When the news broke of the death of Michael Jackson a few weeks ago, we were in a place that didn't get the message.
Funny thing - the place was named Jackson, too.
Jackson, Mont., population of 35, is close to Wisdom, another dot on the map on state Highway 278. The two-lane blacktop doubles as Jackson's Main Street. There's no stoplight. You can look down the road for miles in either direction and not see a car. Jackson's version of a traffic jam is when two dogs lie down in the road at the same time.
There's a tractor repair shop, a sometimes-open cafe and a tiny store where ancient Campbell's soup cans share shelf space with insect repellent. Jackson sits in rolling ranch lands rimmed by distant mountains, some still capped by snow in mid-June.
Jackson is known for its hot springs resort. That's where my wife and I were staying for a few days on our recent vacation.
Built in the '50s, it's a log-cabin lodge in the architectural style known as American funk. Elk heads dominate the decor. They gaze in glass-eyed serenity over the pool table and bar at one end of the honky-tonk hall that's rarely empty, even in the morning.
Like the ghost town of Bannack down the road, Jackson Hot Springs has seen better days. The sign out front advertises an indoor spa, but now the roof's gone. The spring-fed 107-degree pool is open to Montana's trademark big sky year-round. Don't worry about the sign - it's burned out anyway.
The way I heard the story, Jackson Hot Springs was built around 1950 by a Fortune 500 heiress who felt in love with a Montana rancher. In its heyday, stars like Bing Crosby paid visits. But after the property was passed on to the heiress' two sons, they started feuding.
The brothers cut the building in half. The other brother dragged his half to the town of Dillon, and made a home out it. Dillon was some 50 miles away and that was before the road was even paved.
Everything's a story here, in this majestic, lonely landscape. Ghosts abound. The nearby Big Hole National Monument recalls an 1877 daybreak attack by U.S. Infantry forces on Chief Joseph and a band of Nez Perce Indians camped by the stream.
Local history is written in chapters of stubborn eccentricity. The weathered, leaning wood structures of Bannack hold echoes - said to get louder at dusk - of prospectors' dashed dreams and "upstairs girls' " midnight laments in this land that's gorgeous in summer, but unforgiving when it gets cold.
Bloody Dick, a legendary Englishman in these parts whose nickname derived from his proclivity for cursing, inspired Jackson's new Bloody Dick Boutique. During our visit, the eclectic establishment was being readied to open by Trenton Selway, who grew up in Montana but now spends time on Maui, and his girlfriend, Maui writer Cheryl Ambrozic.
Surrounding ranch lands were awash with snowmelt rushing down creekbeds, filling low spots in pastures and spawning mosquitoes in numbers verging on a plague. Huge, persistent, they'd be better named moose-quitoes.
We didn't realize when we headed for Jackson that it was in a different time zone. Aside from the occasional country station drifting in and out on the car radio, we were out of the media's reach. There was no news, no world beyond what we could see.
Not until we drove out did we hear of the death of superstar Jackson. And then, for the following weeks we heard of nothing else.
No world news, no politics. Larry King led CNN into an all-Michael-all-the-time news cycle. The network morning shows sent crews to Neverland Ranch. Forget Korean missile threats or economic woes; let's listen to the 9-1-1 call one more time.
But the more wounded souls Larry King interviewed, the more we watched the tape loops showing the Jackson 5 singing, "easy as 1 2 3," or the interviews with Jackson talking about his abused, stolen boyhood or how he felt about his nose, the weirder the story became.
His prodigious musical genius was too great a weight for his fragile psyche to bear. For those unprepared, fame is a beast that eats its young.
With the media acting like groupies, the more we heard, the less we knew. Everything was backwards. Pain-killing drugs didn't kill pain, they killed people. A fortune squandered trying to ward off loneliness. Constant talk of children that invariably led to a creepy feeling. Lawyers and doctors and relatives and journalists, all making it worse.
Mostly, it was just sad.
It didn't take long to start misusing that other Jackson. The closest that place gets to talking heads are the elks on the walls. And they're not talking.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com