Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Chairlift: The heart of community

Whitefish Pilot | May 28, 2024 7:40 PM

A seemingly unremarkable experience during a recent trip to Stevensville in the Bitterroot Valley sparked thoughts of what community character really means and what is at its heart. It all started when I overheard brief conversations in a convenience store.

As I perused the racks of typical gas station fare, trying to find something to buy since I had utilized the facilities, I heard the clerk, Sue, talking with a customer about what time he was to begin his work day. The two laughed about how he’d be starting right when she was finishing up.

I had grabbed a sleeve of what I call fire-starter donuts because their waxy chocolate coating could, no doubt, ignite, when another man came into the store. Before the bells on the door stopped jingling, Sue said, “Hi there, Bill.”

“Hello, Sue. Ever get that fence mended?” Bill asked.

“Been working on it, Bill,” she replied. “Nearly finished. How’s Carol healing up?” 

“Oh she’s back at it,” Bill laughed. “She’s a tough bird.”

I spent much of the drive back to the Flathead wondering about the relationships I’d seen in the store. How can Sue keep track of another person’s work schedule or the health of another person’s family member? Did Sue know everyone in town and did everyone know Sue?

What I'd seen was a quiet, powerful example of community character. 

A strong sense of community flourished in the halcyon days of Whitefish. Residents were simultaneously independent and tight-knit. The owner of the corner gas station would lend snow chains to tourists for the week, free of charge. (True story. We returned them to the front stoop of the station before sunrise on our way to the airport.)

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the hardware store owner would get a call from someone who was experiencing a plumbing problem and was in need of a valve or a wrench or duct tape. The owner would open the store to help out his friend.

People knew each other.

Lately in Whitefish, our sense of community seems to be slipping away. We hear a lot about community character at city council meetings when concerns are voiced about how a new housing development is going to ruin the neighborhood community. 

The community feeling of old seems to be slipping away in the woods, on the roads and in town, too.

We’ve seen a lack of trail etiquette. Some people refuse to pass politely, yield the right of way or share a friendly greeting with other hikers/bikers. After being allowed into traffic, many drivers fail to reciprocate the kindness with a wave or a nod. I’ve held the door for people who sashay through without a thanks or even a symbolic reach for the door.

Whitefish is a bigger town than Stevensville, but maybe we could rekindle the Whitefish character of old by becoming more invested in each other. Learn someone’s name. Ask how the fence is coming along.