Montana, Where Men are Men
and the Coffees Are Skinny Latte by Peter Thody
The first time I became aware of Montana's existence was in the early 70s, when Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry - "Alias Smith and Jones" - were making their weekly appearance on British TV screens. One particular episode involved bandits, gold dust and a poker game by the name of Montana Red Dog. The association was clear: This was a place of gunslingers and cardsharps, where loveable rogues robbed trains and banks (but never shot anyone).
Fast-forward to Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," a film that, until recently, I mistakenly believed to have been set in Montana. The fact that it's actually set in Wyoming and was filmed in Alberta, Canada, is immaterial. The immense landscapes will in my mind always be Montanan.
The third thing I knew about Montana (or second if we discount "Unforgiven") was that it's a big place. Seriously big. If I had dollar for every time I'd been warned not to let the gas tank fall below half full, I'd have, well, certainly enough for a gallon.
So it's with expectations of outlaws, unforgettable scenery and excitement at spotting gas stations that we cross Montana's southern border on State Highway 72.
Time pressures make it impossible to stop at the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield, but the wonder of the scenery more than compensates. One minute we're heading through vast open prairies, the next we're on Interstate 90, tracing the route of the Yellowstone River between low, heavily wooded buttes and marvelling at the sight of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.
Pulling into Livingston to find lunch, we discover, not for the last time on this trip, that our preconceptions of a rough-and-ready Montana are fairly wide of the mark. Established in 1882 to service the Northern Pacific Railway, Livingston is now home to a number of museums, including the Livingston Depot, a beautifully restored station and a thriving arts community. And there's more to come. After taking our lunch order at The Dawg House, the owner asks where we're from.
"Leeds, England." I tell him. "It's "
"Yeah," he interrupts, smiling in recognition. "I know it. Passed though there on business once."
Now I wasn't expecting that when we walked in.
From here, we continue west over the Bozeman Pass before turning north towards Helena onto Interstate 15. There are radon health mines in and around Boulder, where patients voluntarily expose themselves to low-level radiation in the hope of curing various ills. And just a few miles east, there's the historic mining town of Elkhorn. For us, though, the desire to explore is unfortunately outweighed by the need to find a decent pharmacist: My wife Carole's arm has swollen to comical proportions in an adverse reaction to a bug bite. Maybe we should have tried the radioactive treatment?
The next day, well-rested and once again boasting equally proportioned arms (the antihistamines worked a treat), we cross the Continental Divide at MacDonald Pass before picking up State Highway 141 and heading north into ranching country.
Today's midmorning coffee is at Trixi's, in Ovando. We pull up in the car park and are massively impressed to see a grizzly bear in the back of a pickup. Now this is what we expected of Montana: backwoodsmen who keep grizzlies as guard dogs. Sadly, closer inspection reveals that it's actually just a very, very large dog.
Disappointed but now feeling sufficiently safe to park up, we go in and order coffees.
"You guys are not from round here, are you?" enquires Loretta, our server.
"No, we're from Leeds, England. It's "
"Oh, I have a pen pal in Liverpool. That's near you, isn't it?"
Two random Montana diners and in both, our host has personal knowledge of our part of the world. Two is far from a representative sample I know, but even if the next 98 couldn't pin a tail on Britain's backside, it still makes a nonsense of the notion that non-coastal Americans have no interest in what goes on beyond their backyard.
Moving on, we pick up supplies at Clearwater Junction and head north through lush green forests and past vivid blue lakes. At one, we stop to make sandwiches. The bread tastes like cardboard and I suspect the cheese is an unwanted byproduct of oil refining, but so beautiful is the scenery that it couldn't have been a more perfect picnic.
A few miles later, we arrive in Kalispell, our roughly pencilled-in destination for the night. Now, the tourist bumf on Kalispell suggests a town chock full of art galleries and antiques stores but I'm afraid all we can see are dirty trucks and cheap-looking motels. We decide to try Whitefish, 10 miles up the road, instead, and are rewarded with a main street of coffee shops, bookstores, Internet cafes and sushi bars, all overlooked by the appropriately named Big Mountain.
The next morning, filling up with gas, I fall into conversation with an old guy in blue overalls, and tell him how much we like his town. For some reason, this sets him off on a rant about green issues. "There's some of them environmentalists in the woods up there, you know. Tryin' to stop the logging. I call them terrorists."
None of your latte-drinking, Internet-surfing, "new Montana" nonsense here, then. And so disarmingly charming is he that I find myself tutting and raising my eyebrows in a shared understanding of the problem. "Yeah environmentalists, eh?" (I know, it's pathetic isn't it? I'm so easily swayed by a smile that I shouldn't even be trusted with the vote. A single foxy wink from Sarah Palin and I know whose box I'd have ticked.)
Our destination today is Glacier National Park or, more specifically, the 52-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road that connects the western and eastern entrances at Western Glacier and St. Mary. The approach to the park offers little suggestion of what's to come, just long gentle bends following the course of a fast-flowing, glacial grey river, the kind of place where you feel slightly cheated not to see a grizzly and a couple of cubs playing in the water.
And then, suddenly - wallop! - we're climbing the steep ascents, looking down over the precipitous drops and carefully negotiating the tight switchbacks for which "The Sun Road" is famous. A minute ago I was driving with a hand draped casually over the wheel, now I'm clutching it at "10-to-2" like a learner driver on his first road test.
Many of the walls that stand between us and the valley bottom way below are so low that any protection they provide is purely psychological, so the only chance the driver gets to take in views other than the road immediately ahead is by pulling into one of the frequent but often overflowing turnouts. But when such opportunities do present themselves, any stress evaporates. This is a landscape for which adjectives like "towering" and "majestic" are spectacularly inadequate.
Onwards and upwards we go, past one alpine vista after another, occasionally making way for the historic red buses that have been carrying tourists across the park since the 1930s. Logan Pass marks the Continental Divide and the arrival of the slightly less scary descent down the western side of the park into the resort town of St. Mary.
Our plan was to lunch and move on, but it seems wrong to limit Glacier to an in-and-out-in-a-day trip so we treat ourselves and book into St. Mary Lodge for an afternoon of sightseeing, an evening of elk carpaccio and Kobe beef at the Snowgoose Grill, and memories of the view from Room 101 that will last far longer than any concerns over how to pay for it.
The next morning is our last in Montana. We
make our way back over the Going-to-the-Sun Road - this
time on the more comfortable, hill-hugging side - before
heading west on State Highway 28 through the Flathead
Indian Reservation and a landscape that turns out to
be the closest to what I'd expected of Montana: huge, wide-open
grassland, rolling hills and only the occasional homestead
to signify any human presence. There's a beauty to this
landscape that goes beyond the merely scenic, an emptiness
that finally suggests the Montana of outlaws, "Unforgiven"
and infrequent gas stations. In short, it's the perfect
way to end our visit.