The Unabomber: Montana's vast badlands make a state fit for misfits

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The Independent Online
If there was ever a natural habitat for Theodore Kaczynski, it was the state of Montana, a vast, empty sanctuary for misfits, misanthropes and fugitive scoundrels from almost the very birth of the United States of America.

For one thing, everyone minds their business - and who wouldn't in a place three times the size of England, where the nearest neighbour to snoop on might be 50 miles? Montana is where you do your own thing.

Alone of US states, it abolished all speed limits (though that was not of much interest to Mr Kaczynksi whose preferred method of travel from his shack in the woods to pick up the mail and groceries in town was an ancient bike).

In Montana you can drive at 80mph down razor straight B-roads slicing across the high plains, and not see a soul. Only a scattering of seedy, faded towns with names like Paradise breaks the monotony.

For dropouts, recluses and misfits like Mr Kaczynski, paradise is what Montana was. From the earliest days of the West, men on the run were attracted to its hills, forests and ranges, and its proximity to Canada. A hundred years later, Vietnam draft-dodgers gravitated there for the same reason.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid chilled out in Montana for a while. More recently the selection of residents has become even more bizarre, not just eccentrics and an alleged criminal genius like Mr Kaczynski, but far-right militiamen convinced that just across that Canadian border black-clad troops in helicopters were massing, about to take over the US in the name of the United Nations.

Then there were the Freemen. They holed themselves up with a small arsenal of weapons in a ranch at the opposite end of the state, around the same time as the Unabomber was caught.

So idiosyncratic were the Freemen than even the Militia of Montana regarded them as seriously unhinged. They threatened to hang the local sheriff, issued their own currency and finally "seceded" from the "Satan" of the United States before giving themselves up. Not surprisingly, bumper stickers began to appear around Montana, proclaiming "At Least Our Cows Aren't Mad."

Maybe the climate has something to do with this proliferation of the bizarre. Montana may have lately turned wacky, but it has always been a hard place to live. Farming is mainly a drought-plagued hardscrabble affair. The plains are blazing hot in summer, but icy cold in winter, scoured by mighty blizzards sweeping out of the Rockies.

But suburbanisation and Western chic are an even greater threat to the land where the buffalos and cowboys roamed. Today, cities like Billings and Missoula are strip mall- strewn specimens of anywhere USA. Out on the range, Media glitterati such as Ted Turner and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw have ranches. However much true Montanans detest it, the Big Sky Country is becoming the Big Dude Country.