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People in Montana react to the balloon that brought national attention to the state

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Montana took center stage recently as a rogue balloon made its way across Big Sky country. People there are still talking about the balloon and about BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. But with national attention drifting, Montanans are also hoping that the necessary conversations about the struggles they face don't also drift away. Orlinda Worthington from member station Yellowstone Public Radio brings us this report.

ORLINDA WORTHINGTON, BYLINE: The lunch crowd is rolling in to the Lost Village Roadhouse Saloon in Roberts, Mont., population 300.

JIMMY HOWARD: OK, what are we having to eat, folks? Let's start with the ladies.

WORTHINGTON: That's manager Jimmy Howard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll have the catfish special.

HOWARD: You'll have the special.

WORTHINGTON: The saloon sits at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains. It's a popular stop for locals and skiers on their way to or from Red Lodge, 52 miles west of Billings. That's a name you might recognize. It's the place where the first published photos were taken of the suspected Chinese spy balloon. Sixth-grader Beau pockets a ball, then takes a break to tell me what his classmates thought of the balloon event.

BEAU: They were just starstruck that stuff like that happened and pretty cool that we got to witness it.

HOWARD: Oh, yeah. There was a hot topic for a long time. But the main consensus was - is they should have taken it out a lot sooner instead of letting it go clear across the country and go over all of our military installations and everything else before shooting it down.

WORTHINGTON: There's been a rumor going around that the Pentagon considered shooting down the balloon over the Beartooth - basically right here.

HOWARD: I think the chance of it hitting a stray cow or elk would be more likely than it striking a town or individuals.

WORTHINGTON: The Red Lodge Fire mitigation team comes through the door on a break during training. The group of first responders thinks blasting the balloon over the Beartooths would have been a terrible idea.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: Recovery, depending on where it landed, could have been very difficult. If it was on top of the plateau, it might not have been too bad, but there's a lot of real rugged terrain. And just getting to it and recovering anything - and especially this time of year, you know, you would have had to fly in. Be a lot of logistical things to think about.

WORTHINGTON: Shooting it down - the right idea but wrong tactic, according to Jimmy.

HOWARD: What I don't understand either is why they're using half-a-million-dollar missiles to take down a balloon. Why couldn't they use the 50-caliber guns on the planes to shoot them down?

PATTY: I think it was all blown out of proportion.

WORTHINGTON: Patty lives down the road in Red Lodge.

PATTY: I think there's enough Montanans that own guns. I was kind of surprised that it wasn't shot down (laughter).

WORTHINGTON: A little too high for that at about 65,000 feet.

PATTY: Yeah, so other than that, I'm glad it wasn't over the Beartooths, you know?

WORTHINGTON: What are other concerns? What do you think people that live in this area, Red Lodge, Roberts area, rural Montana, are more concerned about than this balloon?

PATTY: Housing. There's no place to live. There's no place to rent that is reasonable for what people earn. Most of the people work two or three jobs.

WORTHINGTON: Now that the initial balloon excitement is over, Montanans seem to have landed back on concerns familiar to people all across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, I think this community and a lot of communities, particularly rural communities, their focus is on survival with the economy and inflation. When you're in survival mode, you know the rest of it's kind of noise.

WORTHINGTON: For NPR News, I'm Orlinda Worthington in Roberts, Montana.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBEN AYALA, JEFFREY W WADE AND DUSTY HENDRIX SONG, "ADDICTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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