The plane made its approach, zeroing in on the lone strip of linear asphalt among the surrounding blonde foothills and the high mountains just beyond. Missoula is ringed by numerous mountain ranges – the Bitterroots, the Garnet range and the Rattlesnake Mountains, among yet others and the wildness of it filled our tiny airplane window. The mild jolt of landing and squealing of tires told us we were finally in Western Montana. Ten days of vacation lay out before us like some uncharted and meandering river full of possibility and maybe – just maybe – a little danger.
Welcome to Missoula
Exiting the plane, we felt the cool Montana air which was medicinal after the burdensome August humidity we left behind in Raleigh. It was in the mid-60’s at 1:15 pm Mountain Time and, overpowering the wafting fumes of jet fuel was the scent of pine-tinged alpine air – clean, dry and inviting. Greeting us in the small terminal was a massive Grizzly, standing and glancing toward the baggage claim area intently, as if watching the conveyer belt for his luggage. His front paws were as large as dinner plates and he must have stood twelve feet high. It was a dramatic display of taxidermal artistry and it was as close to one of those big boys as I ever hoped to come.
A hike to the “M”
We quickly loaded our bags into the rental, which we were excited to find was a cavernous GMC Acadia SUV complete with sunroof. After a short drive into town, we checked into the Double Tree Hotel – a sprawling 60’s era hotel which the Hilton chain has renovated admirably. Truth be told, the property likely would have met the wrecking ball years before had it not been for its prime location, right on the banks of the lovely Clark Fork River and adjacent to the University of Montana campus. Melissa had been steadily researching things to do and places to eat, so after a quick change of clothes we set out on foot for the U of M campus and a hike up to the iconic “M” on Mount Sentinel.
The switchback trail up Mount Sentinel was first constructed by forestry students in 1908 and the large “M” was initially constructed of white washed rocks. In 1968 the rocks were replaced by a 125′ by 100′ concrete “M”, which is still in place today. It is visible throughout the city of Missoula and looms large over the U of M campus. As we headed up the trail – a mile from its base on the east end of campus to the top – the views of campus and town grew more sweeping and dramatic with each step. We paused several times to admire the impressive view and let our lungs adjust to the 5,000 foot elevation.
The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background – note the “M” high above
The view from the top was splendid and we took our time, enjoying the vantage point and still-novel cool air. The campus below, with it’s leafy canopy, distinguished red brick buildings and manicured lawns was charming and inviting as only college campuses can be. It was move-in week and students milled about, looking like so many busy ants from our high perch, carrying boxes and filling dorm rooms with personal effects in preparation for the start of fall semester. There was a palpable buzz of youthful energy in the air and the entire scene filled me with nostalgia and no small amount of envy for those students. I realized that in very short order I had fallen in love with Missoula and the University of Montana.
After a walk down the mountain and a brief tour through the rest of campus, we walked just over a mile, more or less along the Clark Fork River to Caras Park where each Thursday night during the summer the City of Missoula hosts a festival with live music, food and drinks. We were suddenly famished from our walking and became big fans of the Missoula food truck scene. I ordered chorizo tacos, Melissa had Thai and we sat on a park bench gazing out over the swift flowing Clark Fork, happily sipping offerings from local Big Sky Brewery. The people watching was impressive. One lady, who must have been eight months, 29 days and 23 hours pregnant posed for pictures nearby wearing only a sports bra and very short shorts. I was reminded of the local slogan, “keep Missoula weird”, and I believe this lady took that slogan to heart and was doing her part to make it happen.
After a while, with darkness gathering and temperatures falling squarely into the jacket range – a splendid novelty for a Carolinian in August – we walked back to the hotel as a light rain settled in. While Melissa showered I sat on the patio of our 2nd floor room, contentedly sipping a bourbon, listening to the rain and writing in my journal. Day one of our long anticipated vacation was in the books with nine days to go. I was as happy in that moment as it is possible to be.
Smokejumpers, hot springs and a glimpse of Idaho
We started the day with a solid breakfast at Catalyst Cafe on North Higgins Avenue downtown. A veggie scramble with a side of bacon for Melissa and wonderful huevos rancheros for me. Gratifyingly sated and ready for our first full day in Montana, we headed out for the Missoula Smokejumper Museum located at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center, near the Missoula airport.
Smokejumpers are the elite airborne firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service and I have always been fascinated with them. Smokejumping, or at least the idea of it, has been around nearly as long as the airplane. According to the National Smokejumper Training Guide, as early as 1917, airplanes were used for aerial fire detection. By the 1920’s, the initial attempts at aerial fire suppression were underway, with containers of water and/or foam being dumped from buckets, tin cans and in at least one instance, an 8 gallon oak beer barrel attached to a parachute. By 1939, live jumps were being made with some regularity via the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project in the vicinity of Winthrop, Washington. The following year, 1940, was the first operational year for airborne firefighting, and the Smokejumpers have been at it ever since.
Perhaps the most famous and tragic event in the history of the organization was immortalized in the excellent “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean (of “A River Runs Through It” fame). Maclean worked in Western Montana logging camps as a young man and became fascinated with the story of the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949. During the tragedy, 12 Smokejumpers out of a crew of 15 were killed by a fast moving fire in Helena National Forest, Montana. The Forest Service took many lessons from the tragedy, incorporating advanced training techniques, equipment and strategies, as well as a focus on fire suppression and research into the science of fire behavior.The museum was outstanding and admirably relayed the history of the Smokejumpers, which in turn, provided texture to the evolution of flight and firefighting during the 20th Century.
By the time we exited the museum, around 11am, we were eager to make our way to LoLo Hot Springs, about 45 minutes west. Our plan here was to spend a lazy afternoon in the rejuvenating natural hot springs getting exceedingly pruned. Upon our arrival, we found what appeared to be a Branch Davidian-style compound of ramshackle buildings, one of which contained a casino (casinos are ubiquitous in Montana).
There were no natural hot springs anywhere that I could tell and we were beyond disappointed by this. After five minutes of walking around the property, I did find a building with a small sign which promisingly read “natural hot spring this way” and walked inside. This was a pay-to-soak operation in a rundown cinder block building – the likes of which made me wonder if I was due for a tetanus shot. Reluctant to part with the $7 apiece entrance fee based on what I had seen thus far, I asked the gum-smacking, mouth-breathing attendant if I could have a look around. She responded with a dull-eyed wave of her hand, which I took to mean “whatever”, but could also have meant “go fuck yourself”- her demeanor left room for interpretation.
I made my way through the noxious, moldy locker room, which was discernible from hell only by it’s lack of stalactites and cloven-hooved beelzebubs, to the promised hot springs in the back of the property. I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to find a grey concrete bunker of a pool – a fetid basin of dubious origin – in which two heavily tattooed and glassy-eyed teenage girls sat slack-jawed and glum – as if serving some strange penance.
I made a hasty retreat to the car and we were quickly on our way. Happily, a little farther up Highway 12 at the Montana-Idaho line, we discovered the LoLo National Forest Visitor’s Center. Here, we learned that that just 22 miles further west along Highway 12 sat Jerry Johnson natural hot springs in the Clearwater National Forest. No charge, no concrete, no fetid basins of dubious origin. This would be the real deal.
We parked on the side of the road, just past mile marker 22 in Idaho proper. I was thrilled that we were suddenly and quite unexpectedly spending part of our vacation in Idaho – a mild yet pleasing diversion from our carefully plotted itinerary. After a quick change into bathing suits, we walked a mile or so along the west bank of the Lochsa River which beckoned us with a wild and splendid beauty. We were carried along by the sound of running water and the smell of lodgepole pine and spruce – it smelled like a Christmas tree farm in heaven.
We found a private little pool and spent a half hour soaking in the just-right water as steam rose off of the river and the the spindly tops of conifers tickled a low-hanging gauze of pending storm clouds. We gazed out over the Lochsa, taking in the wildness of it all. It seemed like a grizzly or a moose might amble out of the tree line any minute for a drink, or a flash flood might come roaring down from the north with hardly a notice. It seemed an untamed, even vaguely dangerous place compared to the world we had left behind in Raleigh. But at that moment, it was perfection.
Chased off earlier than we would have liked by rumbling thunder, we hiked back to the car and drove east to Missoula, happy with our little adventure and thankful that we didn’t settle for the incalculably sucky LoLo Hot Springs.
A stroll through town
After showers back in Missoula, we walked from the hotel to Red Bird Cafe, downtown. Located in the historic Florence Hotel building, Red Bird was exactly what we were looking for – great food, a nice atmosphere, somewhat upscale, yet not pretentious – for our last night in town before encountering the relative deprivations of Glacier National Park. This place delivered. To start, we each had a glass of excellent Spanish Cava and split an appetizer of lamb sausage with peas and heirloom tomatoes, and ravioli stuffed with parmesan and mushrooms. We moved onto red wine and a beautifully done (medium rare) steak strip green salad. We finished with espresso, then strolled back to the hotel through the cool Montana evening air. It was misting softly now, though not enough to soak in, and the low 60’s temperature was invigorating.
As we walked along newly familiar streets back to the DoubleTree we talked about our trip so far and were amazed at all we had done in just over 24 hours. I waxed poetic about moving to Missoula and Melissa seemed to be as excited as I was. Tomorrow would bring a three and a half hour drive to the West Gate of Glacier National Park, followed by the legendary Going to the Sun Road, which traverses the park from southwest to northeast. But tomorrow would come soon enough and this night we were still enjoying Missoula and all of its charms.