Code of the West

November 6, 2020 at 2:36 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s an odd thing not to trust my neighbors anymore.

I’ve lived in Montana for nearly a quarter of a century, with a couple of years spent away. I’ve always loved the “get-along go-along” ethos of my adopted state. As long as you aren’t hurting another, the general vibe has always been to leave you alone. Smaller communities pride themselves on living by the code of the West. You show up and help members of the community when they’re in need. If their truck is stuck in a snowdrift or their house has been burned to the ground in a fire or the river washed away the one café in town, it’s a duty to help. In a place so starkly defined by our harsh environment, we need to stick together. You show up and keep one another alive.

Apparently, the code of the West doesn’t apply for anything related to a pandemic. It’s one thing to wench a neighbor’s car out of a river, but quite another to wear a face mask so that this same neighbor doesn’t die of Covid. I’ve watched Montana’s number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rise with rage, helplessness, and a sense of inevitability. We’ve had nearly 38,000 cases and 409 deaths in state of less than 1 million. Hospitals in our few cities are at or beyond capacity. Billings made national news. I watched with horror as a nurse cried about how he had missed being with the first Covid patient who died in hospital. He vowed never to let another patient die alone, and so has come in on his days off or stayed late to hold the hands of those who would otherwise die alone. Meanwhile, this nurse has moved into his basement so he won’t infect his family. His hospital is full. This means small community hospitals, many of which don’t even have a doctor in charge, will be tasked with critical care patients. And, still, the cases continue to rise.

At the same time, some communities openly flout the statewide mask mandate. The man recently elected to be our new governor appeared at a “freedom rally,” where hundreds of people mobbed together without masks. Two weeks later, cases and hospitalizations surged in this county. After starting an online petition, parents marched on the first high school football game of the season to protest capping the size of the crowd and requiring masks. Our legislature is planning to convene in person in January, bringing along avowed “anti-maskers” who will inevitably infect other legislators and people in the community—and then all go home and infect people there. Where will the sick go?

What has happened to our society? When did it become negotiable that it’s OK to infect someone with a potentially lethal virus because… What is the rationale? I’m still trying to understand. That it’s so burdensome to wear a mask? That a small discomfort outweighs the life of those around you? I can’t make any sense of it.

I need to let go of this constant rage burning in my gut. It’s not changing anyone’s behavior. I’ve got to accept that a basic compact of society has been broken. I must learn that my neighbors won’t help me stay alive.


  1. Miriam said,

    It’s horrifying. I can understand — but not agree with — the feeling that you need to watch your kid play football. But I just can’t understand the refusal to mask while doing so.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Another thing I want to write about is how people’s desire for life to be normal is pushing them to behave badly. I get wanting a normal life. And I get living for a time with my head in the sand. I’ve done it myself. What I don’t get is taking chances with others’ lives.

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