You can get an inkling of America’s vastness by looking at an atlas.

Turn to the Montana page and see how much empty space surrounds its pinprick settlements. The land of big sky stretches some 500 miles across and about half as deep, making it the fourth largest in the United States. Yet fewer than 900,000 people call it home. You’ll find that many folks milling around a dozen or so square miles of midtown Manhattan on a typical day.

Neighboring North Dakota, the 17th largest state in acreage, has only about two-thirds as many people as Montana sprinkled throughout its sprawling plains.

As I said, you can get an inkling looking at a map. To really experience the spaciousness, take a train ride through Montana and North Dakota. That’s what I did one August and once before to vacation at a friend’s home on Flathead Lake in northwest Montana, near the town of Kalispell.

Never rely on Amtrak if you have to meet a tight schedule, but otherwise it’s a mesmerizing way to travel. The Empire Builder route stretches from my hometown of Chicago all the way to Seattle, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington. One gets plenty of time to catch up on long-overdue reading and contemplate a whole bunch of nothingness along the way. And, observe the things that pop up here and there.

Amtrak’s route pretty much parallels U.S. Highway 2 through North Dakota and Montana, so even in their most desolate stretches, signs of human habitation appear between the horizons. Markers include telephone poles, vehicles traveling on U.S. 2, an occasional farm or ranch house, barns and storage sheds, and livestock grazing the endless fields. But many miles go by in which actual people are as elusive as microbes on Mars.

Small town, USA

Passing through small towns, the train often goes by pipe yards that signal supply houses nestled in the commercial districts that always spring up around railroad tracks. This got me thinking about the unsung heroes of our nation’s economy.

People who live in our country’s out-of-the-way places lack some cultural amenities, but no longer are they denied the essential creature comforts that define modern civilization. Their isolation is alleviated by telephones, autos, satellite TV and, for better or worse, fast-food franchises.

Best of all, virtually all of them have running water, indoor plumbing and central heating to combat some of the coldest temperatures in the lower 48 states. When you see how far toilets and boilers have to travel to reach the nooks and crannies of population, appreciation grows for the people who make it happen.

The great wealth of our country and that of other nations has its roots in the industrial revolution. Mass production enables large numbers of people to enjoy an array of goods they couldn’t come close to making for themselves, and at affordable prices.

Manufacturers thrive on volume. Their business model requires large amounts of capital investment that can only be recouped by production lines humming within shouting distance of full capacity. For this to happen, there needs to be a mass market for their goods. Not a problem to achieve in urban population centers, but it’s tricky to squeeze out a profit supplying places like Havre, Mont., or Minot, N.D., and hundreds of even smaller communities scattered around our humongous western states. Passing through small towns, the train often goes by pipe yards that signal supply houses nestled in the commercial districts that always spring up around railroad tracks. This got me thinking about the unsung heroes of our nation’s economy.

People who live in our country’s out-of-the-way places lack some cultural amenities, but no longer are they denied the essential creature comforts that define modern civilization. Their isolation is alleviated by telephones, autos, satellite TV and, for better or worse, fast-food franchises.

Best of all, virtually all of them have running water, indoor plumbing and central heating to combat some of the coldest temperatures in the lower 48 states. When you see how far toilets and boilers have to travel to reach the nooks and crannies of population, appreciation grows for the people who make it happen.

The great wealth of our country and that of other nations has its roots in the industrial revolution. Mass production enables large numbers of people to enjoy an array of goods they couldn’t come close to making for themselves, and at affordable prices.

Manufacturers thrive on volume. Their business model requires large amounts of capital investment that can only be recouped by production lines humming within shouting distance of full capacity. For this to happen, there needs to be a mass market for their goods. Not a problem to achieve in urban population centers, but it’s tricky to squeeze out a profit supplying places like Havre, Mont., or Minot, N.D., and hundreds of even smaller communities scattered around our humongous western states.

Hurrah for the middleman

Much business activity concerns itself with cutting out the middlemen. Over the years, many manufacturers, retailers and consumers have thought it pointless to give a piece of the action to folks who neither make goods nor interact with customers. So there have been numerous experiments in handling distribution functions directly. Most have found out the hard way that the 25 percent margin taken by wholesaler-distributors turns out to be a bargain. It’s not always apparent what they do to earn their keep, until you try to figure out how to make money selling those goods to a handful of citizens in the middle of nowhere.

From a certain perspective, it seems preposterous to open a supply house where mainly the deer and the antelope roam. Yet, distribution entrepreneurs figure out ways to make it profitable. This is fortunate for the citizens of rural America, for the manufacturers who produce the goods, and for the rest of us who enjoy the world’s largest array of merchandise at affordable prices. People of the distribution industry are entitled to take a bow for making it happen.

Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.