Big Sky Country

They call Montana that for a reason.  There is an amazing sense of space and fresh air you get on a day like today when you are in the Bitterroot Valley and you can see the mountains in the distance. We started our touring today at a location called Travelers’ Rest. Sounds new and cozy right?  Like a motel chain on the Interstate?  Well, it is actually a long-established Indian resting place that featured nice flat grassy fields and a running stream near the confluence of a major river.  It had been used by the Indians as the perfect ‘cloverleaf’ for trade, meeting with other tribes, and as a setting-off point for various routes in all directions. Our friends Lewis and Clark were guided there on their journey west in 1805, and returned there on their journey east in 1806.

There are many places along their trail that are only vaguely identified as to the location of the campsites.  This is the only one that has been absolutely verified, and that has only happened recently. Thanks to the wonders of modern science and some new scholarship on the indications provided in their journal, we can definitively say that we trod the same location. A new kind of thermography allowed researchers to identify their campfire, by the lead buried in the ground that they left when melting ore to recast bullets, and from the mercury left in the latrines after some of the soldiers had been “dosed” with the only available purgative they had – which was heavy on mercury.  I know it sounds gross, but what an incredible find that enabled!  At any rate, the recessed trench in the last picture leads to the latrine.  Modern researchers knew exactly where to look for it, once they had established the cooking area, because every camp L&C made was done to a precise military standard.  Amazing stuff.

This is also the location where Lewis and Clark separated on their homeward journey, going in different directions to explore more of the west.  They reunited nearly six weeks later in what is now North Dakota. Can you imagine doing that without benefit of cell phones and GPS?

And then it was off to a place founded by our old Jesuit friend, Father Pierre De Smet. Saint Mary’s Mission was founded in 1841 in the little town of Stevensville.  The church we see today was built in 1879, and the settlement is considered to be the start of the state of Montana – “where Montana began.”  Many of the Salish Indians worked and lived at the mission, and are buried in the still-active cemetary. Very picturesque with a stunning view.

Now for a view of what all the natural resources Montana had to share meant for one family.  We visited the Daly Mansion, the home of Marcus Daly and his family from 1889 till the 1940’s.  The house went through three renovations, starting as a somewhat humble farmhouse, through the Victorian era, to its final Georgian look. No pictures allowed inside, but many original furnishings are there and the wall coverings are either original or faithfully restored. Where did the money come from?  One must always have the bad taste to inquire.

Well, Marcus had the good fortune to own the Anaconda copper mine, just when electricity was coming into vogue and the need for copper wiring skyrocketed. (He did it with financial support from his pal George Hearst, father of William Randolph, builder of Hearst Castle.  See how it all comes around?)

Guess it paid off well, because this family didn’t just live in their 25-bedroom house with their (now empty) swimming pool and tennis courts out here in the middle of a gorgeous nowhere.  Nope – their city home was at 56th and Fifth in New York, right where Trump Tower now stands.  Not bad, eh?

Now back to our digs in Missoula.  This is really an interesting, funky town.  There is the university crowd, and a whole set of down and outers, along with just average everybody-elses. You get a sense of major environmental concern, shoulder to shoulder with lots of NRA support. We sat an outdoor cafe last night and could not in any way generalize about the demographic it was serving.  Guess that’s the essence of Missoula. We are staying downtown, so we had the chance to walk the wide streets, and admire signs of past prosperity and current vitality, from the art deco Florence Hotel – which still has phone booths! – to the Sotheby’s real estate listings.  It’s really a fun Western town.

As just one example, we had breakfast at the Oxford Saloon and Cafe. This place is open 24/7 and is supposedly a writer hangout.  We went hoping to see some writer types agonizing over manuscripts as they wrestled with their eggs and potatoes with brown gravy. They may have been there, but it just seemed like the usual Missoula crowd.  There is gambling everywhere in this state, so we did have the pleasure of seeing Keno machine and pool players downing shots at the bar at 9 in the morning.  An interesting place – and, I’ll have you know – a stop in the “1,000 Places to See in the US Before you Die” book.  So there.

2 thoughts on “Big Sky Country

    1. I don’t think anyone exactly ‘bumps into’ anyone in Montana…

      Haven’t even thought about Dave in years. But I’ll keep my eyes peeled!

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