A few years ago, the band Little Big Town had a hit song called "Boondocks." It was a twangy, boot-stompin' ditty about the raptures of rural living: "I feel no shame. I'm proud of where I came from. I was born and raised in the boondocks."
If only I felt that way about my home state, Montana.
When you live in Los Angeles as I do and people learn that you grew up in Montana, the reaction is always the same. "Absolutely gorgeous, right?" I always widen my eyes and nod yes. "Jaw dropping," I sometimes add.
It's a lie, or at least partly a lie. For me, a gay man with a longtime partner, Montana has long been an ugly place. Gilded wheat fields? Snaggletoothed mountain peaks? Rivers running through it? Absolutely. But to see the natural splendor you have to look past the bumper stickers: "Real Men Marry Women," "It's Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve," "Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman."
What a view.
Homophobia happens everywhere, of course, including New York, where gay bashing has been alarmingly prevalent of late. And, ahem, holding a whole state accountable for a few jerks is not especially big-minded of me. Times also change. I may have been tortured by certain classmates at Billings Senior High School, but my mother, now a teacher there, recently helped start its first gay and lesbian student group. "It's not the same state," she told me.
An opportunity to prove her right -- or wrong -- arose in late June. My younger brother, Brit, was getting married in Big Sky, the resort town outside Yellowstone National Park. Instead of our usual dash-in-and-dash-out approach to Montana visits, my partner, Joe, and I decided to precede the wedding with a seven-day driving tour of the state. We would either arrive in Big Sky with newly open minds about Montana or we would be sporting a bumper sticker of our own: "Paddle Faster. I Hear Banjo Music."
How would anyone in Montana know we were a couple? After 13 years together, we aren't in the habit of being overly demonstrative with our affection, but you would have to be blind not to notice our orientation. I'm basically a walking stereotype (yes, I packed my hot pink Lacoste polo). There is a lot of whispering in ears and standing close and giving little love pats. That kind of thing.
In a rented sport utility vehicle, we set out from Bozeman in an afternoon rainstorm and drove north, stopping overnight in the hillside capital of Helena, where the governor in April signed a bill decriminalizing "deviant" gay sex. (Cheers to him, but it took until 2013?) Our ultimate destination was Glacier National Park, but we took a detour through Great Falls to my birthplace: Conrad, a one-stoplight prairie town near the Canadian border.
Conrad is a Podunk place, not much more than a gas station and a few agricultural businesses. But it also seemed like a good spot to take Montana's inhabitants and their allegedly new live-and-let-live spirit for a test drive. We stopped for lunch at the Home Cafe, a quintessential greasy spoon with quilts decorating the walls and rhubarb pie under Saran wrap in a display case.
Taking two open counter seats, we ordered $6 cheeseburgers, each topped with a fat spatula slap of mayonnaise. The dozen or so locals were friendly, especially the waitress ("You betcha!"), and Joe and I were soon enjoying the small-town quaintness of a voluminous article in the local newspaper: garden club members had been grappling with the best way to comply with a "hot and spicy" theme at this year's fair.
Our carriage and demeanor, as usual, left nothing to the imagination. Picture Jack from "Will & Grace" and his slightly more masculine boyfriend amid a group of farmers. Still, nobody gave us so much as a raised eyebrow. "Maybe I'm less flamboyant than I used to be," I whispered to Joe. He responded with an eye roll.
"You boys want a piece of pie?" our waitress asked with a wink.
We arrived at the 100-year-old Glacier Park Lodge to find a tour group from Japan oohing and aahing at the atrium lobby, the roof of which is held up by dozens of Douglas firs, each standing 40 feet tall and retaining its bark. So much for locals. But in the lush meadows on the eastern side of the park we encountered a great many welcoming Montanans -- visitors from Fort Benton checking out the purple lupines, a family from Bigfork chattering about spotting a moose. We made fools of ourselves, or at least caricatures, by taking 10,000 close-up pictures of wildflowers, in particular the rust-colored patches of Indian paintbrush.
By the fourth day of our trip, we started to notice the scarcity of same-sex couples. Wherever we went, we seemed to be the only one. But everything was going spectacularly well. People shopping at the Walmart in Great Falls did not seem to appreciate my dancing-in-the-aisles enthusiasm for the pop song "Call Me Maybe" when it came over the store speakers. Then again, Joe didn't either.
A feeling that we honestly never anticipated for this trip, less vacation than fact-finding mission, started to seep in: relaxation.
We traversed Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road, making abrupt stops to hike down to waterfalls, which were gushing in their full majestic glory. The highway, which climbs roughly 3,500 feet as it crosses the Continental Divide, had been fully cleared of snow only 11 days earlier. But a freak heat wave -- it was 95 degrees in West Glacier, a record -- had resulted in abnormally high snow melt. Joe kept his window rolled down as we passed the Weeping Wall, a stretch of two-lane highway where water sprays out of the rock cliffs and splashes on the asphalt. Drenched, he was nonetheless all smiles.
It was time for that pie. En route to tidy, well-to-do Whitefish, we rolled through a town called Hungry Horse, home of the Huckleberry Patch, a restaurant and gift shop dedicated -- go figure -- to all things huckleberry, a tart local fruit. A slice of pie ($4.50, hot or cold) was our humble goal, but as we passed the huckleberry licorice and jars of huckleberry hand cream, we started to feel uneasy. There was actually nothing, um, fruity about the place, which made its conservatism known by also stocking an extensive line of pro-gun knickknacks and hats reading, "PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals." Our protective shields shot up.
The gruff guy behind the counter was concerned only about our order (we passed on trying an elk burger), but we quietly ate our pie and beat it out of there.
When I was growing up in Montana (I left in 1993), Whitefish, to the southwest of Glacier, was known for its skiing, its fancy vacation houses and its proximity to the home bases of the Aryan Nations and Militia of Montana. Today, both organizations have a greatly diminished, albeit not vanished, presence along the Montana-Idaho border. In turn, Whitefish has been overrun with wealthy "out-of-staters," as the lady working at Cowgirl Coffee put it.
We picked up a free activities newsletter -- the one with a column titled "DidJaNo?" -- and realized that, in fact, we did not: a farmers' market was getting under way momentarily at a park near the old train station. "Is this place for real?" Joe asked me, as we walked past cutesy little stands selling artisanal birdhouses, heirloom cucumbers and organic granola. Three perfect children played a game of leapfrog on the grass as the Sun Raven Band plucked mandolins. I gave Joe a peck on the cheek and we sat down on a picnic bench to listen to the music, his arm around my shoulders. We felt completely comfortable: not a word, a stare or a smirk inhibited us.
So far, my mom was clearly winning. But I wasn't about to make it easy for her, so we headed back toward Big Sky by taking a rural route, driving south down Highway 83, which cuts through the Flathead National Forest to Seeley Lake. Our destination was Fairmont Hot Springs, a family resort replete with a looping waterslide outside Anaconda, an old copper-mining town. "I've lived in Montana my entire life, and never felt the need to visit Anaconda," my dad had warned us.
He's missing out! We didn't love Fairmont, but not because the woman at the front desk was flummoxed when I explained to her that, no, a king bed was indeed preferable to two doubles. The hotel was just a bit basic for us. But tiny Anaconda, a 10-minute drive away, proved to be a highlight of our trip. Downtown isn't much, just the county courthouse with its sandstone tower, a few rowdy-looking bars and a largely vacant Main Street; the smelter closed years ago. But it has a certain pluck.
We decided to go on a classic date: dinner and a movie. Barclay II, an old-fashioned supper club and lounge, was packed, and we soon understood why. Our superb waitress, Tammy, who also teaches geography at the high school, informed us that every steak automatically came with a couple of things: shrimp cocktail, salad, baked potato, breadsticks, ravioli, spaghetti with marinara sauce, a relish tray, a salami and cheese plate and spumoni or vanilla ice cream.
"I'm in hog heaven," Joe murmured.
Doggie bags in hand -- Tammy insisted -- we caught a late show ("Fast & Furious 6") at the 76-year-old Washoe Theater, an Art Deco palace that boasts carved ram heads on the walls, etched glass doors, and a salmon, cornflower and pale yellow mural on its domed ceiling. I cuddled up to Joe, interlocking my arm with his.
The next day, as we followed the swashbuckling Gallatin River toward Big Sky on Route 191, we had to hand it to my mother. Fine, I will say it: She was right. Just like people, places deserve second chances. We're probably not going to move to Montana anytime soon, but we may very well be back for a long Christmas.
What happened with my brother's wedding? I will respectfully keep those details private, except for this: Joe caught the bouquet, to cheers.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.