South of the Border: "Living with the "new normal"... in Whitlash"


April 22, 2020

Hannah Kultgen, a 10-year old 4H member in Whitlash, is making face masks for nonmedical people. She's issued a challenge to other 4H members to each sew 25 masks for their community. So far she's shipped about a dozen and has requests for 20 more.

More than 90% of the country's residents are under "stay at home" directives and all of us are being cautioned to stay "socially distant" to help minimize COVID-19 spread. We hear the directives will likely be extended further in to the future. Millions are separated from their jobs, either temporarily or permanently.

We see images on the news of major metropolitan areas in the U.S. with streets vacant of people or vehicles. Many businesses are shuttered and schools are closed. In the past few weeks since the onset of COVID-19 we've all been experiencing what social commentators are now calling the "new normal."

I was interested to see what the new normal looks like in rural America. More particularly, what does it look like in Whitlash-a community of seven souls surrounded by scattered ranches peopled with a few more souls. Here's some of what I learned about the new normal in my adopted neighborhood up here in the Sweet Grass Hills.

The "new normal" on ranches

For most ranch families in the Hills during this time of year there's a self-imposed "stay at home directive" called calving. Jesse and Chance Thompson ranch just south of Whitlash. Jesse said, "We're pretty much confined to home until calving is done." The couple's two-year old daughter is susceptible to lung problems from the cold so Jesse said, "I'm making no trips to shop in town or pick up the mail in Whitlash." Jesse's folks in Sunburst provide fresh eggs and bring other essentials when they shop.

Vicki Kultgen, lives right in Whitlash with her husband, Dan, and daughter, Hannah. Hannah is home schooled. "But," Vicki said, "I do miss taking Hannah to her 4H, Girl Scouts, home school co-op gatherings, piano lessons and play dates with friends in town." Even Girl Scout cookie distribution is shut down. The new normal is ranch families are staying at home.

Bob and Diana Thompson ranch up against the base of East Butte. Bob participated online in a bull sale recently. He explained, "Bull sales have to occur this time of year so ranchers can turn bulls into their herds in late spring to assure calves next spring." More and more livestock sales have been incorporating online and phone bidding. Bob added, "I would guess about 80% of the bidding was done via phone or computer. The seats around the sale ring were basically empty."

Jesse Thompson is also the Executive Secretary of the Montana Angus Association. Of the effects on sales of the new normal, she said, "I'm seeing prices a bit below what I've seen in the past." Bob Thompson said, "At the sale I saw, price-wise the best bulls in the top third sold for a good price and the middle third was selling about the same as before the pandemic. The lower third was selling even lower than normal."

Jeff and Brittani Thompson ranch with Jeff's parents. Brittani also works as a Registered Nurse at Northern Rockies Medical Center in Cut Bank. She has personally taken care of a COVID-19 infected patient in the hospital. Currently four of the hospital staff are on quarantine after exposure to the virus. The remaining staff is working extra shifts in addition to their regular 12-hour shifts.

"At work we take precautions: wear masks and personal protective gear at all times; lock the outside doors to keep unauthorized visitors out and use a protocol to screen any visitor to the facility." She showers at the hospital at the end of her shift to "reduce the chance of bringing the virus home to my family." When not at work she stays at home and makes no stops from work except for groceries. Like all medical workers, the new normal for Brittani is more precautions and more shifts to cover as the virus affects co-workers.

The new normal in town

Briar Stratton, an 8th grader at CJI (Chester), is doing school work online since the statewide closures. She likes, "being able to eat my grandma's home cooking every meal." She likes helping her dad with ranch work. As to school work online, "I don't like getting piles of assignments all at once. I mostly miss seeing my friends and teachers face to face."

Hannah Kultgen, a 10-year old, likes to sew. She and her mom came up with the idea to sew masks for non-medical people in the community. Hannah issued a challenge on Facebook to other 4Her's to make 25 masks each for their communities. Mom Vicki said, "We've already shipped about a dozen and have orders for 20 more masks."

Vicki is the Postmaster in Whitlash. She received a notice to post that read, "No more than 20 patrons in the lobby at any one time." She modified the order to read, "No more than two patrons at one time." The postmaster said she's seen an uptick in the number of packages coming through, suggesting people are doing more shopping without leaving home.

I wondered about the Canadians who get mail and packages in Whitlash. I called my friend in Coutts, Alberta. He said, "We can't cross to pick up mail. I'm ordering a part for farm equipment and I'm hoping I can pick it up in Whitlash. I'll argue the part is "essential" because it's part of food production."

The Whitlash Mall is closed. Alert readers will recall the mall has some pop and candy vending machines, propane refills, ice by the bag or block and a pay phone out front. Mall owner Urban Kultgen explained, "I was afraid someone with the COVID-19 would contaminate the area and I'd have difficulty sanitizing the building."

Bull sales are still being held this spring but with increased use of technology so bidders can stay "socially distant." The social aspects of the sales, when ranchers shared business and family news over a lunch, are gone. Adaptation is a part of the new normal of ranch life.

Is there an upside to the new normal?

One ranch wife said, "In some ways this forced staying at home and social distancing has been good for me. It's forced me to relax and not be running to meetings or other places." Maybe there is a silver lining in the new normal. Ask me this summer....


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