EUREKA — Two years after the border was shutdown, residents of Lincoln County in northwestern Montana are continuing to express frustrations with the ongoing pandemic restrictions.
Saturday's rally and convoy of trucks from Eureka up to the US-Canada border crossing at Roosville drew hundreds of people with support for protesting Canadian truckers and a call to end cross-border restrictions. It was peaceful, with no blockade.
But as flags and signs were waved, and a companion Canadian convey stretching for miles was looped away from the border by RCMP, there was a deeper message of separation.
Rally organizer Carmen Davis apologized to the audience as her eyes filled with tears.
"I'm sorry. This is harder than I thought it was going to be. Watching my family, make a loop, and not be able to see them," Davis said as she left her prepared remarks. "I've seen my 75-year old dad once in the last 2-and-a-half years. I've got nieces and nephews that I haven't seen since they were born."
"We've not seen them. Telephones are nice," GOP State Senator Mike Cuffe told the crowd. "But it's not the same as putting your arms around your loved ones."
It was nearly a year ago when we first brought you the stories of how the Tobacco Valley community has been split by the pandemic. And while there have been a few reunions, there are still limits.
"Yeah, you know at that point in time we were talking about opening borders. We didn't talk about circus tricks to get through those borders," Lincoln County Commissioner Josh Letcher told me. "There was a time when I was a child here when we drove across this border just over 20 years ago and you stopped, they asked where you were going, what you were doing and you continued on. So this is ludicrous to me."
Brandy Carvey said she's been able to have limited visits, but the restrictions make it very difficult for families to interact as they normally would.
"Not much has changed," Carvey said on the hillside overlooking the rally. "Still frustrated. My kids haven't been able to see their family on that side. I went in June for two weeks. Other than that it's still it's real tight now. I mean, they're taking away flying. They took away my family exemption to go up to take the kids up there. We struggle. It's hard."
While there are challenges, there are some bright spots too. Shannon, who we met last year, was finally able to get married in December to her Canadian husband. But she says the restrictions still make it tough to get the entire family together.
"It still doesn't feel real, but it's exciting to finally carry his last name and be with my high school sweetheart," Shannon Hutchinson said with a smile.
But the new family is still separate, with Shannon and her son in Eureka, and her husband and three step-kids in Alberta. She still hopes for a return to normal.
"It's a little bit easier now that he did bite the bullet and get that lovely vaccine. Not being able to see my other three kiddos is it's pretty devastating, and they're still going through a pretty rough time."
Tough for the adults too, seeing friends and relatives in the looping traffic so close, but still so far away.
"It would have been nice to see my family up there," said Letcher, who's 86-year old grandfather lives on the hill about the border, just 200 yards away. "I asked them about coming down here, but they don't want to go through the circus tricks either. You know some of them are vaccinated. But yet there's still other restrictions to go along with that. They almost treat you like criminals to come down through."
Putting pressure on a community's patience.
"I totally agree and my patience has stretched pretty thin," Carvey admits.