Ingomar's fortune 

With ranching hurting and ranchers aging, can a once-proud Montana town endure?

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Some 40 people attended the meeting, which means that at least 13 attendees were from somewhere else.

During the meeting, residents asked a sheepish USPS representative questions about the proposed closure. The few answers he had were not satisfying. Nearly everyone I spoke with said they were going to write their congressmen. I wondered if 27 letters wouldmakemuchof a splash.

After the meeting, many of the attendees walkedthe200yards across town to the Jersey Lilly, the local bar, and the only business in town that the federal government doesn't want to shutter. I ordered a bowl of bean soup, a grilled cheese and a Budweiser. My friend Beth ordered a Moose Drool and a shot of whiskey. The soup came out in a pot that I ladled into my bowl. Included was a local delicacy supposed to have been a favorite snack of the sheepherders who once bent elbows in the burnt-down building up the street: a saltine cracker, a slice of cheddar cheese, a bit of raw white onion and a wedge of peeled orange. The result is crunchy and slimy; salty, tart and sweet. It's not bad—the flavors are sort of a wash—but it does make you wonder why. The entire meal with drinks cost $16.

We tried to stay at the Jersey Lilly long enough to watch the St. Louis Cardinals win an improbable Word Series, but, feeling exhausted, we left before the start of the ninth. We crossed the street to Central Park, Ingomar's municipal plot of grass with a few picnic tables and horseshoe pits. We had set up our tents before the meeting, in the day's diminishing light, and the dropping temperature made me wish I had kept my sleeping bag in the car. I said goodnight to Beth and climbed into my bag.

click to enlarge Mark Boone returned to Ingomar to ranch with his father after studying in California. - PHOTO BY ELIZABETH L. COSTIGAN

I couldn't sleep. At this point, I knew nothing about the place. Nothing about the railroad pamphlets, the nutrient-leached clay soil, the undrinkable water. But the night's quiet was intense, and, as I lay awake, felt absolute. The errant flap of the tent wall, the padding of a mousing catthe murmurs were amplified against the silence, louder and stranger than they ever had been before. Ingomar conjured in me a feeling I have only ever felt looking at an ocean.

I grew up in cities and towns on the East Coast, where there are either too many buildings or too many trees to get much perspective; where communities get together to discuss the pros and cons of bike lanes; where, usually, you can't see the stars or hear the wind in the leaves. The places that are growing in Montana—Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell—are increasingly this way. But in eastern Montana—in Ingomar—every view is uninterrupted, and seeing the prairie, like seeing the ocean, is to feel very small and alone and human.

Ingomar will disappear. Just as neighboring Sumatra and Vananda dried up and blew away, Ingomar will someday be kneaded back into the folds of the prairie. There is hope, perhaps, in the prospect of the oil boom sprawling to Rosebud County, but most residents are uncertain what that will mean for the town and if it could even happen in their lifetimes. Rather, the question in Ingomar is not if but when, and the people who still live there know it.



Why Ingomar?

I met Susan Webber, the second-youngest person in Ingomar, on my second visit, in mid-November. She served me a grilled cheese at the Jersey Lilly. I asked her if she was willing to be interviewed and she said she wasn't a good person to talk to: "I only moved here in 2008." I told her I thought that was interesting, and that I'd love to talk if she were willing.

Webber has a nervous energy that, when compared to the stoicism of Stan Boone and Howard Newman, seems decidedly East Coast-ish. She second-guesses herself before her words even cross the bar, and she fidgets constantly.

I asked her why Ingomar. She said it was always her husband's dream to live out West, to settle down in an emptier landscape. She said he likes to hunt and trap and shoot his guns.

I asked her how she feels about Ingomar. "It's what's not here that's most important," she saidand she began to cry. "It's just, life sometimes, back there, could be overwhelming. It's much quieter here." She moved away from the bar and wiped her eyes with a Kleenex. "Really," she continued, "I'm here..."

click to enlarge A crumbling Acorn Flats estate, on the edge of the Boone ranch. - PHOTO BY ELIZABETH L. COSTIGAN

I saw Susan again six weeks later, in January, on my last visit to the town. I wasn't sure if she'd want to talk with me again, but she agreed to let me come to her house, which is connected to the post office, on my way out of town.

The Webbers' front yard has the flung-upon appearance of NNN ranch headquarters: rusting pick-up trucks, a four-wheeler, a tractor. When we pulled up, the coyote that had been in the back of Wally Newman's pick-up was sprawled across the hood of a pick-up parked next to the Webbers' house. Susan met me at the front door and invited me in. I asked if her husband was home.

Calvin Webber, 60, has the irrefutable appearance of someone with whom one should not fuck. He has a gray handlebar mustache, a thick neck and forearms like calf muscles tattooed with images of bullets, a deer in crosshairs and the words "Remington" and "Winchester." When we met, he was sitting in a recliner eating a bowl of soup. Above him, on the wall, were three trophy whitetail mounts.

Calvin seemed put out by my presence. I asked him if we could talk for a minute. He said sure, but he wouldn't have much to say.

Calvin describes himself as a loner. He said the biggest threat to a place like Ingomar is the federal government "messing with people."

"I'm in heaven here," he said.

"I'm so lucky to have a fantastic wife who's willing to be here with me. So lucky"and as he spoke, Susan sat on a couch on the other side of the room, a box of tissues on her lap.

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