In honor of the new year, let me offer up what I consider the best of the Last Best News stories of 2015.
Early in the new year, in a Prairie Lights column, I wrote about a deeply religious overseas terrorist organization. The conclusions I drew from that slice of history would resonate throughout the coming year.
Not long after that, I wrote about some notable taverns of yore, which turned out to be quite popular. Who knew that Last Best News readers were such fans of drinking establishments?
Early in February, I had the distinct pleasure of introducing readers to the Kosel brothers, three young men from Luther who seemed to be channeling the best of the cowboy singers from decades ago.
The most widely read story of the year was also the saddest, about the death of a young rancher near Jordan, who left behind seven daughters. And then came news that the fundraising drive for his wife and children was wonderfully successful.
In a strange foray into the world of tabloid journalism, I reported on the owner of a sled-dog business in Bozeman who made waves for refusing to cater to the outrageous whims of the infamous Kardashian clan. Oh, how Montanans love to hate the Kardashians.
On the first day of spring, I visited the Ross Creek Cedars and Kootenai Falls in northwestern Montana. It was far from my usual Eastern Montana haunts, but a spectacular way to usher in the season.
Not too long after that, I sat down with Scott Crichton, just then stepping down after leading the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for nearly three decades. I tried my best to cover the highlights of his exceedingly eventful life, but he deserves a full-fledged biography.
On April 13, I ran my introductory essay for the At Your Service series, which would continue to run every Monday until Oct. 5, when I published this closing essay. The series chronicled my visits to different houses of worship in the Billings area.
I had a blast finally paying a visit to see the pictographs and so much more at Bear Gulch near Grass Range. I ran a lot of photos, but take my word for it: you need to get there and see everything for yourself.
In May, I had the honor of running Alexis Bonogofsky’s evocative photo essay on a Miles City wagon train.
Shortly thereafter, I published a story about Heartland Assisted Living near Joliet, which offers senior citizens comfortable housing in a farm-like setting. The strange thing about this story was that it did moderately well when I published it, but then in November, when persons unknown suddenly starting sharing it on Facebook again, I had thousands of readers from all over the country flooding the site. Readership peaked on Nov. 8, when nearly 21,000 readers stopped by Last Best News.
Early in June, Adrian Jawort wrote a tender but tough-minded piece on the death of Hanna Harris, and the problems associated with law enforcement on Indian reservations.
Later that month I wrote about the sale of a beautiful Spanish Revival house in central Billings. Reader response was huge, making me think that maybe I should have gone into real estate.
In July, I really enjoyed Danielle McCracken’s profile of bug photographer Marian Lyman Kirst.
I also enjoyed, with an admixture of sadness, writing about the passing of Jane Estelle, a therapist who touched countless lives.
Then there was my column on Donald Trump, back when it seemed impossible that his campaign would continue in the face of his beyond-the-pale antics and deliberately outrageous comments.
David Crisp, in one of his editor’s notebook columns, went into left field and then crashed through the outfield wall in his damn-the-daily-news rumination on the art of Dostoevsky.
Writing about Joliet sculptor and ironworker Charlie Ringer gave me another chance to collaborate with ace photographer John Warner. I loved writing about Ringer, and I loved being able to use so many of John’s photos.
Freelancer Brian D’Ambrosio brought us the fascinating and well-read story of the “Bleu Horses” on a hillside near Three Forks.
Madeleine Cummings wrote and we published several pieces she produced as part of the Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia Journalism School. Her stories included this one, about the difficulties reservation schools have with recruiting Native American teachers. We’ll be seeing more of her work in the future, I’m quite sure.
In the realm of diverting ephemera, there was this story about Americans’ swearing habits, as revealed by Twitter patterns. Goddamn, that was just plain fun.
As an old part-time freight rider myself, I really liked Doug Oltrogge’s exploration of what made people want to ride the rails.
And then came the All Nations Indian Relay Championships, one of the wildest spectacles I’d ever witnessed, and yet another chance to work with John Warner.
Then there was my own photo essay about my drive from Red Lodge to Billings, by a deliberately roundabout route.
Jodie Tenicin Smith contributed a curiously moving story (and wonderful photos), about the disappearance of a patch of the wild on Billings’ West End.
Early in October, I ran four or five remembrances of Roger Clawson, the great newspaper columnist and world-class character who died on Oct. 4. My favorite was David Crisp’s fine eulogy.
In addition to houses, people apparently love food, as evidenced by the reader reaction to the story I wrote about Dirty Oscar’s Annex, a new restaurant on the road to Roundup.
What a joy to be able to publish Roger Kettle’s essay on the sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring differences between the English spoken in Montana and the English spoken in his native Scotland. It was accompanied by a fine illustration by his cartoonist friend, Steve Bright. We hope they grace us with more of their work in the future.
Kevin Giles, a longtime journalist, biographer and novelist, wrote a love letter to Montana, his native state. It touched a chord with a lot of readers.
My story about the couple whose house was taken from them by their bank—even though they had paid cash for it two years earlier—was predictably popular, what with its storybook villain and a happy ending.
Early in November, Mr. Bitters and Olive unveiled the first in their continuing Bar Tab series of tavern reviews.
On the first day of December I ran a story that I wish I could have postponed indefinitely, about the death of a good friend and his favorite place in the world, Cottonwood Canyon.
And then, most recently, a story on a partnership between two of the most popular purveyors of fine food in Billings.
All that is left to add is a big thank you to the readers of Last Best News. Here’s looking forward to an even better new year.