Fifteen years later, I still love telling people that I once got paid to drive back roads from Yaak to Alzada, starting at the Dirty Shame Saloon and ending at the Stoneville Saloon.
Although opinions vary as to what years constitute the golden age of American journalism, I feel pretty safe in calling that seven-day drive in the fall of 1999 the golden week of my own career.
That was the best, but there were a lot of good weeks. If my math is correct — and it usually wasn't, which is why I was lucky to have had Tom Tollefson as my editor all these years — I put in 1,281 weeks with The Gazette as of Friday.
And Friday was my last day on the job.
I started as a region editor, working 3 to midnight. In those days we editors would produce each issue of the newspaper by hand, like medieval monks, scratching away with quill pens to make 50,000 copies of every story.
Well, all right, it wasn't quite that primitive. But the technology we did use would be just as mysterious and comical to young readers who have never looked at a news story except on a smartphone.
Into the machine
I remember in particular this big, balky machine that would produce pages on a kind of photo paper that would then be waxed and slapped down on a stout sheet of paper before going to the pressroom.
The machine was always breaking down, and I can still picture Darci, a printer who fortunately was rather petite, stepping into the chemical-smelling bowels of the contraption to re-thread the photo paper.
I spent seven years on the night desk. It was a grinding, exhausting job (those monks would understand), so when I had the chance to go back to being a reporter, in 1996, I jumped at the chance.
After all those years of editing, reporting seemed like the best job in the world. Instead of editing 20 to 30 stories a night, trying desperately to cleanse them of errors and infelicities in a very limited time, I suddenly found myself enjoying the luxury of having an entire day to work on a single story.
I covered the city beat for many years. As time went on, my editors gave me increasingly more freedom to pursue stories that were more rewarding and a bit more fun than sitting through a four-hour City Council meeting. (No offense, esteemed councilpersons!)
I was allowed to range all over Montana, including the Yaak-to-Alzada outing, with forays into Wyoming, North Dakota and once to northern Alberta to cover the tar sands industry, which I still think of as Mordor on the Tundra.
All this and a paycheck, too
My co-pilot on many of those adventures was photographer David Grubbs, who made his own exit from The Gazette a year and a half ago. The people we met, the places we saw, the extreme weather we endured — damn, I should write a book. Wait, I did that, too. Did I mention I got paid for all this?
And for 13 years I occupied this space every Sunday with my City Lights column, which I discontinued in the fall of 2012. I feel honored and unaccountably lucky to have had City Lights that long.
I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say I heard from thousands of readers during those years. They wrote or called or stopped me on the street to talk about something I'd written, whether they loved it or hated it.
The best, and possibly the shortest, email I ever received had a subject line that read "Ass," and the email itself said only, "Your an ass." I think I wrote back, "Hey, that's you're opinion!"
But all good things must end, and a quarter of a century seems like plenty of time to do any one thing. Except for marriage and parenthood, which I've been at even longer and will stick with.
I've got new adventures in mind, which will also involve writing and poking my nose into the nooks and crannies of this large and endlessly fascinating state.
Rather than saying goodbye, I think I'll just say, thanks.