Missoula: A Perfect Mix of Town and Country

Author Rick Bass trades wilderness for city life, Montana style

Many of the West's outdoor towns lie farther south, and closer to larger population centers. Missoula, Montana still has space around it. (Chuck Haney)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Many towns in the West consider themselves “outdoor” towns—suggesting a citizenry eager to bike, run, ski, paddle, hunt, fish, hike, backpack, float and camp. Missoula, Montana, is one of these towns, but it possesses some indefinable spirit that keeps it from being confused with any other. Many of the West’s outdoor towns lie farther south, and closer to larger population centers. Missoula still has space around it.

In autumn, Missoula swells to some 67,000 souls, but just when you think it will tip over into a seething metropolis, it contracts; students from the University of Montana flee for winter or spring break. In summer, people head for Yellowstone, Glacier, the Seeley-Swan, the Selway-Bitterroot, the Bob Marshall, the Rattlesnake, the Big Hole, the Missions—wilderness in all directions. The newly empty town breathes, relaxes. I moved here nearly three years ago from a desolate, wooded valley up on the Canadian border for the town’s highly regarded high schools, and have not been disappointed. I had to get used to the sounds of sirens, dogs, snowplows and the general low-level hiss of traffic, a contrast to the utter peace, stillness, silence, stars and dense sweet scent of the forest. But I can still see mountains.

More than any city or town I’ve known, Missoula balances out-of-door attractions and the arts. Missoula has hundreds, maybe thousands, of artists and writers, in part—but by no means exclusively—because of the university. It’s got a great library and great bookstores: Fact & Fiction, Shakespeare & Co., the Book Exchange, to name but a few. There’s a symphony, a children’s theater and numerous art galleries. And yet there’s healthy dirt between the cracks. The nightly river-rushing winds of Hellgate Canyon keep most things scoured clean.

Missoula has a reputation as a bastion of seething, crazed liberals—it is, after all, a university town—but in my opinion, while elsewhere there is often hostility, even venom, between political polarities, here there seems to be a dynamic stasis, a healthy—dare I use the word?—tolerance for one another, at least a desire for tolerance. Missoula was home to Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916, and the only member of Congress to vote against entering World War I and World War II.

The town has a close-cousin relationship with Butte, 120 miles south­east, a historic player in the nation’s labor movement, where, in 1878, a contingent of 400 silver miners refused a pay cut from $3.50 a day to $3. They formed the Butte Workingmen’s Union, leading Butte to become known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism.”

But Missoula is mostly about the land beyond the town—the protected open space—and the grudging respect residents have for each other, no matter their political beliefs, due to the shared good luck—and pluck—of being Montanans. Most people live in Montana because it’s the place they want to be.

Many western towns are, in my opinion, canted a little off-center: a tad too hot in summer, or possessing just a bit too much winter. Missoula, however, is a land of four distinct, almost perfect seasons. Like all outdoor-minded people, we inhabit the current season, whichever it is, with passion, though we also take great pleasure in anticipating the next one as well.

Winters are somber, gray, severe; gray skies press down like a heavy boot. Magpies peck at wizened ash berries. Frozen dog dirt stipples the tundra of the golf course. Loud music seeps from blue-glowing bars, neon light spills onto icy sidewalks, the lanes are crusted with road salt.

Then comes the spring, with the explosiveness of longer days and songbirds returning to the willows along the Clark Fork River, which flows through the center of town, east to west. Bald eagles and ospreys roost in the old cottonwoods that line the gravel shores. In summer, children and adults alike bob in the rushing Clark Fork in inner tubes. A white-water pool was constructed right beneath the downtown bridge, where you can stop on the pedestrian walkway and watch kayakers and surfers practice in the wave. Wild ducks jet up and down the blue waters in spring and autumn, and fly fishermen wade the riffles, casting leisurely. As the Seine divides yet unites Paris, so too does the Clark Fork cleave—yet weave—a more robust Missoula.

Numerous creeks and rivers meet in the broad valley, each bringing a certain chemistry and vigor, melding with the valley to create their places of convergence. The creeks Rattlesnake, Butler, Lolo, Rock and Deep shimmer and surge; the Blackfoot and the Bitterroot rivers join the Clark Fork just outside of town.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus