Coming Home to Montana
If Vermont was pretty, soft and feminine, Montana, in sharp contrast, is rugged, wild and masculine. We are cruising along winding roads carved through jagged Rocky Mountains thick with spiky Cedar trees and laced with crystal jade streams.
Suddenly we hit open plains the color of straw, dotted with lonely cattle ranches, encompassed by undulating mountains like massive camel humps. Montana is a vast state, the fourth largest in the nation, and sparsely populated with less than one million down-home country folk. The evocative name Montana is Spanish for ‘mountain’ but the Native Americans call it Big Sky Country because your eyes extend to a distant horizon embraced in a bear hug of mountain peaks and the spectacular landscape is a tapestry of canyons, river valleys, grassy plains, badlands and caverns, home to 100 mammal species and 250 bird species.
We are heading for Glacier National Park. The whole 147,000 square miles of Montana is divided into six regions: Glacier Country, Gold West Country, Yellowstone Country, Russell Country, Missouri River Country and Custer Country. We aim to cover three regions and throw ourselves out of the car and into some action.
The inside cover of the tourist magazine has picture of an idyllic log cabin at the North Forty Resort in Whitefish. My cowgirl eyes widen and my country heart skips a beat! It would be way too expensive, I muse despondently, and probably booked out. But a call from the Mexican café in the nearby town of Kalispell reveals there’s a cabin available at an affordable rate. We can’t believe our luck!
When we arrive, the cabin manifests straight out of my childhood dreams. While I potter in the kitchen and ‘nest’, Andrew ventures into the woods to meet the wildlife and returns with reports of spotting a family of deer. A John Denver soundtrack plays in my mind…sometimes this old farm feels like a long lost friend….supper on the stove…the love that lights my way…. Snippets of lyrics swirl together with a sense of coming home.
The Back Story
After our Vermont adventure, we flew from Boston to Minneapolis in Minnesota, the northern mid-west state of 10,000 beautiful lakes, for a Marriage Builders seminar with Dr Harley, whom I had been studying intently for four years. It was a peak experience to finally meet my hero and Andrew and I committed to the follow-up six month course, first up weeding out love busters from our relationship.
We met with the good Doc and his glamorous and vivacious wife, Joyce to discuss how we can promote their important work in helping couples and families thrive. After a week of living on the seventh floor of the superb Embassy Suites hotel, on first name basis with the staff, we felt like Tom Hanks in that movie where he lives in the airport! It was time to hit the road!
In going west, we reneged on a grueling train trip of almost 30 hours across Dakota and instead flew to Seattle via Arizona (Go figure!) and hired a midnight blue Pontiac and drove across Washington State to the tiny township of Cle Elum, outside Spokane. At the quaint roadside hotel, Andrew discovered the soothing properties of the Hot Tub and we collapsed exhausted after a full day of airport security checks, waiting in lounges and flying and driving 130 miles across desolate terrain.
What an unexpected treat to stumble across the historic township of Roslyn where one of our favorite TV series, Northern Exposure, was filmed. We had watched all six series, comprising around 100 episodes, before we left Australia, and got to know and love the characters and the community intimately (quite sad really!). So it was a surreal experience to walk the streets, see the quirky mural where the moose lumbers past, the funky radio station set, Joel’s ramshackle doctor’s clinic and the funky Brick hotel, all identical since the show was made in the 90s.
We crossed the border into Idaho and drove through rolling hills and cedar forests to the border town of big signs, Coeur D’Alene and opted for a cheap stay in a Motel 6 and hit the local Mexican for the biggest meal that stretched my stomach to the limit and set me reeling and vowing never to over-eat again! We chatted with the friendly waiter and were surprised to discover he had never ventured across the border into Montana after years of living so close-by.
Throughout our trip, we are continually reminded how fortunate we are to afford to travel for more than two months when most working Americans would never dream of taking such a long holiday. On the nightly news we are reminded that the world economy is in free fall with stock markets, currency values, retirement funds and investments plummeting. It would be easy to catch the media-induced panic but it seems that staying calm is the only sane approach.
Alongside news of financial crisis, there’s 24 hour television coverage of the election battle between presidential hopefuls, Obama and McCain. As the fateful day of November 4th draws closer, people everywhere are muttering their fierce allegiances and disdain for the other guy. I am keeping my opinions guarded. Being outspoken in a country hyped on a potent mix of patriotism, fear, ignorance and denial is not always wise or tactful. However we all know this 2008 American election will impact the entire world and the tension is palpable.
With the turbulent political backdrop, our personal quest continues. The minute we crossed the border from Idaho into Montana I knew I had arrived. Suddenly the air was different and the dimensions magnified and worries and stresses dropped away.
Acclaimed novelist Nicholas Evans so eloquently describes Montana in The Horse Whisperer, The Loop, The Smokejumper and The Divide and captures the free spirit of this wild country. I’m not one to accuse God of playing favorites with His creation, but this mesmerizing wilderness is blessed with a disproportionate measure of grandeur and beauty enough to incite envy.
So here we are. Welcome to our log cabin. After settling into our cozy retreat, warmed by a fire stove, we study the brochures and I confess I am secretly relieved to discover the whitewater rafting finished the week before. The streams are fast becoming icy as winter closes in.
Talking to locals we realize we have come to Montana on the tail-end of the hectic tourist season. We are teetering on the precarious edge of seasonal change. In mid-October everyone is gearing up and battening down for winter. The first heavy snow is due to hit with eerie predictability on Halloween on October 31st.
The Grandeur of Glacier
Undeterred by the between-season atmosphere, with Glacier National Park almost deserted, we set off to drive the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road that traverses east to west and make it as far as Logan Pass before slippery, steep conditions close the road.
Through the mist, our eyes feast on snow capped mountains, granite peaks, serene turquoise Lake McDonald and St Mary Lake and towering cedars of sparkling gold and green. Glacier is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the States with one million acres of natural wonder and thriving wildlife and 700 miles of hiking trails.
On Sunday we can not believe how blessed we are with a perfect sun-drenched day to go horse riding at Bar W Ranch. Both novices when it comes to riding, we are given two placid horses, Blaze and Blue Duck and we weave our way through the forest on a trail ride led by an honest-to-goodness wrangler. The magical experience gives me a taste for returning for a stay at a horse ranch.
Searching for Gold
Monday morning we pack up and head for Gold West country, renowned for its gold, silver and copper mining heritage, tragic Big Hole battlefield, cowboy museums, notorious outlaws, explorers Lewis and Clark and limestone caverns.
When we stop for lunch at a roadside Subway for a one-footer (to share!), I am reminded that out here people talk slower and the perplexed, plump girl behind the counter can not decipher my accent and how ‘fast’ I am jabbering! It is like I’m talking a foreign language!
That afternoon we have an unexpected white-knuckle adventure. The glossy magazine features a write-up on Garnet ghost town. I conjure up an image of a glitzy tourist attraction just off the main highway with stores flogging gold and garnet jewelry so I suggest to Andrew that we take a detour. We follow a hand-painted stick sign that points us up the track 10 miles. We can’t believe it when we start climbing up a treacherous cliff face on a dirt road with no way to turn back!
When we finally arrive, it is in fact, a genuine ghost town of derelict old buildings dating back to the late-1800 gold mining era. In the fading light and drizzling rain we stumble across the lonely Visitors’ Guide and four young students poking around the ruins. Andrew gets freaked in the loft of the old hotel and we can’t get out of there fast enough!
That night we stay in a cheap hotel in historic Butte, slurp soup from a mug, and wake to a thick snowfall draping our car and surrounding countryside in a lush carpet of glistening white. On the road again with our favorite uplifting music playing loud through the speakers, we set off for famous Yellowstone National Park, with visions of grizzly bears and steely-eyed wolves dancing in my imagination.
It is Tuesday afternoon October 21st when we drive into the wide open streets of West Yellowstone, a town of just 1.2 square miles with 65 hotels. As almost the only visitors in town we have our pick of accommodation and score the bargain rate at the 80-room Lodge with all facilities laid on just for us!
I quickly discover that the sprawling corner store brimming with gorgeous knitwear and classic country garments, beautiful leather cowboy boots, belts and hats, is keen for my business and I’m in Seventh Heaven. The local Italian restaurant and bookstore bursting at the seams also turns it on for the late-coming out-of-towners!
The next day, despite dire warnings of broaching winter, we are blessed with the brightest Montana blue sky, sparkling sunshine and bracing chilly air when we venture into Yellowstone National Park and encounter a herd of grazing bison on the way to Old Faithful, the famous geyser that goes off on the hour with courteous regularity for the assembled tourists.
Driving along Beartooth Scenic Byway, considered the most beautiful road in America, we have, in fact, crossed into Wyoming which shares Yellowstone with its neighboring state and all day we cruise around marveling at snow-capped Beartooth Mountain, pristine streams, dotted with trout fishermen, and entrancing Yellowstone Lake. At 136 square miles, it is one of the world’s largest alpine lakes. This natural wonderland has 10,000 thermal features including hot springs, mud pots and about 250 active geysers. Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park, established in 1872, covering 2.2 million acres of wilderness and the star drawcards are furry and fierce.
Day Two we visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre where we see massive grizzlies which have been rescued as orphaned cubs or ‘nuisance bears’ and relocated to the centre. My telephoto lens goes into overdrive snapping close-ups of Revel and Spirit foraging for pumpkin pieces. In another spacious habitat a pack of handsome gray wolves, looking as harmless as your average family pets, laze in the sun and pose for my camera.
The centre screens a fascinating movie about the saga of the Grizzly and the journalist in me goes on full alert, recognizing the newsworthy story of the century. The Grizzly, revered as the icon of the American frontier, once dominated two thirds of the continent in their millions, but mass slaughter drove them driven to the point of extinction. The surviving bears were forced to find refuge in Yellowstone but once again humans messed with the noble predators in the 1960s, when regular feeding troughs set up for the amusement of tourists made them dependent on scraps and unable to hunt for themselves.
A dedicated conservation effort banned human feeding and encouraged the Yellowstone bears to relearn their hunting and foraging skills. In a celebrated recovery the numbers have increased from 30 grizzlies to around 550 in the park. Rangers track the seasonal movements of bear families and one mother affectionately known to regular visitors as ‘264’ and her mischievous cubs would appear for a photo call by the roadside every spring until 2003, when she was tragically killed by a pickup truck.
When living wild and free, grizzlies are known to cavort in sheer exuberance and pairs of cubs wrestle playfully. The bears’ survival relies on four main food sources: elk calves, cut-throat trout, moths that burrow in the soil of the high country and seeds that fall from the conifer trees. All four food sources are now under threat.
And the grizzlies are on a collision course with ranchers when they kill their livestock, with campers and residents when they raid their campsites and backyards in search of food and with hunters when they feast on the elk carcasses the men leave behind. There is currently pressure to ‘de-list’ the Grizzly as an endangered species which would give ranchers the right to shoot marauding bears. I am smitten with the heavyweight Grizzlies and wish I could champion their cause.
On our last day in Yellowstone we visit the ‘Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’ featuring 24 miles of cascading water. The 308-foot Lower Falls is twice as tall as Niagara Falls. We take in the intriguing sight of Mammoth Hot Springs; chalky volcanic terraces formed by mineral-laden water bubbling from deep beneath the earth’s crust. A tourist township is built near the natural attraction and we stumble across a herd of about 70 elks wandering around the town, oblivious to camera-wielding humans.
What bliss, immersing ourselves in this grand spectacle of nature, cruising along listening to country music, day-dreaming, chatting, taking enough photos and making enough memories to cherish for years. We are overcome with a sense of gratitude to find ourselves savoring such contentment, such a detour off the beaten track of mundane routine.
Over 12 days we travelled 2133 miles from Seattle across Washington State, Idaho and the west of magnificent, macho Montana and back again. I notice a sinking feeling and inexplicable irritability when we arrive back in the heavy traffic of the city. Then I realize I am sad to be leaving Montana. In the immortal words of John Denver, sometimes you find a place that “feels like a lost long friend”. You can stretch out, look at the sky, ride a horse, come to love the Grizzly and smile a lazy smile. In Montana, a lost part of your soul gets to sing a country song. Ain’t it good to be back home again.