Prairie Lights: Looking back on the best of Last Best News


John Warner

Our best-read story of the year was the “Running of the Bison” piece on April 1. John Warner’s brilliantly photoshopped artwork deserves much of the credit.

Last week in this space, I delivered a spoof year-end review of Montana and Billings-area news. I sincerely hope you all understood that was a spoof.

If not, write to me and I’ll put you on our Satire and Spoof Alert Email List, which will go out in advance of any stories or columns of a facetious nature.

This week, I wanted to draw your attention not necessarily to the best or biggest stories we published in 2016, but a selection of stories I didn’t want anyone to miss. I know how hard it is to follow any website on a regular basis, and I know Last Best News is always picking up new readers who might not have any idea how much good stuff there is in the archives (in my somewhat prejudiced opinion).

So, let’s start with a story with a story of mine from Jan. 5, 2016, my exploration of The Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte. I’d been going there for decades, basking in the eminently strange atmosphere, the unique food and the fascinating history, and finally got around to writing about it. This piece originally appeared in the Montana Quarterly.

On Jan. 22, contributor Anna Paige reported on a win for the home team, when the Northern Hotel’s then-chef beat television celebrity chef Bobby Flay. A few days later, to prove that Last Best News is a supporter of carbon, we published my homage to King Coal.

Toward the the end of the month came some big news, from our perspective at least: that David Crisp was shutting down the Billings Outpost and partnering with Last Best News.

Early in February, we broke the story of the Red Lodge Police Department’s ill-considered drug bust in nearby Bearcreek, an event that would have repercussions for many months afterward.

Not long after that, Crisp warned that journalists were not giving the presidential primary the kind of coverage the voters deserved. If only more journalists had listened.

In mid-February, Roger Kettle, our favorite Scot, with an illustration from the lavishly talented Steve Bright, wrote of the futility of trying to fit in with the locals on his visits to Montana.

And on Feb. 19, architect Ed Gulick did an admirable job of explaining why buying local is so important. When Ed pitched the story, I was actually afraid that it might be too dry and technical for general readers. Not to worry; this accessible piece drew a lot of readers and a great response.

At the end of the month, I wrote about the passing of Dwight Raup, a street person who touched so many lives in downtown Billings.

Early in March, Crisp wrote a heartfelt review of Garrison Keillor’s appearance—part of his goodbye tour—at the Alberta Bair Theater. Soon thereafter, Jim Elliott, a former state legislator and a regular contributor of guest editorials to Last Best News, wrote about the vanishing virtue of compromise.

A story that drew huge numbers of readers—and perhaps the longest string of Facebook comments in the history of Last Best News—chronicled one woman’s unpleasant experience trying to get help for her mental illness.

Also in March, Paul Driscoll wrote a wonderful tribute to the Land Rover Defender. This was a subject about which I was entirely ignorant, which only made me enjoy this story more.

On April 1, or April Fool’s Day as it is sometimes known, I collaborated with photographer John Warner on a story about a Running of the Bison event in Laurel. It was the best-read story of the year. (See above for getting on our spoof-alert list.)

I wrote in May about a church in Ballantine that had become known as the church that feeds the children. The people who made this happen have earned their wings.

God forbid I should ever complain, but I am going to include a story I wrote later in May, about the inner workings of the Rescue Mission Bargain Center, simply because, dang it, I really liked this story … which attracted few readers. I’ll recommend it again here and never mention it again.

At the end of the month, Crisp reported on Donald Trump’s only campaign stop in Billings. We both believed he didn’t have a chance in hell.

Early in June, we published the first of Marian Lyman Kirst’s occasional “BugBytes” series. She is a naturalist, bug lover and photographer with a keen sense of humor and a knack for explaining arcane bits of science clearly and well. And she’ll be back.

In July, Russell Rowland reflected on the Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series, which he helped found with Adrian Jawort. In the same month, I finally got around to writing about another establishment I’d long been fascinated with: the Rainbow Bar on Montana Avenue, where the drinks are cheap, the clientele is always interesting and the history runs very deep.

Not long after that, Billings novelist and Last Best News contributor Craig Lancaster wrote a great piece about how he and other artists, spurred on by a variety of impulses, were learning how to find their own way, independently.

To end the month, I felt privileged to tell the story of Grace, the amazing horse who survived a winter ordeal in the wilderness. It was one of the best-read stories of the year.

In August, I reviewed Aaron Parrett’s book, “Montana Americana Music: Boot Stomping in Big Sky Country.” I’m including it here because it was my favorite book of the year, and I want as many people as possible to know about it. And buy it, of course.

At the end of the month, in a column on Colin Kaepernick, Crisp showed why I consider his writing on free speech, First Amendment issues and politics generally to be as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else.

I’d written a few times before about Ben Steele, one of the best human beings I ever met. I wrote this when he died in September. He really was a giant.

Combing voluminous transcriptions of Donald Trump’s public oratory, Crisp crafted a number of examples of what he called “Trumpoetry,” an entirely new form of literature. Also in early October, I looked at another aspect of the fake news phenomenon—the creation of site-specific click bait masquerading as legitimate news.

Later that month, Phoebe Tollefson wrote a three-part series focusing on long-time residents of the West End, the Heights and the South Side who talked about the many changes they’d seen in the past few decades of sometimes rapid growth. The first installment of the series looked at the South Side. It was an idea I wish I’d thought of, but I couldn’t have been happier with Phoebe’s stories.

In the first of several quiet examinations of little islands of natural beauty and peacefulness on the outskirts of Montana’s largest city, Cal Cumin took us, in late October, to a remnant of rimrock and pines at the end of October.

In November, Adrian Jawort gave us all a new way of looking at the Standing Rock protest over the Dakota Access pipeline.

Shortly after the November election, all the bad feelings, the divisiveness, the tinderbox readiness of so many people to get into a fight, seem to come to a head in the case of the Billings coffee shop owner who took to Facebook and to vent his ugly prejudices.

As something of an antidote to politics, contributor Tom Keith wrote a beautiful, evocative piece about a lingering mystery he stumbled upon in the Missouri Breaks.

In another piece on Standing Rock, published on Dec. 1, Phillip Griffin delivered a respectful, insightful look at what seemed to many a confusing situation.

And on Christmas, we ran the story of Kiki and her new dog, Zarah. It was a good way to end a strange year.

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