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Recently, at Helena's No Sweat counter, with powerful coffee, I worked over a full order of Guadalupe Smith, the plate of Southwest-inspired food that's up there with the best north of Nogales.

I was back in town after years mostly away, having been a Senate page in my 1967 high school year; staff at the Con Con; the Senate Executive Reorganization Committee and Environmental Quality Council; founding a public interest operation; staff director for a U.S. senator and congressman; promoting salmon restoration in the Columbia; working with Native Americans on U.S./Canada fish disputes; and overseeing Portland's Willamette River Superfund cleanup.

I scratched down what I needed for the evening’s Helena Education Foundation celebration of area teachers, having been charged with guiding a discussion of 1968, with Chuck Johnson, Tom Cordingley, Dennis Taylor and others at hand.

1968 was a fraught, troubling year for me. It was a time of idealism, bracing issues, boiling violence, crippling assassinations, promising opportunities, disappointments. It was arguably the pivotal year in recent history, although some will counter that 2016 ultimately may take that honor.

Through it all, that boisterous, dysfunctional 1968 still stands out. That wrenching year is like our time now; except of course, there is no draft dragging the sometimes unwilling to their still unrewarded fates. For many veterans of that era, we couldn't even get the care of Agent Orange victims right.

In 2018, we experience an encore of the credibility gap, the unbecoming lack of civility as we fail to confront real challenges — instead wallowing in our inability to face up, to see ourselves plainly, to find a path that is not winner take all. Simply put, we have not built the clear-headed political community that would make for an exceptional democracy.

I scarcely recognize the mangled, sometimes indifferent and even oblivious public face of my home state; and, I cannot see a clear path to the days when conservatives and progressives, and those in between, tried harder, deliberated in good faith and made this state worthy of its moniker, that last best place.

A couple days ago, I wandered the memory-laden halls of the state Capitol, pausing to admire the statuary of the Mansfields, Dixon, Walsh, Wheeler, Rankin. I spent hours in the Montana Historical Society’s archives of Joe Howard and the Con Con. Re-learning and appreciating as I went.

I am still left to wonder whether we can reach more productive times — when we celebrated the right to know, the recognition of difficult truths; the clear affirmation of the right to a clean and healthful environment; the legitimate, long overdue and still unrealized claim of equality for women; the fundamental importance of the displaced, yet enduring indigenous cultures; and so many challenges that demand our serious resolve.

On political matters, I trend left. No surprise there. But I have never doubted the lesson of this question: Why did the Canadian cross the road? Answer: To get to the middle of it. And it doesn’t take a Canadian to get the point. Surely, it could be us.

May we all find ourselves living in finer days once again; and soon, right here, as the Big Sky winter closes in.

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Rick Applegate, a native Montanan born in Libby, was Bill of Rights research analyst at the 1972 Con Con, and has spent over 40 years in Montana, in the halls of Congress and as a natural resource manager in the Pacific Northwest. He can be reached at rick49applegate@gmail.com.

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