It’s a good thing Billings writer Russell Rowland got a second opinion.
The first time he pitched the idea of traveling to all of Montana’s 56 counties to write a book about them, an editor Rowland was dating in San Francisco at the time said it was an awful idea and no one would buy his book.
Rowland made a second pitch more than a decade later to a different editor after his novel, “High and Inside,” was published, and his two-year journey began. Now he’s traveling Montana again to sell copies of the book, “Fifty-six Counties: A Montana Journey.” Rowland’s book tour will stop at 16 Montana cities from Broadus to Polson and take him to Idaho and Washington.
One of Rowland's first stops was Thursday at the Western Heritage Center, where staff members scrambled to find extra chairs to seat the capacity crowd.
“I was so excited, I started to plan my journey even though I was extremely broke,” Rowland said.
A Kickstarter campaign generated $7,000 to fund two years of travel and research he put into the book. Rowland made four loops through Montana, hitting every county seat.
Although Rowland was born in Montana, he left the state in 1996 and didn’t return until 2007. That gave him a distance that Yellowstone County historian Kevin Kooistra said strengthened Rowland’s writing, and ultimately the new book.
“I love that self reflection you get from Russell,” Kooistra said. “There are a lot of books written about Montana by people from outside Montana.”
At first, Rowland visited the different counties and wrote his impressions of them, but it felt too much like a travelogue, which wasn’t what he intended.
So he divided the book into sections driven by industry, including mining and farming. He located museums in every county he visited, discovering that only two Montana counties lack museums.
“I didn’t want to talk to any politicians," Rowland said. "I wanted it to be authentic.”
His one regret is that he didn’t talk to teenagers or people in their early 20s but gravitated toward middle-aged folks.
Rowland was surprised to discover that Helena was the city he most wanted to move to, and Fort Benton was his favorite small town. The most fascinating town he visited was Butte, which he compared to a Dr. Seuss village.
Rowland also enjoyed the people and the scenery in Livingston, Choteau and Lewistown. But mostly he fell in love with Montana.
“What is most beautiful about this place is the spirit of it,” Rowland said.
But Rowland also described Montana as being bipolar. He quoted a Gallup survey from 2014 that found Montana to be the Happiest State in America. But the same year, several reports ranked Montana in the top three for its suicide rate.
“Well, that is one of the many things I want to address in this book,” Rowland wrote in his introduction. “For one thing, there is an inherent pressure when you live in Montana to be happy.”
Rowland said during one of his favorite interviews, Fallon County farmer Jerry Sikorski, invited him to smell his soil. Others, mostly people in tiny Eastern Montana towns, gave him “the stare.”
“Those who encounter ‘the stare’ should not panic,” Rowland wrote. “Although at first glance, the stare suggests that you might want to turn around and go back to your car, the explanation is pretty simple. The stare comes from seeing the same 25 or 30 people day after day for the past five or 10 years.”
Rowland is doing a reading Friday at the Henry A. Malley Memorial Library in Broadus and at the Library of Miles City on Saturday. For the full tour schedule, go to russellrowland.com.