When I was a kid, I spent part of every summer at my grandparents’ ranch just fifteen miles north of Alzada, about a hundred and fifty miles from here. To me, the Arbuckle Ranch was the biggest playground in the world, a place full of wonder and mystery, the complete opposite of my boring suburban life in Billings.
One summer day when I was about eight, my grandparents took me to spend the day at the neighbors’, who had a boy my age. Kelly Kornemann was a typical ranch kid. He was quiet but friendly, with a dry wit and a great sense of adventure. When I went to visit Kelly, I always knew it was going to be a good day. On this particular day, Kelly asked me whether I’d ever ridden a calf.
“Of course!” I said. This was a lie.
But I was a Montana kid, and my dad was on the college rodeo team in Bozeman, where I was born. He was even a rodeo clown until my mother made him stop when he got stepped on by a bull just a few months after I came along. So I knew, in that way that kids know things without any evidence whatsoever, that I was going to be able to ride that calf like a real cowboy.
Kelly took me to the barn, where he fixed me up with chaps, gloves, and even spurs. He fastened a rigging around the calf’s torso, and showed me how to tuck my hand tight around that rope. We guided the calf into the chute, where I lowered myself from the rails onto his back. I was ready.
Kelly whipped that gate open just like they did at the Days of ’85 in Ekalaka, and for about five seconds, I rode that calf like a champion. But suddenly, the calf stopped dead in his tracks, and I went flying. I landed flat on my stomach, and my legs kicked up so my spurs popped me right in the back. For the next ten minutes, I was pretty sure I was going to die.
Kelly must have thought the same thing, because the next thing I knew, he had rolled me onto my back, and he was crying like a baby. And then Kelly did something I didn’t understand at all. He crawled down to my feet and started to pull my boots off.
What Kelly and I didn’t know was that his father Donny was watching this whole scene play out from the barn, laughing his ass off. For years afterward, both of our families had a good laugh over the fact that Kelly Kornemann wasn’t about to let his friend die with his boots on.
I would imagine that at least half the people in the audience today have a similar story from their childhood. One of the best parts about growing up in Montana is that we have an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons in ways that people in other parts of the country never experience, through direct contact with the land and its creatures.
This kind of life also presents some other interesting challenges, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. I spent a good part of this past year traveling to every county in Montana as research for my next book, and I’ve learned a few things I didn’t expect from this journey. Last year, Gallup did a poll to determine the state with the happiest people in the country, and Montana finished number one. That didn’t surprise me. But I came across another study that did take me by surprise. Apparently, for the past forty years, Montana has also ranked in the top five in suicide rate, every single year. We have often finished in the top two.
Now it might seem kind of tacky to bring up a topic like this on a day when we’re here to celebrate. Maybe even a little bit cruel. But I hope you’ll see why I think it’s important.
One of the most fabulous gifts you have before you as young people who have achieved this important milestone in your life is that you get a chance to tell the rest of your story from here on out. And you get to tell it the way you want to tell it.
Going back to the story of riding the calf, I can just imagine there are those among you who would tell the rest of that story in a way that is much different than I would. There is often pressure that comes from the people around us to get back on that horse, to get past whatever fear or pain we might have experienced from our failures. That can sometimes be a valuable lesson, but it can also sometimes put pressure on kids who are not all that interested in being tough.
I can also imagine those among you who might get bucked off that calf and decide you’re never going to go anywhere near a calf again. It is sometimes too easy to let fear take over our lives, and that kind of fear can sometimes leave us paralyzed in the face of challenges and goals that we could easily achieve if we put our minds to it. Fear is natural, but allowing fear to prevent us from taking risks is a trap that leads many to give up on their dreams.
Somewhere in the middle of stubborn fearlessness and paralyzing anxiety is a place that can be incredibly uncomfortable, but also incredibly rewarding. It is a place that most Montanans don’t like to talk about, despite the fact that we will all visit this place at some point in our lives. It is a place where young people who are just graduating from college are naturally going to feel as they face big decisions in the next phase of their lives.
Before I tell you about this place, I want to share with you a theory I have about the West, and especially about Montana. It has to do with this whole idea of telling your own story. From the time our region was first settled, our story was told by people who had an agenda. First it was military or the government, mostly men, who needed a narrative that fit the events of their time.
A lot of attention has been paid, for good reason, to the fact that this story had plenty of holes. It demonized the Native American population, obviously, but there’s another part to this story that often gets left out, and this is the narrative of Montana that I want you to think about as you move forward with your lives. Many people were duped into coming out West, by the railroads, by the government, and by excellent salesman who had a stake in this new frontier. They had something to be gained. So people came here with nothing, on fire with rumors about grass up to your waist, and soil that produced bushels of fat, hearty grain and vegetables.
The loss that people suffered in the early days of the West was heartbreaking. This place was a children’s graveyard. The number of family farms and ranches that failed in the early days of the Homestead Act was well into the tens of thousands.
So the story of the people who stayed—your people, my people—is one of perseverance and incredible resilience. We come from tough, stubborn, hard-working and adaptable stock. That’s the good news. But there has always been a darker side to that coin.
The flip side is the message we got early on that it’s not okay to ask for help. That you take care of your own business and don’t bother other folks with your problems. We came by this message honestly, with ancestors that knew that if they complained, they would become outcasts in their own community. Because everyone had it tough. Nobody wanted to hear about your problems, because theirs were just as bad or worse. Westerners have learned for years that they need to be self-sufficient, and that message has not been good for many of us.
When I was just a couple of years older than most of you are now, I hit a point in my life where I felt completely hopeless. I could not function. I needed to find a job but I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t submit a simple job application.
Fortunately, right in the middle of the worst of that time, my father realized that he had a drinking problem, and he admitted himself to a treatment center. I was too young and too ignorant about alcoholism to figure it out right away, but once I learned more about what my father was going through, I realized that I had the same problem. Less than a year later, I was in treatment myself, and my life turned completely around. I have not had a drink for many years.
So my message to you, my young friends, is simple. Life is easy when it’s going well, when things fall into place, when you get what you want. But many of you will reach a point in your lives where all the answers you thought you had will suddenly seem worthless, where everything you thought you believed in will seem inadequate. And that is when you have to ignore those voices that tell you to buck up and figure it out for yourself. That’s when you need to shake off the idea that you’re supposed to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and rely on yourself. That is when you need to show your vulnerable side and ask for help. That’s the place I was talking about.
I have often told the story of riding that calf, and I usually end by saying that I never rode a calf again. But I actually don’t remember for sure. I may have ridden a calf again that same day. I honestly don’t know. Because to me, that’s not the important part of that story. The important part of that story is the fact that I had a friend by my side that day who cared about what happened to me. Kelly Kornamann showed a side of himself that day that I had never seen before, and that’s what I remember most.
In 2002, when my first book came out, I did a reading here in Miles City at Joe Whalen’s bookstore, and I had a surprise guest that evening. Kelly Kornamann drove all the way from Gillette to be there for that reading. And to me, that kind of friendship will always be more valuable than any degree, any possession, any job. And if I were to wish any one thing for each of you, it would be that you have friends like that in your story. Thank you and the best of luck to you.