-old “intoxicated by the grandeur of Guthrie’s vision” of Big Sky Country in the mid-1800s. With this book, however, a mature, clear-eyed journalist claims a place on the list of writers who are replacing Montana’s worn-out romantic myths with the truth: Every sort of person lives in Montana.
Here’s hoping Ed Kemmick will write about many more of them.
Chérie Newman is a freelance writer from Missoula, where she produces a weekly literary program for public radio.