There are coffeeshops in Dillon, Montana. Two of them, actually.
I’m not counting the places that just serve coffee, like the drive-thru shack past the 91/41 split or the Starbucks kiosk in the Safeway. Those are the kinds of places frequented by the ranchers and the cattlemen, the folks driving to work up in Butte, 65 miles away, pulling in bleary and hateful at 5:30 A.M., demanding quad shot mo-kah-chee-nos and red-eyes served in cups large enough to baptize Achilles. These aren’t those kind of places. I’m talking about Coffeeshops, flagships of the idea.
If you’ve ever been in one (you have), you know what I mean: thrift store tables, unwanted but polite communal conversation, unused board games stacked in the corner by the bus bin, The Shins whispersinging about “new slang” on an eternal loop, worrisomely pretty young women adorning your drinks with foamy leaves and hearts, a bathroom no one ever enters or leaves but is always in use.
In D.C., I work out of coffeeshops a lot. A couple hours every weekday, usually. I’m actually sitting in one now (Compass. Don’t judge).
I like the energy of being around people I don’t know, of casually checking out the butts on the kempt dudes living the suit-life that bluster through in herds between 7:45 and 8:30 A.M., of feeling productive but untethered. I’ve always been the type of person for whom social fear was a great motivator, and as such, working where a ton of other people can see your laptop screen is effective. More plainly put: I don’t wanna be that 30-something sitting in public, refreshing Facebook over and over and… It puts that fire in my work belly.
Last I checked, there are roughly 660,000 people in D.C. (I could look it up, but I don’t feel accuracy on this point is necessary), and exactly 736,422 coffeeshops (I did try to look this up, but the data I was finding didn’t fit my hyperbolic tendencies, so I made it a better number). Dillon, Montana has a population of 4,134 (4,135 when I was there, temporarily, off and on for around a month), and those aforementioned two coffeeshops.
Here’s the thing, though: If a supervillain kidnapped you tomorrow, blindfolded you, spun you around the world for a week, then set you down in a coffeeshop facing away from the street and put a raygun to your head, you’d have a harder time than you’d think answering the question “Are you in D.C. or Dillon?” And not just because you’re really confused as to her endgame (not all supervillains are men, you sexist!) and are all fucked up from crossing the international dateline who knows how many times.
I know this because when I was in Dillon, I worked much in the same way I do when I was in D.C. Sitting in the Sweetwater Cafe, not entirely sure the same pretty white girls who just made my latte aren’t the very same ones I see in The Coffee Bar or Slipstream or Filter back home. Death Cab for Cutie is on the Pandora station they’re playing, and I have a spreadsheet open that I’m idly poking. There are four young men discussing a film project at the table next to me. There is art for purchase on the walls. Everyone is wearing Warby Parkers. Including me. This story has no heroes.
There may be less (fewer? less? fewer?) coffeeshops in Dillon than D.C., but the experience holds eerily true. I guess it’s kind of like eating Gushers. Regardless of the flavor, regardless of how many you have, they all basically taste the same: sweet, slightly disappointing, hard to turn down.
It’s even hard to say whether or not Dillon counts as a small town. Compared to, say, Tuscon or Schenectady (which I spelled correctly, first try!) or Lagos, Nigeria, sure. It’s small. But in the context of the broadvast plains, softgold hills and greychipped peaks of Montana, it carries some heft. When the world you inhabit feels so big, any small collection of humans has heft.
But OK, yeah, it’s still not big. Most everyone there owns a truck. And the kids too young to get licenses drive ATVs to the store to pick shit up for their parents. And everyone fishes. And people say faggot a little too much for my liking during casual conversation at the Klondike. And the smokedust from the forest fires up near Hamilton rolls in from the west, streaking the valley sky like someone was cropdusting from a blimp.
But there are coffeeshops here! Two of them! And the kids dress like white kids dress everywhere in America! And the people have Trump stickers and Hillary stickers! And there’s a fucking Patagonia Outlet in the middle of town! This is not the boondocks. This is Mecca in micro. Circle the Beaverhead Brewing Company three times. Then park.
I started writing this with the intent of really puttin’ the screws to America. Of showing how much better I am than all you drones. Of saying something like the following:
“If coffeeshops exist both in D.C. and Dillon, the sense of uniqueness that we hold onto and assign to place and culture doesn’t really exist. Or, maybe better put, it’s less stark than we want to believe, and all this “only in D.C…” bullshit I hear people spouting needs to crawl back to the Masters in Public Policy program it came from.
And this is not to say that the happy opposite is our truth: that we are nationalized and globalized, the interconnectedness of the world leveling the playing field until anywhere you can find the internet you can find the ties that bind us all together.
What I am trying to say is that we are a congealed people. We Americans, of whom I feel an authority to judge. We are not Hands Across America, fingers linking and people as a whole. Instead, we are sinking together, sliding toward something recognizable, people seeking something worse than average, worse than the societal mean.
We want to be the mode, the human data point most common in the set of other human datapoints. Common, commodified, communal in our communications. Desirable through our typicality, our pure middle-of-the-roadness. Bits of chicken falling to the middle of a lukewarm box top casserole.”
But that was 30 minutes ago. Before I heard “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” for the thousandth time. Before my medium dark roast, no sugar, no milk. Before I realized I was wrong.
Open scene. Dillon, Montana. The sun is setting. It’s 9:30 P.M. There are horses across the road doing horse things and cows across the creek doing nothing. There is probably a hawk in the sky, because fuck it, why not? This didn’t actually happen, not on one night, at least. It’s the aggregate in sentence form. A month of nights, of horses and hawks and sunsets and family and isolation and doubt and love.
Look close. There I am, standing on my parents’ front porch, the posts lined with rocks blasted from the exposed granite of the Boulder Batholith, four or five mountain ranges (there is some debate) perched on the horizons within my 230-degrees of discernable world. The lights of the town are visible, barely, humming two miles to the north.
In this constructed moment, made of so many moments, 4,134 feels like a lot. Roughly 660,000 feels like a lot, too.
And whether I’m here or there, somehow, out in all this space, whether you can walk for 45 miles in one direction and cross only fences and grass, or you can’t walk more than 30 feet without seeing a discarded coffee cup in the gutter, we managed to find each other, to make a community.
It feels ordained. It feels like magic.