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  • Kelly Whitmoyer and Sandy McNamara

The Bitterrooter: A Dying Breed?

Updated: Mar 16

I was recently reminded of the cultural shift taking place in the Bitterroot Valley when, in a recent conversation with some newer residents, the term "Bitterrooter" was unrecognized. Its use was received with a quizzical look and the question, "Bitterrooter? What's that?" Good question, one that will likely lead to a series of articles, but let's try to unpack it in just this one for now, shall we?

What is a "Bitterrooter"? Me. I'm a Bitterrooter.

As one born and raised here in the Bitterroot Valley, "Bitterrooter" is a badge of honor that I'm proud to wear. The moniker is a lovely facet (some might call a quirk) that adds to the valley's charm. But what does it mean?

"Bitterrooter" is not a reference to someone residing in the Bitterroot Valley. It's an anecdotal cultural term denoting in one word the many inherent characteristics and nuances common to those whose lives began here, cradled by the mountains and rolling fields. It captures a people whose lives reflect the "Bitterroot Way" as they were shaped by rural and mountain living, rooted in agriculture, nature, community, and an independent spirit of practical resilience.

Requisite to survival in this valley, that spirit of practical resilience coupled with resourcefulness is a characteristic that passed down from one generation of Bitterrooter to the next out of necessity.

For example, until relatively recent years, the Bitterroot Valley didn't have the conveniences we enjoy here today, like paved roads. Most roads were dirt, Highway 93 was only two lanes up until about 2011, and a HomeDepot didn't exist near here until year 2000. So, there was no such thing as a simple quick trip to town for supplies, equipment fixes and every little thing. Improvising and making-do were generally the Bitterrooter's only option. Over time, this also gave rise to the term "Bitterrooted" as Bitterrooters applied their resourcefulness to engineering creative solutions with whatever they had on hand. (This also explains some of the curiosities we in the real estate business commonly encounter on older properties today).

Tough, but laid back and comfortable, Bitterrooters are informal folks shaped by an unhurried pace and mindset of relaxed concern, by the slowness of dirt roads and toughing it out through harsh elements. Until recently, most livelihoods were drawn from the land and mountains whether it was ranching, farming, logging or forest service. We know hard work, but we also know when it's quitting time. There's a tranquility here in this valley that transcends busyness and invites you to be still; new residents are drawn to it, and Bitterrooters live by it. At the end of the day, Bitterrooters know how to slow down and simply sit on the porch sipping a drink, appreciating the beauty of the mountains or fields we just came out of.

Bitterroot mountains and river on a bluebird day. PC: Sandy McNamara

Bitterrooters are unique in that they developed within close-knit, distinct communities yet connected by the river and mountains. Still today, we don't try to always be up in each other's business, but Bitterrooters are neighborly when needed. Whether lending a hand during calving, branding or haying seasons, opening a potato field for public gleaning or pulling someone out of the ditch, being a Bitterrooter includes participating in the well-being of the community. I believe continuation of the Bitterrooter identity lies within this aspect.

As the fragrance of fresh-cut alfalfa fields fades from our summers, gradually giving way to a more suburban culture, many of the shaping influences that define a Bitterrooter will fade as well. However, the river and mountains that connect us won't. Therein lies the future of the term "Bitterrooter" - we can and will continue to be a people bonded by the Bitterroot river and mountains. The Bitterroot Valley is not just our home, it's a beautiful way of life - I hope it produces a bounty of "Bitterrooters" for generations to come.

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