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)
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Upstream is the poisonous Berkeley Pit, an open-pit mine in Butte, which was once called the Richest Hill on Earth for the quantities of gold, silver and copper mined there. Rather than accepting the toxins from the remnants of mines in the upper river valley, Missoula has set about cleaning them up. A local group, the Clark Fork Coalition, works to restore the watershed and helped remove a failing dam that was storing dangerous levels of toxins, so now the Clark Fork runs free again. Other groups have formed to protect entire mountains surrounding the town.

The university is committed to being carbon neutral by 2020. The city council is fighting plans for Imperial Oil, a Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, to transport massive petroleum equipment—on trailers 200 feet long and three stories high—over historic Lolo Pass and through downtown Missoula, en route to the oil sands mining in Alberta. I’m betting on Missoula.

Tuck into urbane country fare at the Pearl; fresh, sustainably grown local foods at the Red Bird; simple yet sophisticated bistro dishes at Scotty’s Table or incredible Italian food at Caffé Dolce. Indulge in late night coffee and sweets at Break Espresso and ice cream at Big Dipper, where, if you’re lucky, they’ll be serving the mango habanero sorbet. Shop for fresh seafood (Seattle is eight hours away by car) at Pattee Creek Market. Of course, there are local breweries and several farmer’s markets.

Missoula has a developing local music scene as well—folk singers Kira Means and Michelle Dufflocq Williams, not yet out of high school, have already recorded CDs—including longtime guitar favorites Amy Martin, David Boone and John Floridis. The Decemberists’ frontman, Colin Meloy, hails from here, as does the Broken Valley Roadshow bluegrass band, and a hot new group, Stellarondo. The old Wilma Theatre is a funky, lovely, ornate riverside venue. There’s also a vinyl record shop, Ear Candy, and the obligatory music and gag gift store, Rockin Rudy’s.

Missoula is a place where, when your dog slips her collar, you can check the animal shelters or post an ad on the public radio station, where someone is more likely to have her safe than to have turned her in. My German shorthaired pointer has broken free so many times that the local radio announcers have learned how to pronounce her name, Auna (Awn-uh). In her most recent esca­pade, she ran to the nearest high school—crossing several busy streets to get there—hopped in the back of a truck headed south and ended up near Hamilton, almost 50 miles away. She has one of those newfangled chips in her; a vet there scanned her, and her finders called me.

Living here is sweet, if you must live in a town. I’ll get back to the woods some day. I’m just treading water. In the meantime, I stand on the bridge at night and watch the Clark Fork glimmer, reflecting Missoula’s lights as the river hurries past.

Rick Bass is the author of 25 books. His most recent is the novel Nashville Chrome.

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