My wife spent some time in southeast Montana years ago. I had never been to the state, although I did have some preconceptions about what it might look like. As it turned out, most of those preconceptions were wrong. Every time I have talked to people about beautiful places I find that most folks believe Montana to be at the top of the list. Stupendous! Grandiose! Superb! Glorious! Will make Colorado look like a sandbox! Those are just some of the things I have heard over the years. I wondered, could these folks be right?
Let me start with the positive. Montana is pretty, very pretty. Montana is charming, very charming. Montana is green. Montana has lots of nice fishing streams. Montana has some mountains that are quite rugged. Here is one of them:
The mountain is called Bearhat Mountain. It is found near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. We had hiked (yes, my wife did a four mile, 700 vertical foot hike less than ten days after surgery) up to a place called Hidden Lake Pass and this was the view that presented itself to us. Very nice.
Montana also has some interesting wildlife. Glacier National Park has lots of mountain goats. Many people live their entire lives without ever seeing one of these fantastic creatures. I have had the opportunity to see dozens of them over the years, while on mountaineering adventures in the Colorado Rockies. Here is an old Billie who was sauntering along the trail to Hidden Lake Pass:
Montana is home to many historic sites. We visited the Little Big Horn battle site as well as the site of the worst mining disaster in history up until that time. The mining disaster was in Butte. A fire in a mine shaft ended up killing almost half of the men who were underground working at the time. Reading the letters that they wrote as they slowly asphyxiated was emotionally powerful. Standing on the hill upon which George Custer lost his life was an interesting experience as well. As I stood there I could not help but think about the senseless waste of life that had taken place at that point. Monuments to the Indians who died in the battle were there as well.
We spent a day in the Flathead Valley and tasted the most delicious cherries we have ever eaten. We purchased a couple of pounds of Rainier and Lambert cherries from a roadside stand. They were plump and juicy, unlike any cherry I had eaten before. We even managed to play nine holes of golf on a golf course in Kalispell that had been constructed in 1936. My wife caddied for me. She couldn't swing a club but she could walk and pull my hand-cart. All in all it was a very enjoyable trip. But there is more to the story.
Montana was not what I expected. I expected freedom. At first I thought I had entered a state that is free. Practically every Kwik-E-Mart in the state has a "casino" associated with it. In fact, dozens of different businesses have casinos associated with them. My favorite was "Bob's Tack and Feed and Casino." In most cases the casino is nothing more than a couple of slot machines in the corner but still I was impressed that people were free to gamble if they wanted to. In addition, most of the Kwik-E-Mart/Casinos also heavily advertised tobacco products. In the land of the Marlboro man I thought it might be the case that a person could smoke without being relegated outside to face the cold Montana winter winds. Such was not the case. Each establishment I entered had the usual regulations declaring that all smokers must be banished to some outside location far enough away from the normal people that their offending odor could not be detected. Even worse, Montana had more roadside billboards and television commercials telling me that just looking at a tobacco plant will cause me and all of my relatives, both dead and alive, to die from cancer in the near future. So much for freedom.
What surprised me the most about Montana was how few majestic mountains it had. I was expecting row after row of jagged peaks, covered in snow and glaciers. I stupidly thought that Glacier National Park would be crawling with glaciers. As it turned out, the park is named Glacier National Park only because the peaks within it were carved by glaciers years ago. Most of Montana turned out to be rolling, rim rock type country. It was green (the rainy season had just ended) and it was pretty but it was not majestic. The most majestic part of the state was found in Glacier National Park. And that is a big problem.
National parks are extensions of the government. Instead of being wild, as was the original intention (does government ever get it right?), they have become the equivalent of large outdoor zoos. The animals are tame. Well, almost tame. The grizzlies are wild. The trail we were on was closed because there were grizzlies in the area.
I wished we were hiking in a real wilderness where men can hunt and animals have some fear of men. By the end of the day I was tired of looking at tame goats that barely noticed my presence. The mountains, although certainly dramatic within the park, are made of uplifted limestone and not particularly nice to look at. Where were the quartzite peaks? Where were the uplifted sedimentary peaks of various colors? Everything was a dull brown. Outside of the park there were only a scattering of mountain ranges that were quite charming, but not dramatic.
I concluded that Montana is overrated. Give me the San Juan mountains of Colorado any day. The San Juans are majestic. They are dramatic. They are remote. They are varied. Montana was a nice place to visit but I will live in Colorado.