Monday, February 28, 2005
At some point along the way of my attending small town high school football games throughout Montana and Wyoming, I became acquainted with the concept of cooperative football. Football co-ops exist all over Montana and occur when two or more schools get together to form a football team—often for the reason that neither school is capable of fielding a complete team on its own. Most co-ops are between two or three different schools and it’s not unusual for a school to co-op with one school for football and another school (or no other) for basketball. Some school co-ops cover the entire year, merging two systems for all team sports.
Explaining the mechanics of high school co-ops often resembles a dizzying discussion on astronomy and the laws that govern heavenly bodies and galaxies. Here are a few to consider: During the football season, the towns of Bridger and Fromberg, Montana, combine to form an eight-man football team, but are foes when basketball season comes around. The same is true of Blue Sky and Kremlin-Gildford high schools located on Montana’s Highline—except they only have enough between them to make up a six-man football team. Broadview and Lavina co-op for all their sports while Reed Point fields their own six-man football team but co-ops with Rapelje for basketball. Rapelje, in turn, co-ops with Ryegate for six-man football.
Needless to say, it’s challenging to keep track of who’s playing with who and who’s playing against who. And there isn’t a year that goes by that doesn’t have some new co-op added or deleted from the smaller classes of Montana high school football.
As with most football co-ops, usually only one of the schools will host practices and games, which means that the players from the other school are the ones who have to absorb the extra miles that are required to travel between the two camps. Nevertheless, many of these co-op programs make good sense as they are typically between two schools that aren’t very far from one another and are usually connected by a smooth highway.
Of course, as in the study of astronomy, there are always exceptions to high school co-ops in Montana.
The towns of Custer and Melstone, make up one of the best six-man football teams in the state of Montana. However, their success has not come easy—at least not for the kids from Melstone. Custer and Melstone are separated by 40 miles of dirt road which means after school during the football season, the Melstone students are ferried to Custer in Chevy Suburbans and quad-cab pick-ups by volunteer parents for football practice and then brought home afterwards. Usually the parents take turns driving the entire contingency in one vehicle for each round trip.
When I drove this stretch of dirt road one day, it took me just over an hour to complete. I’m sure some of the parent drivers from Melstone can do it under an hour on most days. And although it’s not a painfully bumpy road, it’s still a dirt road that takes approximately an hour to travel each way… everyday. There’s more than a fair share of washboard and boulders enroute that are likely responsible for excessive and premature repair work to any car or truck that ventures over the road on a regular basis.
Relief for the Melstone bunch comes on Thursdays when the head football coach travels over the dirt from Custer to take the Melstone players through a light workout before their games on Friday night or Saturday. At the same time, assistant coaches in Custer work with the bunch that attend school there. Nonetheless, the Melstone players still have to make the trip back to Custer for friday night home games or to catch the bus on Saturday morning for a road game in the afternoon. It’s probably safe to say that none of the players travel to Custer on Sundays.
Rapelje and Ryegate are two other Montana communities that share a six-man football team between their schools and like Custer and Melstone, they are also separated by an extended amount of miles over a dirt road. In constrast to the dirt road between Custer and Melstone, which is fairly straight and uneventful to travel, the road between Rapelje and Ryegate twists and turns in several locations and includes a steep climb over the 30-something-mile route from Ryegate to Rapelje. While this would be a memorable road trip for football players from any school back East, this is just part of daily life for kids from Ryegate who travel the road to Rapelje for football practices and games.
Unlike folks in Melstone, the school system in Ryegate has maintained a special school bus that makes the daily round trip to Rapelje carrying football players and volleyball players. The first thing you notice about the “Rapelje Express” is its chopped length compared to regular school buses. It also has air brakes allowing it to perform safely when coming off the steep grade into the Big Coulee area. It manages a whopping four miles to every gallon of gasoline burned up in its daily assignment.
John Spizziri is one of two drivers that handles the yellow beast and its unique cargo. The countless trips undoubtedly make for one seasoned driver and bus. On one occasion, I left Ryegate in my little Mazda 626 ten minutes before the Express departed so I could set up my camera and photograph it traversing over the badlands of the Big Coulee area. Once I was perched up on the steep cliffs of Coulee Hill, I was surprised to see the modern, yellow stage coach already at the foot of the hill—I hadn’t even unloaded my camera gear. I scrambled to get a few shots off, but ended up having to do it again on another day with an even greater head start. I have yet to make the trip in under an hour, but Spizziri has it down to 47 minutes barring no bad weather.
Midway through the football season of 2004, I left my car in Ryegate and boarded the express with the team and driver. I was thinking they would have some profound observations that I’d never thought of regarding their daily trip, but like most high school kids, they stay pretty busy socializing on the bus, listening to their portable CD players or just laying across one of the bench seats for a short nap. And once in their midst, they have a way of making it all feel commonplace for anyone who thinks otherwise.
Perhaps the Ryegate football players consider the extra traveling required to play football as another abstract equation to the simple life of Montana’s rural settings. Nevertheless, I drove back to my home that evening thinking it was all pretty darn special. Perhaps when they are old and gray and entertaining grandchildren, they’ll recount those ordinary bus rides between Ryegate and Rapelje with sweet, extraordinary affection—colorizing the long journeys they made everyday in the same light as their favorite game memories.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Somewhere north of Harlowton, perhaps around Judith Gap, is where I first detect that I’m in a place that is strange to me. This is that expanse in the Montana geography where it begins to feel as much North as it does West.
Every time I go there and beyond, I always find myself trying to articulate what it is that makes it feel different or look different. Perhaps it’s the angle of the waning autumn sun—lower in the South than back home in Wyoming. Maybe it’s the alternating fields of winter wheat rather than the endless horizons of sagebrush.
Whatever defines this space, my arrival there is confirmed visually as I scan the northern horizon in search of the Highwood Mountains or Square Butte. Once I see them, I know I’ve crossed that ambiguous threshold.
It’s a wonderous, but at the same time, uncomfortable feeling that never quite retreats from my conscious. Despite this unsettled feeling, I’m always gratified in its presence when I drift through towns like Stanford, Geraldine and even the metropolis of Great Falls.
Tonight as I make the short trek to my office in the dark, quiet streets of Powell, I’m thinking back to yesterday which feels so far away now; of Rocky Boy and the football game there. So far north it seems—and to think about all the darkness that separates us now. Yet, if I were desperate enough, I could jump back in my car and before morning light arrives, I could be back in that faraway place to experience its sense of north.
There is always plenty of time to ponder the mysteries of life—and then some—on my way to any given contest; attending some of these games demands as much as seven hours of driving in one direction. One early Saturday morning I was laughing at myself when I considered how far some people drive for a college or pro contest and there I was putting in over 300 miles to witness one particular high school match-up.
It’s like I’m holding one of the best kept secrets in these small town football games. Considering the millions of tourists who converge upon Wyoming and Montana every year seeking out the splendor of their national parks and surrounding areas, I wonder how many of those same people ever make it to a small town football game in one of these two states? Such is the Grand Canyon and its two classifications of visitors. For a half hour or less (as many studies have claimed), some people stand on the rim and gaze into this great work of erosional art and contemplate what it must be like down there. However, a much smaller percentage find the additional time to explore its depths and thus become intimate with its layers of rock and respectful of its inherent remoteness and dangers. It’s not difficult to calculate who walks away from the Grand Canyon with a richer experience or greater appreciation.
And in a less glorious analogy, so it is in the case of those who visit Montana or Wyoming. Like the Grand Canyon, you can get a general feel for what these two states have to offer if you visit their scenic wonders and gaze over them from a distance. However, taking the extra time to travel to towns like Dubois, Sunburst or Savage for a football game will surely yield a more euphoric experience— where you can sit or stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the locals at a six-man or eight-man game played against the spectacular backdrops provided by the Northern Rockies and the adjacent wide open spaces. And if someone asks you where you are from and why you came (because they’ll spot you easily) all you have to do is tell them you just love football and you heard this was one of the best places to see a game. Such a reply will be good enough.
There’s more to Wyoming and Montana than standing in a blue ribbon trout stream with a fly rod or hiking through a tranquil area of the Bob Marshall wilderness. And on an autumn Saturday afternoon (Friday night too in some towns), you’ll find me in Denton, Belt, Meeteetse or Custer where small town high school football folds into the landscape like sugar in your coffee. Perhaps the game isn’t as perfect as the NFL, but the scenario is just as perfect as standing in one of those blue ribbon streams.