The Billings Outpost

One winner, one loser, one still undetermined

“Unbroke Horses,” by D.B. Jackson. Goldminds Publishing Inc., Hendersonville, Tenn. Softcover, $27.99.
“Beauty Tips for the Dead,” by Gerald Medenwald. River Rat Press, North Dakota. Softcover, 349 pages.
“The Prophet’s Alibi,” by Timothy J. Korzep. iUniverse Inc., Bloomington. Softcover, 238 pages. $16.95.
By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

Every book season at the Outpost brings a pile of assorted books by aspiring authors, self-published authors and, occasionally, talented authors. We do our best to weigh through them all, but don’t always make it.

From the leftovers of last week’s book issue, then, comes a quick overview of three books, one worth your attention, one that might be, and one best left alone.

The one worth a read is “Unbroke Horses,” a second novel by D.B. Jackson, a former Montana resident who now lives in California. The publishers thought enough of the book that they sent out an uncorrected proof prior to the July 24 publication date.

The novel isn’t perfect, and some of the imperfections may be cleaned up when the final edition comes out. But it is a novel of unquestioned power and an all but irresistible read.

It’s really two stories in one. The first opens with a Confederate general near the end of the Civil War, ordering his men to disband and head for home. When a captain resists, the general fires a round from his revolver “between the buttons of the captain’s field coat.”

Thus begins a rampage of murder and depredations by a gang of three: the defrocked general, his dull-witted brother and the silent “mulatto.” Their string of crimes eventually leads them out West, where they murder the preacher husband of a strong young woman, kidnap her son and nearly kill the rancher she nurses back to health.

When he is on his feet, he resolves to track the killers down and free the woman’s son. Despite the brazenness of the criminals, who appear almost indifferent to the odds of being killed or caught, they manage to stay a step ahead of their pursuers for much of the book. But when the inevitable showdown comes, the reader is only about 200 pages into a 300-page novel. Sounds like a heck of denouement.

But here the book takes a shift. Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say the final 100 pages are spent sorting out the consequences of those bloody deeds. Redemption, of a sort, is found in the routine of ranch life, learning to handle horses and cattle and get along with a roughhewn crowd.

The book shows much craftsmanship. Mr. Jackson has a real sense of how to make a story move. Even when we care nothing for the characters, the relentless pace and steady clip of action keep readers turning the pages.

The final section manages to tell a “Horse Whisperer” tale without going soft. I kept waiting for sentimentality to overwhelm the story, but Mr. Jackson stayed a step ahead of me. He needs some polish but shows real talent.

Talent is also evident in “Beauty Tips for the Dead,” a first novel by Gerald Medenwald, who operates River Rat Stained Glass Studio and the press that produced this book in Manvel, N.D.

This book should have been reviewed in the last Outpost book issue, but we ran out of time and space and never quite finished the book. But it has a lot going for it, with a dark sense of humor, a tangled plot and a sensibility that seems to owe something to Tom Robbins.

One character works for a mortician; another is a nurse; two others are marketing whizzes. I regret to say that I never quite found out where it all went, but I can’t let another book issue pass without giving it a mention. Mr. Medenwald can write, no question about it. Whether he can spin that gift into a fully realized novel is something I still hope to find out.

I confess all that with some shame, but none attaches to this judgment: “The Prophet,” by Timothy J. Korzep, is simply unreadable. Lord knows, I tried. I feel asleep with the book in my lap a half-dozen times, but a third of the way through I hadn’t found a sympathetic character or a credible thread of a plot. Worse, the writing is as flat as Iowa.

The gimmick here is that a Montanan, a woman, is president of the United States. At an international conference, she is one of 10 world leaders kidnapped by the mysterious Prophet, who proceeds to lecture his captives on the evils of American capitalism.

Meanwhile, a security agent who apparently blew her job of protecting all those high-ranking leaders manages to infiltrate the terrorists with astonishing ease, presumably planning a dramatic escape.

It all sounds pretty exciting, but the action flags, the speeches are tedious, and the writing drags. Maybe I will finish the book someday, but it will rest on my chest for a few more nights before that happens.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 09:09

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A look at Montana’s historic barns

“Hand Raised: The Barns of Montana,” by Chere Jiusto and Christine W. Brown, with photographs by Tom Ferris. Montana Historical Society Press, Helena. Softbound, 305 pages. $27.95.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

A coffee table book about barns? Really?

When I was growing up in South Texas, barns were vaguely disreputable. Leave your jeans unzipped, and someone would tell you the barn door was open. Commit a breach of etiquette, and someone would ask if you had been raised in a barn.

True, barns had that musty, ancient smell, but they also had rats and snakes. When we stacked bales of hay on a summer day, hay dust in the barn was so thick it would create boogers the size of Ping-Pong balls.

So this fat volume entitled “Hand Raised: The Barns of Montana” made a rather unwelcome appearance in my mailbox. I didn’t really even want to look a pictures of barns, and I sure didn’t want to read about them.

But that was a mistake. The photographs by Helena photographer Tom Ferris were so gorgeous that it was impossible not to look, and the barns were so varied and distinctive that pretty soon I found myself reading photo captions, pages of description and finally whole sections. I was slowly pulled in.

More attentive observers of Montana agriculture than I am will recognize many of the barns here. The Yellowstone Basin section includes, for example, the Kent Dairy Round Barn near Red Lodge, formerly a dinner theater, and the rather undistinguished Southern Montana Agricultural Research Center Barns near Huntley.

But to me the nicest finds were the surprises, barns in our own backyard like the weathered but graceful Hesper Farm Barn west of town.

Barns range from the spectacular, such as the one pictured on this week’s front page, to the rustic, like the Barber/Ferris Barn in Madison County, nearly 150 years old. For each, the authors provide a succinct history, supplemented by general comments about the history and culture of barn building.

The authors note that many of the barns in Montana were built roughly at the same time, and they are now wearing out at about the same time. Difficult and expensive to maintain, they are no longer the emblems of pride, hard labor and success they once were.

Of the 6,000 historic Montana barns noted in the 2000 census, fewer than 140 made it into this book. The authors write, “More than anything, this book is a call to action. It is an effort to turn attention to these buildings and to raise interest in preserving them before they are gone.”

Before reading this book, the thought of missing barns might not have concerned me. But “Hand Raised” makes all too clear what would be lost.


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:32

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Bischke tells environmental tale in fable form

“Fish Tank: A Fable for Our Times,” by Scott Bischke. Mountainworks Inc., 150 pages. Paperback.


Defying all rationality, global warming science is still being questioned and – even more frighteningly – roundly ignored. As a result, our level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has risen nearly 30 percent in the past 200 years – coincidently, the same 200 years that witnessed the industrial revolution and its skyrocketing rise in the use of fossil fuels.

Some folks are trying their best to prevent or reduce the impact of this ominous change. But the move towards a more environmentally benign energy system is happening too slowly.

Is there still time? We all survive, deep down, on hope itself. Hope keeps us going whenever we face challenges; I believe it is inextricably intertwined with our very survival instinct.

Hope is both the reason for, and one of the main themes of “Fish Tank,” an entertaining and captivating fable by Bozeman author Scott Bischke that offers a cleverly crafted metaphor for the planet-transforming situation we find ourselves (or, more accurately, have placed ourselves) in.

The book tells the story of a gigantic seaside research aquarium, created and cared for by a ocean scientist who has spent his career studying a rare seahorse. When the scientist is drawn away from his beloved aquarium on a yearlong research sabbatical, he entrusts its care to a hired hand whose concern is primarily for minimizing effort and maximizing profit, which ends up endangering the confined aquatic community. The responses of the inhabitants to the pending disaster have an eerily familiar ring.

The all-ages charm of the book includes its cast of interesting sea life characters with humanity-style personalities. The gradual buildup of tension keeps readers drawn into the narrative.

Best of all, though, Bischke’s ending is not predictable. Instead, it is a nuanced close to a multileveled read. Fitting, as the outcome of our vast experiment with carbon and the fate of the entirety of life kind itself will likely follow a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

I found the book a quick, exciting read. I was intrigued, entertained and engaged. This is despite the fact that I generally pinch my nose at anthropomorphizing non-human beings. But Bischke did it well and with a light and thoughtful pen. 

The book is very likely to appeal to a wide audience. I also have some hope (I can’t help it) that the book could even make a difference. (It is clear that Bischke wrote it with a hope for the same.) People understand the world best through metaphor and we base the transmission of culture, values and ethics on telling one another stories in various ways. This book taps into that deeply human way of navigating the world.

Educators will find the book useful - and a According to Bischke, a high school curriculum package was recently completed with a Minneapolis company and a Chinese publisher is reviewing it in consideration of a Chinese translation. An audio book is in early stages as well. 

The book’s early success is impressive considering that Bischke and his wife and business partner, Katie Gibson, are doing all the marketing, distribution and promotion.

Find out more about the book and follow links to purchase it at


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:31

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Life in Montana as it was 11,000 years ago

“Images of America: Beartooth Mountains,” by Patty Hooker. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S.C. Softbound,  127 pages. $21.99

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

“Images of America: Beartooth Mountains” is a book of photographs but not the lush images of towering peaks and roaring creeks you might expect. Instead, the photographs are all in black and white, and the text is confined to extended captions that accompany the photos.

This is another in a series of books by Arcadia Publishing that use archival photographs and local writers to convey some history of various places in America. Patty Hooker, who wrote the “Columbus and Stillwater County” volume in the series, also wrote the text that accompanies these photos.

Some of the photos are familiar, such as those of Chief Joseph and Chief Plenty Coups. But many were new to these eyes. They show mining camps, early tourists, cowboys, horses, sheep ranchers, construction of the Beartooth Highway, historical characters and, yes, panoramic views of the Beartooth Mountains, all in a tightly packed 127 pages.

It’s a quick but entertaining look at a time not so long ago that can easily now feel inaccessible.The difficulties these early explorers and settlers faced are hard to imagine, but the beauty that drew them is all too evident.

Readers who are interested in the history of the Beartooth Region may find this book useful, even invaluable. Those who just want to look at mountains may be better off just looking at the mountains.


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:29

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Montana author makes botany understandable

“Shanleya’s Quest,” by Thomas J. Elpel. Hops Press. Hardcover, 32 pages.


Myths and fairy tales are a founding element of the body of work that makes up children’s literature. If there remains any doubt that myth “supplies models for human behavior and by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life,” (Mircea Eliade from 1963’s “Myth and Reality”) our continued reliance on them for conveying values to our children through popular, colorful picture book retellings should dispel it. 

Following in that ancient story telling tradition, a widely respected Montana author, publisher and expert on all things outdoors, Thomas J. Elpel, created “Shanleya’s Quest.” Subtitled, “A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99,” it is a creation story and fairly tale with an excellent and memorable botany lesson at its core. 

At the request of a group of grandchildren whom we meet in its opening pages, Shanleya’s tale is told by a grandmother who we find out at the end was Shanleya’s granddaughter. We are first regaled with a lovely story of the origins of life itself – with an emphasis on plant life in particular.

Then we join Shanleya on a journey she makes at her grandfather’s behest. She is told to learn the secrets of the plants and sets out to do so with a map and a canoe within the mythical world she inhabits. Along the way we learn the fundamental characteristics of eight plant families with her. Shanleya’s quest is ultimately successful, and both she and we are the richer for it.

Illustrations are by Gloria Brown, and they are colorful and interesting, particularly her depictions of the origins of life.

Author Elpel is the founder of Hops Press, based in Pony. His catalog is centered on survival, primitive living and do-it-yourself topics, but his claim to wider fame is his groundbreaking plant pattern identification method first debuted in his botany classic, “Botany In a Day,” now slated to go into its fifth printing.

“Shanleya’s Quest” is a summary of the fundamentals that Elpel explores in greater detail in “Botany in a Day,” and it is a wonderful approach to presenting the information to a wide variety of audiences, allowing them to get their feet wet before they jump into the deeper pool of “Botany In a Day.”

Of course, “Botany in a Day” is a superb and accessible introduction – for all levels – to botany as well. It, too, has the effect of leading people further into what might otherwise seem like a dauntingly complicated and somewhat arcane field of study.

If that’s not enough, “Shanleya’s Quest” also has supplementary materials! A deck of playing cards with five games described in the printed insert. The card faces have color photos of plants as well as drawing of plant family characteristics, and are intended to entertain while testing reader’s skills at identifying the plant family patterns and honing recognition skills.

Hops Press publishes another young person’s book called “I’m a Medicine Woman Too!” that is written and illustrated by Jesse Wolf Hardin. It has similarly empowering themes, but more philosophically than practically oriented.

I am a huge fan of Elpel’s approach to botany, and was excited to learn of and then read “Shanleya’s Quest” and its deck of cards. This book is imaginative, thoughtful, practical and memorable. I highly recommend it, particularly to parents who enjoy fostering both creativity and independence in their children, and who see the unequaled value of becoming an active, knowledgeable participant in our amazing – and mysterious – natural world.

For more information about Shanleya’s Quest and all of Elpel’s publications, see


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:28

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Poems with big punch

“When We Wake in the Night,” by Tami Haaland. WordTech Editions, Cincinnati. Softbound, 93 pages.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

“When We Wake in the Night,” Tami Haaland’s new book of poetry, is such a tiny thing. So why does it weigh so heavily on me?

I have heard Ms. Haaland, an English professor at Montana State University Billings, read from her work. I even saw a whole production of her poetry put together by local artist and promoter Ian Elliott. But encountering a whole book, even one weighing in at a slender 93 pages (plus a gorgeous cover by Jean Albus), with many pages far less than full, was a bit overwhelming. These little poems pack an awfully large punch.

If you think poems stopped being good when they quit rhyming, then you might find this volume worth a look. These are real poems, deceptively simple but filled with hard and sometimes unpleasant truths.

Ms. Haaland has a knack for carving to the bones of ordinary life: a kids’ baseball game, a friend who gets trapped on a train as she heads to the McCormick Café, fights between children, a catalog filled with models. The plain language, the familiar settings, the quiet flow of the pen all seem to promise something easy and comfortable.

But very little here is what it seems. With the turn of a phrase or a fresh image, she repeatedly suggests deeper, often darker, themes. Often, the themes are subtle, even obscure, but occasionally one hits like a two-by-four.

One whole section, “Inquest,” works that way, a meditation on death that ends with this stunning three-line poem:

I look at his picture.

Don’t die, I say. The face

looks back. Don’t.

These poems will not let you be done with them. Read them once and you may think, I get it. You might want to devote a few brain cells to file them away, like you might with “Casey at the Bat.”

But there is a troubling sense that you really didn’t get it. Something more is there, between the lines, beneath the surface. You have to go back, if only to look for what you missed. You may find it hard to stop.

This little book bears more freight than a lot of fat novels. It’s worth a read, or several.


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:27

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Book tells histories of Montana ranch women

“Nothing to Tell: Extraordinary Stories of Montana Ranch Women,” Donna Gray, Two Dot/Globe Pequot Press. $18.95.

By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

In “Nothing to Tell,” Donna Gray has compiled and edited the oral histories of women ranch and farm pioneers, some born on the homestead, others coming out west as preschoolers on the emigrant trains or even in prairie schooners. Their memories are woven out of hardship, perseverance and resourcefulness, embroidered with family, neighbors and simple gatherings.

Ms. Gray’s ability to duplicate various dialects, as well as regional pronunciations, like “crick” for “creek,” adds color and strength to her transcriptions. She also chose women of varied backgrounds, from the college trained teachers to those who didn’t make the eighth grade. Many family names are familiar: Hart, Jeffers, Mehlhoff, Cosgriff.

But whatever their roots, these were no delicate parlor lilies, but rather strong women, proud of their ability to work alongside their men, able to stand the isolation. Milking a few cows often tied them to the homestead. Men drove to town, turning the butter, eggs and cream they’d produced into store-bought goods.

Some of the tales become repetitious. There’s only so much you can say about cooking on a wood stove or milking a cow. It was the personal anecdotes that kept me reading, as well as the acceptance of hardships few women would put up with now.

Out on the plains, until the settlers could dig an artesian well, potable water often had to be carted from a creek. Hard winters froze as many homesteaders out as the plagues of grasshoppers and dry summers.

All the memoirs were good, but I enjoyed memoir 12, Beatrice McIntyre Murray’s, the most.

Though she had little education, her words painted pictures. She, her husband, and son rode the rails out to Roy, 36 miles northeast of Lewistown, during the Dirty Thirties.

“And dry and hot!” she said. “Like livin’ in a desert. But we stayed. We didn’t have nuttin’ to leave on and nowhere to go.”

She never lived in a house with indoor plumbing, but managed, in her 80s, to rig up a shower of sorts. At age 88, she was still wrestling 80-pound bales of hay.

Why did she stay on, living out on the place alone? In her own words: “You gotta make yourself like it, make up your mind you’re goin’ to stick to it.” She died there in 2003 at age 97.

“Nothing to Tell” is a great summer vacation book, and one for those of us who love the bleak beauty of the high plains as well as the mountains. It’s one that you’ll savor and then want to share.


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:25

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Sheriff visits Lame Deer in new Longmire mystery

“As the Crow Flies,” by Craig Johnson. Viking, New York. Hardbound, 308 pages. $25.95.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

C.J. Box isn’t the only Wyoming mystery writer who has been on a roll.

Craig Johnson, who lives in Ucross, has just published “As the Crow Flies,” the eighth in his series of novels about Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. “Longmire,” a TV series based on the novels, made its debut this month on the A&E Network. His books get solid reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times Book Review. C.J. Box has even read one of his books.

The appeal isn’t hard to understand. As noted here in previous reviews, the protagonists in these two mystery series have a lot in common: They are both involved in law enforcement; both work in small-town Wyoming; both have Indian sidekicks.

But important differences also exist. Where Mr. Box’s Joe Pickett is dedicated and a bit of a worrier, Walt Longmire, while no less dedicated, has a sense of humor that punctures even the most serious situations. And while Mr. Box sticks to imaginative but solidly constructed plots based on tracking clues and evidence, Sheriff Longmire often wanders far afield.

Occasionally, Mr. Johnson seems to forget that he is writing mysteries at all. In his last novel, “Hell Is Empty,” the sheriff took off on a lonely, single-minded pursuit deep in the mountains, with recurring references to Dante’s “Inferno.” In another, he ventured all the way to Philadelphia. A third had flashbacks to Vietnam.

These side adventures don’t all work equally well. “Hell Is Empty” was terrific, but the Vietnam sojourn was unfocused and the Philadelphia trip just got confusing.

This time, Mr. Johnson is on more familiar turf. On a trip to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, he and his sidekick, Henry Standing Bear, happen to see a woman plummet to her death from a cliff while holding a baby.

The woman dies; the baby survives. But was she pushed? Did she jump? That’s the heart of the mystery, and it spins its way through the impending marriage of the sheriff’s daughter, a peyote trip and a cast of deceptively guilty looking suspects.

This is among the better books in the series. The sheriff’s wit is in full flower (asked how the baby is recovering, he replies, “Still not talking”), and his family complications, plus a little sexual tension, keep the story rolling. Mr. Johnson also has a fine feel for the reservation, a place I once covered for The Billings Gazette.

Like Sheriff Longmire, I found Lame Deer and surroundings lovely and appealing. When I had that beat, I used to say that the worst day I ever spent on the reservation was better than the best day I ever spent in the office.

So how does “As the Crow Flies” stack up to C.J. Box’s latest effort? Let’s call it a draw.


Last Updated on Saturday, 30 June 2012 11:24

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Considering retirement? How about Latin America?

Story and photo - By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost

There are two roped-off lines in any Banco Nacional de Panama. 

One says “Jubilados” (retirees). The other - and the lobby can be packed four deep on paydays at the area coffee plantations - simply orders: “Wait Your Turn.”

Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador are among Latin American countries with “pensionado” programs where foreigners with provable monthly retirement incomes of $1,000 or more are lured with a variety of tax credits for homes and investments, cheap access to universal health care and huge discounts for all manner of services.

Even without the discounts, services such as cell phones, the internet, or satellite TV are a fraction of the U.S. costs, although in Costa Rica’s case they are operated by the government.

While these perks for foreigners might seem like reverse discrimination against the native-born, these governments seem to consider it on par with a common U.S. practice of states and municipalities offering tax giveaways to international conglomerates if they will set up shop within their borders.

A study by the University of Costa Rica published this spring concluded that each foreign pensioner creates four jobs in the country: Direct jobs for housekeepers, gardeners and guards and indirect ripples for those working in hospitality, stores, healthcare or driving buses or taxis.

The successful applicant for a pensionado card (and they do not come easily, quickly, or cheaply) acquires access to single-payer (the government) health systems and cut rates on everything from transportation and other services to elective cosmetic, dental or even cardiac surgery at private hospitals.

Costa Rica and Panama are considered world-class destinations for medical tourism as professionals trained in the United States and Europe do the work at a fraction of the cost in the United States. Lounging on idyllic beaches shared with iguanas or monkeys or strolling through rain forests cannot but aid in the recovery.

The Tico Times, a 60-year-old English-language weekly for expatriates, includes advertisements from doctors offering facelifts and rejuvenations, hair transplants, breast surgery and re-sculpting eyelids and noses.

Prescriptions are not required for drugs to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and most other ailments. If a prescription is required, medical appointments may cost $10 to $15 out of pocket.

Following Panama´s lead, the Costa Rican government is even promoting gated – but affordable – retirement communities with all the amenities of home and no snow-shoveling required.

Tourism has been Costa Rica´s top industry for decades (replacing such staples as coffee and bananas and overshadowing newcomers such as Intel microchips). So English-speaking assistance is the norm. Beginning in kindergarten, children do their science and history lessons in English and Spanish. In swank restaurants in downtown San Jose or remote mountain villages, the wait staff may even ask if you wish to be attended to in Spanish or English and menus in even the smallest country eateries are bilingual.

So are the ATM machines. A direct deposit retirement into a credit union account in Montana can be accessed anytime after midnight thousands of miles away.

U.S. ties – and presence - have been strong in Panama since before the Canal.  For decades, the Colombian government had been calling on U.S. Marines to suppress Panamanian independence movements. In negotiations over the Canal, Colombia apparently got greedy, U.S. gunboats appeared outside the port and thanks to Teddy Roosevelt and Walter Reed the canal got dug.

Former presidential candidate John McCain was born in a U.S. naval hospital in Panama. Montana Sen. Paul Hatfield cast the deciding vote to turn the canal over to Panama in 1999, and Max Baucus beat him in the following election.  Both the senators and the Canal (said to move up to 15 percent of global exports) are going strong.

There’s no worry about exchange rates as Panama uses U.S. money as its currency. The Balboa coin is worth a dollar and Panama’s quarters, dimes and nickels have different symbols but exactly the same size, weight and texture as their U.S. counterparts.

The magazine International Living, which has been rating potential retirement destinations since the 1970s, this year pushed Ecuador over Panama as No. 1.  Ecuador´s cheap cost of living pushed it over the top.

Mexico ranked third, despite the State Department statistic that 120 Americans were murdered in that country in 2011, triple what it was six years earlier.

Long the darling of the IL rankings, Costa Rica came in 17th this year, largely because of the cost of living. It apparently has gone the way of Western Montana, Bozeman, West Yellowstone and Monteverde´s sister city of Estes Park, Colo. To paraphrase Charlie Russell, “It was a good land once, but it got ruint.”

Expatriate pockets such as Panama´s Boquette, Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and Ecuador´s Cuenca have significant expat populations and thus plenty of English speakers.

Boquette, Panama´s alleged “Little Switzerland,” boasts that 15 percent of its residents were born in foreign lands. In addition to Americans and Canadians, European retirees universally are conversant in English.

Following Panama´s lead, the Costa Rica government is promoting gated (but affordable) retirement “ciudades de salud” (health cities) and one of Vice President Joe Biden´s brothers is among promoters of a project in Costa Rica that includes beaches, nature – and golf - as part of the rejuvenation process.

In addition to all the perks, Central American countries offer the obvious enticements of no winter as we know it, cheap and plentiful food and services, abundant and dirt-cheap public transportation through breath-taking scenery in safe, stable democracies.

Last year´s Costa Rican census said about 16,000 U.S. citizens live in that country – nearly double the number 10 years earlier. Journalist and expat Don Winner has been trying to grasp figures for years and concludes that about 40,000 U.S. citizens live in Panama. Mexican immigration states that 125,000 U.S. gringos live in Mexico, most of them in the capital city.

Organizations of expats are found in most countries. The annual Fourth of July celebration in San Jose became to big for the U.S. Embassy more than 50 years ago and since then has been organized and funded by a private group, American Colony.

Both Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad have set up booths at the affair at a brewery out of town with a U.S. Marine Color Guard and the usual martial music, hot dogs, beer, cotton candy and other goodies. All for only 5,000 colones (about $10).

But it ain’t always easy. The so-called “pura vida” of Costa Rica presents the challenge of finding variations of a thrice-daily theme of rice, beans, and something else. Then there are the daily rains and bad roads crowded with what one writer described as “wildly enthusiastic drivers” and very few traffic cops.

As part of their full-employment plans, governments offering pensionado deals for retirees require the employment of in-country lawyers and doctors in the process, as well as background checks through the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol - and personal appearances with a native lawyer in the capitals of San Jose, Panama City, Managua, Mexico City or Quito.

Veterans of the process say it´s best to get a passport and use a tourist visa for a few months, and put hiking boots or sandals on the ground to do your own research, then follow up with consulates of your would-be host countries. 

The time limit on tourist visas seems easy enough to get around. I have run into expats in Monteverde, Costa Rica, who had been returning for years without even knowing there is a three-month limit. And a colleague teaching English with me at a private school has for five years merely returned (via Nicaragua) to her native Israel every few months to re-start her tourist visa. 

Obviously, she doesn´t really need those “jubilado” discounts.


Last Updated on Friday, 22 June 2012 15:46

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Medications can adversely affect your driving


Joyce from Butte writes:

Q: I am 73 years old and recently I have gotten into a few fender-benders. So far the accidents have been minor, but they seem to have started when I was prescribed with some new medications. Is there a possible correlation?

A: Joyce, the short answer is “yes.” In the news, we’re constantly bombarded with alarming reports and statistics about accidents caused by distracted driving and drunk driving. But there’s another driver safety issue which, although it isn’t discussed as often, is just as serious of a problem: drug-impaired driving. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), many drivers are under the influence of drugs — not just illegal narcotics, but also many legal medications. In a report published in March of 2011, NHTSA describes a survey taken of over 7,000 drivers, in which 11 percent of daytime and 14.4 percent of nighttime drivers tested positive for drugs. CBS News recently reported the states with the highest rates of drugged driving and Montana ranked fifth highest.

But many drivers are unaware of the potentially dangerous impact medications can have on their driving. Taking prescription or over-the-counter medications (including common medications used to treat illnesses like arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure) can cause impairments such as drowsiness, dizziness, and blurred vision. Even among drugs generally considered safe for driving, adverse reactions may still occur, and interactions can occur between certain medications and other drugs or alcohol that could dangerously impair your driving performance. 

You can still drive safely if you’re taking medication. Here are five tips from Julie Lee, vice president of AARP’s Driver Safety Program, to help you avoid drug-impaired driving — and stay safe on the road:

1. Be aware of the side effects of your medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, and of their potential impact on your driving. Talk with your doctor to discuss your medications and driving activity to see if any changes should to be made to your dosage or prescriptions. Ask your doctor if any medications, or combination of them, should limit or stop you from driving because of side effects.

2. At the pharmacy, request printed information about the side effects of any new medication. If you purchase your medications by mail, mail-order pharmacies have toll-free numbers you can call for questions about your medications.

3. Create a Personal Medication Record. The best way to track your drugs and to help your doctor and pharmacist have the most updated information is to create a Personal Medication Record. Keeping a complete and centralized record allows you to list all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements, the doses, and how you take them. Bring your updated personal record to all of your appointments, and consider providing a copy to the pharmacies you use. For instructions and a template visit:

4. Observe your reactions. Take note of how your body feels and reacts to various drugs and supplements you may be taking. Keep track of how you feel after taking the medication, noting the time you took it, and be aware of any symptoms you may be feeling. If you feel dizzy, drowsy, or experience blurred vision, let your doctor and pharmacist know.

5. Seek out additional information. If you have questions, you should always speak with your health-care professional, but you can also visit for these AARP tools: “Drug Interaction Checker” (for information on interactions among prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and herbal pills and supplements), “Drugs A-Z” (for information on drug interactions, side effects, and more), and “Drug Compare” (see how any two drugs stack up on dosage, side effects, and interactions).

If you’re interested in learning other tips and skills to help keep you and your loved ones safe on the roads, consider taking a driver safety course like the AARP Driver Safety Program, which is available in a classroom or online setting. Upon completion of the course, you may even qualify for an insurance discount. For more information, visit or call 1-888-AARP-NOW (1-888-227-7669).

Do you have a question for AARP Montana? Send your question to “Ask AARP Montana” at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 30 W 14th St., Helena, MT 59601 or call our toll-free hotline at 1-866-295-7278. As we receive questions, we will consult with both internal and external experts to provide timely advice.


Last Updated on Friday, 22 June 2012 15:42

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