Fieldnotes – The Interpreter

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with my friend John Ellingsen, helping him edit a book he is writing about Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana. During that time, John has opened my eyes to the world of Montana ghost towns and gold mining towns – a part of Western history I had been ignorant of. Among other things, John made me aware of the significance of the town of Bannack – Montana’s first territorial capital.

I was in Virginia City recently to visit John, and I decided I would continue down the road a bit (OK, more than a bit) to see Bannack, where I hadn’t been in years. A couple of people, including my colleague, Larry Swanson, had also mentioned that the interpreter at the park, John Phillips, was an interesting tour guide.

When I got there, John was saying goodbye to two busloads of 2nd grade students from Dillon. It was clear that he enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed him. Later, while walking around the deserted streets of Bannack, we met a vacationing couple from Spokane – the only tourists in the park. As John narrated the history of the buildings we were looking at, it struck me that he was not simply giving us a rote presentation (even though the anecdotes – of vigilantes and miners and sheriffs beings hanged – were clearly ones he had told countless times over the years.)

Later that day, as I was getting ready to leave, I visited briefly with the couple from Spokane, and asked them how they had enjoyed John’s informal presentation.

“You know,” she said, “I have rarely met someone I thought would make a better teacher.”

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