My friends Shirley and Brennan are preparing to move from Maui to a western state, Montana, Colorado or Wyoming. They are tired of Hawaii and want to live near mountains. I’ve known Shirley since the mid-70s. We were housemates in Eugene, Oregon, and lived in a big, sprawling house near the U. District. Since then, Shirley has moved between Hawaii and the Mainland of North America several times. Different things have driven her away from the island. Rock Fever…feeling bound by a small island. Mistreatment of animals…dogs staked on short tethers, mistreated and, sometimes, eaten. When she’s on the Mainland, she likes to live in the West and has lived in Seattle and Bellingham, too. Shirley and Brennan are world travelers. They work for several years, earning enough money for a major trip, then travel for several months to a half a year. They recently returned from New Zealand and Fiji. I think it will do them a heck of a lot of good to breathe some mountain air and I’ve prepared this guide for them. I thought of simply sending it to them in e-mail form, but decided that others might benefit from the information, too. Below are photos of boxes of Cream of the West, Montana cereal. No matter where we lived, my grandma always sent it to us, so I ate it while I was growing up. Back then, the only type available was the one on the far right. It is farina, but the hull hasn’t been removed, so it’s a whole wheat product. Delicious! Below that are the lyrics to “My Home’s in Montana,” a song I learned as a child, one I still sing because I like it so much. My mother’s from Missoula and she learned it as a child in school there. Happy trails!
My Home’s In Montana
My Home’s In Montana
I wear a bandana
My spurs are silver, my pony is gray
When riding the ranges
My luck never changes
With foot in the stirrup I’ll gallop away
When far from the ranches
I cut the pine branches
To lay out a campfire
When daylight draws near
When I have partaken
Of beans and the bacon
I whistle a merry old song of the trail
Geography: These towns and cities are west of the Continental Divide. They, therefore, receive more precipitation in the form of rain and snow than the areas east of the divide. Within this western section are areas with diverse climates and microclimates, flora and fauna and extremes. For instance, the area around Hamilton is Montana’s Banana Belt, a warmer climate, while Whitefish, a ski resort is colder, and Plains and Hot Springs are much drier.
Economy: Montana is a poor state, but it has a full range of government and state jobs that pay well and have good pensions. Helena is the capital and many government jobs are based there. Montana has a good university and school system and these jobs are fairly well-protected (as compared to Idaho, which abolished its Education Department!) Montana and Kalispell are the health care hubs for their areas and they have each have a full complement of specialty clinics, hospitals, and services. Other towns have small medical centres, but I’d advise anyone wanting a job in health care to look to Missoula or Kalispell.
Politics & Religion: Montana is a conservative state that usually supports the GOP. However it leaned toward Blue in the not too distant past. At present, except for Missoula, I’d say it is solidly Red. Still, the Democratic Party is very active and it affects politics at a local and state level, too. Below are maps that show how the state voted in the last elections. The area around Flathead Lake is the Bible Belt. While it is not as repressively religious as the towns on the east end of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, where I once lived, it still is very prevalent. In addition, as in B.C., these Christians are also right-wing, politically. Kalispell and Bigfork are beautiful little towns that are, unfortunately, marred by the blight of fanatical religious types.
The Culture: Montana is a very white state. Unfortunately, many people who are trying to escape living near people of color move to Montana. They bring their baggage with them. This is not to say native Montanans aren’t prejudiced. Many are biased against First Nations/Native Americans and these are the people of color in this region. There are many Indian reservations in Montana. The U.S. Government made
all first peoples in North America live on the worst land, when they forced them to live on reservations, so none are located in the Montana’s hot spots. The Native Americans here weren’t affected by the residential school blight, as in Canada, but they have lived hard lives here, historically, and are impoverished.
The Arts: Despite a tendency toward conservatism, Montana has a thriving writers and artist community. Historically, it has been a haven for creative types. Annick Smith lives up the Blackfoot, at Potomac. Richard Hugo lived in Missoula, as does Bill Kittredge. You can find most notable authors in The Last Best Place, an anthology of Montana writers. To this list add James Lee Burke and Melanie Rae Thon, and Rick Bass. Click here to see more. Many ceramists live here, study here, or teach here and plenty are quite notable. Rudy Autio lived in Missoula and on Flathead Lake, Peter Voulkos studied at Montana State University, John Takehara taught there. There are many more, too, but since I’ve lived in Canada for 20 years now, I am not up on who they are. There are plenty of ‘famous artists,’ including Charlie Russell, Monte Dolack, Stan Lynde. Click here for more. For photographers, click here.
Towns: I’ll give a quick overview of western Montana towns I know about, firsthand or from reliable sources or my own research.
I-90: Clinton (tiny town along the freeway), Missoula (largest western Montana city, classic university town, interesting mix of left-wingers, loggers and saw mill workers), Saltese (tiny town near the Idaho/Montana border), St. Regis (tiny town, a turn-off to Paradise and points north), Alberton (town along the freeway; has an excellent book store).
Up the Blackfoot: Bonner and Milltown (tiny towns), Potomac (don’t blink or you’ll miss it! My Uncle Bill is selling a beautiful cabin on a mountain top near here…let me know if you’re interested…), Seeley Lake (sweet town, recreation area), Swan Lake…beautiful puddles without towns: Lindbergh Lake (recreation home of the Maclean’s; Norman wrote A River Runs Through It, Holland Lake (beautiful waterfall).
Up the Bitteroot: Lolo (one of our favorite rec areas…Lolo Hot Springs), Florence (a sweet little town; where my cousin Kelley lives), Stevensville (sweet town where my grandma once had a hotel, motel, restaurant and cocktail lounge), Hamilton and Darby (the Banana Belt).
The Mission Mountains: Arlee, Ravalli, Ronan, St. Ignatius, Pablo (First Nations towns) Polson (biggest town on Flathead), Lakeside (growing by leaps and bounds), Woods Bay, Somers, Bigfork (on Flathead Lake)