At Helena's No Sweat counter, with powerful coffee, just as it should be. A full order of Guadalupe Smith, the plate of food that's right up there with the best anywhere north of Nogales.

And on Nov. 14, Lisa Cordingley kicks off another of her Helena Education Foundation "Great Conversation" gatherings at the Great Northern. I am supposed to work a table focused on 1968 -- a fraught, troubling year for me, when I essentially tried to come of age. Bracing issues, boiling violence, crippling assassinations, promising opportunities, deeper disappointments -- all piled up in that one calendar year.

I am back in town after years mostly away, having been a Senate Page in 1967, serving as researcher for the Constitutional Convention Bill of Rights Committee, running a probing public interest operation out of Bozeman, toiling in DC as staff director for a U.S. senator and a congressman; and later struggling to restore salmon to the Columbia River Basin, working with Native Americans, trying to reach a U.S./Canada agreement on shares of harvest. All in all, very lucky to have been able to work on those issues.

Through it all, that boisterous, encouraging, dysfunctional 1968 stands out. Actually, that pivotal year is a lot like our time right now -- 50 years later -- except there is no draft these days to drag the sometimes unwilling to their still largely unrewarded fate. Again today, we see the infamous credibility gap, the wrenching lack of civility as we fail to confront very real challenges -- instead wallowing in our constricting inability to face up, to see ourselves plainly. To find a way forward that is not winner take all.

I admit, I scarcely recognize the mangled, warring public face of my home state; and, hard as I search for it, I can not see a clear path back to the days when conservatives and progressives, and those in between, tried harder, worked together, and made this state worthy of its moniker, the Last Best Place.

A couple days ago, I wandered the halls of the State Capitol, pausing to admire the statues and busts of Maureen and Mike Mansfield, Joseph Dixon, Thomas Walsh, Burton Wheeler, Jeannette Rankin. I spent hours in the boxed archives of Joseph Kinsey Howard and the Constitutional Convention Bill of Rights Committee. Re-learning as I went. Appreciating what is revealed there.

After that, I am left to wonder whether we can ever get back to more productive days. Back when we celebrated the Right to Know, and the pursuit of real truth; 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 import of the displaced, yet enduring indigenous cultures; and so much more.

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? The wise answer is: To get to the middle. And the informing correctness of that answer does not depend on the fact that the person traversing the pavement is Canadian.

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

Rick Applegate, a native Montanan born in Libby, was a Bill of Rights Research Analyst at the 1972 Constitutional Convention, 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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