A (Revisionist) Walk in the Park

Trailside Markers Can Shape Our View of the World

I was recently in Missoula, Montana, and had a chance to take a walk on a hike and bike trail along the Clark Fork River. Despite having worked on my taxes shortly before leaving for Missoula, I was in a good mood—the air was crisp, there was a light dusting of snow on the mountains surrounding the city, and the sun was coming through the clouds, giving the place the wonderful glow that Montana always seems to have. Maybe it was lack of oxygen from being at a higher elevation than I live at, but I was even thinking that the park was a good example of something local governments did reasonably well. Then I stopped to read a trailside marker.

The first marker I encountered described the scenery but did so while devoting more than a third of its words to the role of government in preserving the view. The second marker wasn’t much better. Entitled “The River,” it began by noting that “The clear waters of the Clark Fork suffered massive degradation after white settlement began in Western Montana” and went on to explain how “[a]fter environmental awareness emerged in the late 1960s, laws were passed to protect water quality.” Three-quarters of the text on this one, nominally about the river itself, was actually about the government and how it supposedly stopped pollution. Even the trail marker on the “Garden City Islands,” several tiny scraps of land in the river, began by explaining not the natural significance of the islands but that the islands were “established as a wildlife education area in 1995 by the City of Missoula and the Five Valleys Land Trust.”

Indeed, all the trail markers I read (and I think I read them all) presented a peculiar view of Montana’s history. Every one emphasized and aggrandized the role of government. The only place private entities or individuals got much attention was when they donated land for the park or built things one could see from the trail. Even then they usually played second fiddle—the “Built Environment” plaque, for example, did mention buildings built by individuals and businesses, but the theme was the buildings’ designation as “National Historic Landmarks.”

A History of Private Enterprise

This is all the more surprising because Montana has such an incredible history of private enterprise. The state was first settled by pioneers motivated by a desire for gold. Thousands poured in during the 1860s to gold rush towns like Last Chance Gulch (now the state capital, Helena), Virginia City, and Bannack. Entrepreneurs among them, like Conrad Kohrs, built fortunes by setting up businesses to sell the miners food and other supplies. When the gold ran out, huge copper deposits were found, bringing with them the vast empires of the “copper kings,” men like Marcus Daly, who carved entire new towns out of hillsides. Kept in territorial status for over 30 years by Washington politics, government just wasn’t that important to nineteenth-century Montanans’ daily lives. Yet none of the rich history of early entrepreneurship merited a mention on the trailside plaques.

It may not be surprising that I encountered this sort of thing in Missoula. The town is a tiny socialist enclave in the west—local elections are contested not by the Republicans and Democrats but by the Democrats and the “New Party,” one of the few successful chapters of the most recent attempt to build a new nationwide socialist party. Last fall’s election featured a razor-thin victory against a proposed ordinance requiring employers doing business with the government to pay an $8 an hour “living wage.” Even for Montana, a state where a local newspaper once ran a headline “Montana Branded Land of Kooks,” Missoula is odd.

But it is not just Missoula. History, even of the compressed variety used on roadside and trailside plaques, is far too important to be left to governments. Historical markers and the like can shape our view of the world by telling us what’s important. They may be the only history many people read. The “new” history that sprung up in the 1960s and emphasized the stories of individuals other than generals and presidents may be largely a muddle of politically correct stories of oppressed peoples, but it got one thing right—there’s a heck of a lot more to American history than government.

Still, even my encounter with the trailside plaques couldn’t ruin my mood for long. After all, I was in Montana and walking along a beautiful river on a glorious day. Two other features of the trail helped me out of the dark mood induced by the “history” plaques. First, the trailside maps—far more prominent features than the history plaques and much more likely to be read—featured a startling (for Missoula) statement: “Please respect private property.” I’m sure the granola-crunching crowd that runs Missoula just meant that hikers and bikers should stay off people’s lawns, but the phrasing sent a broader message.

My other reason for being optimistic? The most prominent signs along the trail were the stern warnings that the leash law was strictly enforced and carried $25 fines for violators. I saw at least 25 dogs—running, chasing sticks into the river, walking, and playing catch with their owners. I didn’t see a single leash. Governments can rewrite history, but even in an essentially socialist enclave like Missoula, when they get between people and their dogs, they’re powerless. There’s still hope for liberty!