Fieldnotes – Red Ants in White Sulphur

I have piles of reporter’s notebooks, the little 4” x 8” notebooks that I have carried around for years. They are full of barely legible to-do lists, phone numbers, etc., but also story ideas. Sometimes the ideas are fleshed out, but usually it’s something like: “Guy in Thompson Falls that Steve told me about – look into,” or “Vet in Roundup…?” Anyhow, several months ago I wrote “woman in wss…makes women’s work clothes…?” Well, I finally got around to tracking her down, and it was well worth a trip to White Sulphur Springs to meet Sarah Calhoun.

Sarah is the owner of Red Ants Pants, and she was not exactly what I expected. She’s in her early thirties, and started her business when she was 25 or so. Even though she is clearly a serious businesswoman, she didn’t talk much about sales or market share. Instead, she talked about working women, and what they need. She talked about thinking creatively about rural economies, and about the untapped power of small towns like the one where she lives. Which brings me to White Sulphur Springs.

White Sulphur is a nice little town, along the Smith River. This is beautiful country, in a high valley circled by the Big Belt, the Little Belt and the Castle Mountains. There is tons of wildlife here: sage grouse, and antelope, and elk, and deer of both species. Some people know White Sulphur Springs primarily as a jumping off place for a float of the Smith River. But the Smith River floating season is only a few weeks long, and then the tourists are gone. And the town is a mile high, and the winters are long, and it’s pretty out-of-the-way. And I was curious why someone like Sarah Calhoun would have moved here in her mid-twenties – to a place with warm people, but not a lot of them, and not a lot of social life for a young single woman. She told me that living in White Sulphur can be challenging, but that she was drawn to the place – and has chosen to remain – because it seems genuine to her.

“White Sulphur Springs is a great place to live,” she told me. The rhythm of life here suits me. The values suit me. And as far as having my business here – why not? As long as I have Internet access and UPS service, I can do business here as well as anywhere. But mostly I’m here because of the relationships I have with people. I think I’m good at connecting with people on a pretty intimate level pretty quickly, with strangers, and there’s something about that – you can start building relationships and rapport, and again it comes back to making it personal, and I think business should be personal – they say it shouldn’t, but that just doesn’t seem right to me. When you know people personally you’re not gonna screw them over. Maybe I have it all backwards, but that’s the way I like to be. This is the way I want to live, and conduct my business. People – young women, especially – have told me I’m an inspiration for them. I appreciate that, but this is…it’s not…it’s not that hard. People have so many dreams. It’s amazing to me that they don’t just…just go for ‘em! What do we have to lose? We only have one life to do these things.”