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You know you're in Montana when ...

Living large in Big Sky Country, where it’s hip to be rustic

August 21, 2011
By RICK CHATENEVER - Features Editor ( , The Maui News

MISSOULA, Mont. - According to the accident report filed with the Missoula police, I was sitting at a stoplight at the corner of Broadway and Mullen when I was rear-ended. I was hit by a bright-orange Hummer driven by a woman in a tight T-shirt who looked like she had just stepped out of a Sugarland song. She just couldn't stop apologizing. Her foot in its skimpy flip-flop slipped off the brake, she explained to the officer taking the report.

It knocked me in my little Subaru right into the intersection - Welcome to Big Sky Country, Pilgrim! But as I waited for signs of whiplash in the coming days, none appeared. It seemed more metaphorical in nature: "What to Do When You're Struck By a Hummer in Montana."

Missoula had big trees canopying the streets and snow still on nearby surrounding peaks during our recent family visit. Swollen by the wet winter and late spring, some babbling river - or creek or crick or fork - runs through it, no matter which way you look. Folks were happily riding inner tubes or doing kayak flips in a little patch of white water under the Higgins Street bridge that marks the middle of downtown.

Article Photos

A stuffed elk gazes over the lobby at Chico Hot Springs.


It stays light until almost 10 in the summer, with the cool of the evening arriving slowly. Although Missoula is home to the University of Montana "Griz" and pulses to college-town hipness, downtown is dotted with deco architecture. Vintage hotels and office buildings, brick-fronted bars and the fading red marquee of the once grand Wilma Theater make you feel like you've happened into a different time zone maybe the '40s.

Even before our daughter moved to Missoula and became a nurse, my wife's family roots kept drawing us back to this ruggedly gorgeous part of America. Now that we've got a 16-month-old granddaughter to get ridiculous over, the connections run that much deeper. We're fair-weather Montanans, limiting our visits to the summer months.

But even so, the visits feel less like vacations than chapters in a movie, like Terrence Malick's haunting "The Tree of Life" that we watched on the Wilma Theater's aging screen.

Brad Pitt and Sean Penn star in Malick's cinematic ruminations on the complicated emotions that bring families together and tear them apart. The elliptical, fragmented storyline is accompanied by wordless footage of nature, from molten lava through verdant forests to distant galaxies. It sometimes feels more like an abstract art exhibit than a movie. The overall effect is both mesmerizing and infuriating, having won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival but causing some American audiences to lose their patience with its tedious, never- ending art.

But at its core is boundless love and the challenges of not knowing what to do with it otherwise known as family ties.

Our Montana visits are more like that than carefree vacations. They're further complicated by the fact that we trade houses and vehicles with Missoulians who get an inexpensive Maui vacation out of the deal. House trading is great economically, but it adds its own Twilight Zone dimension with the sense that you're occupying someone else's space, if not a bigger part of their lives for a couple of weeks. Especially when it's their car that gets hit by the orange Hummer.

Missoula was our base, but we managed day trips and even a vacation within the vacation that took us to Bozeman, Chico Hot Springs and Yellowstone Park en route to the magnificent Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyo. As caught up as we kept getting in the dramatic grandeur, we kept getting little hits of Maui.

One night, fellow Mauian Willie Nelson and family played a concert with Lyle Lovett in a riverside stadium usually reserved for Missoula's minor-league baseball team, the Ospreys. The following morning, the hometown paper, the Missoulian, had a big front page photo of Willie, looking slightly Old Testament in his black T-shirt and cowboy hat, ripping through a song as a bolt of lightning hit a nearby cliff, like fire on the mountain or a machine gun blast from the neck of his guitar.

In the even hipper college town of Bozeman 200 miles away, a copy of Maui author Cris Simmons's wonderful photographic history of "The American Motorcycle Girls" had a prominent place in the front window of Vargos Jazz City and Books. It felt like a postcard from home in this sunny, mountain-ringed town that once provided the setting for "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

Driving south, we spent a night in Chico Hot Springs, a comfortable blend of rustic and sensual, with taxidermists' deer heads and full-on bears in the lobby, a gourmet dining room, rustic Western accommodations, horse stables on the property and a family feel to the giant open-air hot pool under the night stars.

Driving through Yellowstone, the glimpse of a buffalo in a grove of trees near the road was enough to cause gridlock. True to its name, Old Faithful's 17 eruptions a day draw crowds, like nature's rough draft for a Vegas water show.

We hit the Grand Tetons late in the afternoon. Even from a distance, they are as dramatic as they are achingly beautiful. In their presence, you begin to understand for the first time what "purple mountain majesties" mean.

A ski mecca in the winter, in the summer months Jackson Hole is more of an outpost for Old West kitsch, including the nightly shootout on Main Street, and the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with western saddles instead of stools along the bars on both sides of the cavernous drinking establishment.

Thanks to my wife's career at the Four Seasons, we had free nights at the Jackson Hole resort. Even in the summer off-season, it felt cozy and welcoming with its wood paneling and Western-chic dcor including a cowhide chair in the lobby that had our granddaughter galloping toward it, happily saying, "mooooo..."

The dining room windows looked out over a series of lifts and a nearby performing arts center, which we were told, become a wonderland when covered with snow. But talk of the Tropics came up with employees who had happy memories of their previous stints at "the Maui property" or others who got to experience on their own vacations.

We were traveling in a Toyota FJ Cruiser during this phase of our trip. With its Land Rover heritage, its massive tires and scary grill, it seemed more the product of misplaced machismo than more sane automotive engineering.

As ridiculous a vehicle as it seemed at first, after driving it through the Rockies I realized people seeing me getting out of it assumed it was mine. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I had gotten comfortable with that concept by the time I had to give it back and even noticed I had begun walking a little bowlegged.

Between the house trades and loans from in-laws and relatives, we worked through more than a half-dozen vehicles over the course of the month. They basically evolved from the FJ through a couple of Subarus (Montana's car of choice because of its all-wheel-drive technology) down to our last ride, a dilapidated 25-year-old blue Toyota pick-up that ran a lot better than it looked.

Montana is big country, encompassing lots of different ways of life. Part of it brings out your inner cowboy, even as you try to make fun of it by posing with a stuffed coyote for sale for $500 in a service station and convenience store in the tiny town of Lima. Other funk along the road included a Mexican restaurant operating out of a school bus serving the best meals - dinner and breakfast - in the town of Dillon.

Missoula, in contrast, is full of superb restaurants, offering gourmet fare, comfortably urbane ambiance and reasonable prices. We had memorable Asian-accented meals at the Mustard Seed and Iza, and a special-occasion birthday dinner at Scotty's Table downstairs in the Wilma building.

But our favorite was the Red Bird Wine Bar off to one side of the deco lobby of the Florence Hotel. From European-accented entrees to world-class cheeseburgers and fries, its eclectic wine list and selection of local brews are served in an intimate, dimly lit setting, whose resemblance to a French cafe was intensified the night a guitar-and-mandolin duo played Django-esque jazz in the corner.

For all the fly fishing shops and ubiquitous stuffed animal heads on the wall, Missoula is also a progressive, wholesome community of 100,000, with farmers markets taking over downtown on Saturdays, the outstanding Good Food Store organic supermarket, and lots of civic interest in environmental activism.

After the long winters, it's a place that savors the extra daylight of summer. Downtown Caras Park under the Higgins Street bridge hosts a full schedule of free concerts and family-friendly events. A highlight was the Missoula Celtic Festival, complete with homegrown Riverdancers.

My need to swim was well-served by the Splash Montana complex, with a 50-meter pool next to the kiddie pool, water slides and "lazy river" full of inner tubes. But there were also actual rivers and the gorgeous Flathead Lake for more adventurous dips.

Spend a few weeks in Montana and you start understanding why network news anchormen, media moguls and former movie icons elect to buy ranches to retire to in this region. Under the big sky it's big land. The rugged beauty of its mountains, forests and rushing rivers invite and challenge the citizenry to live large.

It's also a throwback to a time when America was a simpler place. Railroad tracks still mark one edge of downtown Missoula and trains pass through frequently, as they have for decades. The seemingly endless strings of cars still carry coal and lumber, even though there are now bicyclists and parents with jogging strollers waiting patiently at the lowered crossing gates and clanging bells.

After darkness finally falls, train whistles punctuate the nights' darkness, adding their lonesome call to the coyotes you sometimes hear on nearby ridges.

Missoula does sometimes feel like a Norman Rockwell painting that wandered into the wrong century. It's a place where people having been lining up for decades for ice cream at the Big Dipper. We're told the lines are still there in the snow through the winter.

It's an unassuming, friendly place with lots of parks within walking distance. There, a 16-month-old can remind you that life doesn't get much better than riding in a swing, right up to that big sky.

Especially in the 8 p.m. sunlight of summer. Especially when there's not an orange Hummer in sight.

* Rick Chatenever can be reached at

See more photos at "Gallery of You know you're in Montana"



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