The Montanan Way

Once we booked our trip to Bozeman, Montana, back in October last year, our hearts have instantly filled with the excitement of a new adventure awaiting. Montana existed in our plans for a couple of years, but got postponed for various reasons. First, we chose Salt Lake City for the convenience of a direct flight, and we fell in love with Utah, and with Alta in particular. Second, we chose Utah again because the love that bonded us for that land was too strong, memories too persistent. Third, after the injury caused while skiing the beautiful slopes of the Wasatch Mountains (where Alta is actually located, up the Cottonwood Canyon), we committed to a multi-state excursion in the southwest, which again included Utah, but continued in Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Then the good happened. Our search for flights to Bozeman produced a direct flight option to Montana, operated by United. The dices have been rolled. The Montanan undertaking was on the way. For the remaining months, we dreamt of the beautiful land consistently. And the moment has arrived, the hard work period ceased finally. There we were waiting at Newark Airport to board the Boeing that will take us to our dreams. Excitement grew higher. So sweet are those moments ahead of beautiful travel.

Flying over Montana

First day – we arrived at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, carried over the great country, with its Great Lakes, Great Plains, Dakotan Prairies and, in an elating end, the Rockies of Wyoming and Montana in their full splendor. Descending to Bozeman, underneath us were the gorgeous ranches of the high country, the pioneers, the country of the braves. The airport is genuinely Montanan with splendid architecture, wooden structure, burning flames in fire pits and fireplaces. Usually we are in a hurry to claim the baggages and run away from crowded air hubs, but this one invited us to linger a bit more, which we did not do as the time is usually pushing hard on us. Stepping to the ground of the brave pioneer of the past, following the steps of Harry Yount is exulting. Our first stop was a local coffee shop, Ghost Town Coffe Roasters. This was also our first contact with the locals, and we were stunned by their politeness and patience. From there we reached Bridger Bowl, another ski resort, after driving for just twenty minutes. We did not ski but introduced ourselves for a future visit. Afterward, we were heading for a farmer’s market that only existed in the brochures. How can one expect a fresh market to be open in Montana in winter time?! Bozeman is situated at an elevation of 4,793 ft, growing livestock is the primary activity. Other than that, the land is only cultivated with hay. We were finding the main street in the late afternoon. The temperature was frigid but bearable. Shopping and dining, as any other casual tourist, was the aim. Copper staff served us good meals, tasty local ale, and great service. Once again, the local proved their genuine hospitality. Later, we found our cozy Bozeman Cottage, not without a little adventure. The main entrance was in an unnamed alley. We were easily fouled by the description we received in the email. But we made it, and the place was just as its name – cozy.

Bridger Bowl

Second day – early morning wake up, the coffee dripping and Gina has made one of the miraculous breakfasts that always come out so good of her hands. Bacon and scrambled eggs, breakfast of the champions, was the perfect start for the wintry day, with fingertips freezing instantly. Finally cleared the driveway of a neighbour that proved to be too Montanan to ask us to move the car last night, instead parking her car on the street. Thank you, whoever you are! Driving to Big Sky was itself a good time. Gallatin Canyon Highway has beautiful sights, ranches bordering the road. Turning right on Lone Peak Road was one of the most spectacular shows we ever encountered. As soon as you veer to the right, the Lone Peak, snowcapped, grandiose and solitary watching over the valley, is a striking view. Oh yeah, we just fell in love with another treasure in America! Driving up the mountain, after passing the fancy town of Big Sky, was a little daring. Our rental wasn’t the best fit for these road conditions, with its rear wheel drive and the Californian plates and tires. But we got there and parked we were. We got all the gear up and headed impatiently to our date with the slopes, carried in an open coach trailed by a powerful truck, alongside with other powder addicts. From the base, all slopes seem to emerge directly from the Lone Peak. There’s plenty of terrain for everyone. We were in the biggest ski resort in America, underneath the biggest clear sky. We rode the Swift Current and Ramcharger and skied down the various runs. At dusk, we drove back to Bozeman to meet our friends, Alina and Dan. They arrived one day after us to join us on the beautiful mountain. We had dinner and beer at Shine aka The Beer Sanctuary. Montanans know their way of making great beer.

Skiing underneath the Big Sky, watched by the Lone Peak

Third day – early morning coffee felt good, and we had breakfast at a local cafe, good coffee, sweet croissant French style. The drive up still felt good. What a beautiful land the Sioux and Shoshone Indians have left forced by the unstoppable white conquest. The slopes were perfect; the sky was bigger and clearer. We hopped on Powder Seeker and enjoy the steep chutes. We had lunch as usual at the base lodge, sipping some Swift Pale Ale, the official beer of the Swift Current Chairlift. The evening was reserved to celebrate Alina’s birthday at the Copper restaurant, this time in Big Sky. We discovered David Yarin, the photographer that among other works captured the American West, many shot being taken in Bozeman area.

Fourth day – back to Big Sky for some more clear and big sky. More friends were joining, the Montana must have had a magnet. The slopes were still great; the sky was still big and generous. Only the crowds became a little more frantic. It was probably the weekend that was landing in the working people’s world. Finally, my fingertips were accustomed to the cold. We drove right back to our cozy cabin and lighted the fire on the outside grill. It was time for a hunter style barbeque with some beautiful elk rib bought from the Wild Local Foods. The winter started flowing through our veins since we could have a beer sitting on the snow.

Fifth day – the planned trip to Yellowstone. We waited for this day with plenty of hope and it proved to be above our expectations. We booked a group wildlife tour, but it turned out to be a private tour in which just us and our exceptional guide Grant explored the beauty of the first National Park. He accommodated us in the back seats of a Chevrolet Suburban, food and snacks ready to grab. Through the Paradise Valley, we drove to the North Entrance, and we soon entered the Park at Mammoth Hot Springs. Getting to Yellowstone felt almost like a religious experience. It was not the first time for Gina, but for me, it was. Stepping, finally, on Harry Yount’s footmarks, even though in the laziest mode ever invented, filled us with exhilaration. Perfect clear sky, pure crispy snow and outstanding bitterly cold (-10 F). Wolves, bears, coyotes, mule deers, white tail deers, elks, big horns, golden eagle, bald eagle, pronghorns (the moose postponed his show again for a future return) they all greeted us in the earth’s greatest temple, but the bison seemed to be the ruler of the land. Two wolves, a black and a grey one, were wandering carelessly in the sages at a safe distance, producing great excitement among the visitors who clustered in a large group to watch the beautiful creatures through the lenses of their scopes, binoculars, and cameras. The bison was everywhere, slowly and imperturbably moving across the fields. Respectfully, we watched them and tacitly we acknowledged their sovereignty over the land. Totally unexpected and unusual for this time of the year, two bear cubs ventured outside of their den to scratch some logs for some more insulation that they rapidly swept inside their shelter. Mama bear, probably a little sluggish from the long hibernal rest, attentive and alert, watched over them with a care that perfectly describes maternal love. Sheltered from the freezing cold, we had lunch offered and served by our guide, in a place that offered us a magnificent view of a herd of bisons marching slowly and silently to graze somewhere else. This was at the junction of the East Fork of the Yellowstone River and Soda Butte Valley. Later we found that in this exact area where Harry Yount, the then game warden – but in fact the first National Park ranger in history – of the freshly established National Park, constructed his winter camp in the year of 1880. On the way back, getting lazier from the comfortable ride, when we thought the trip was heading to its end, our guide offered us a beautiful surprise: a herd of pronghorn, wrongly named antelope, but it fact a species that developed and thrived exclusively in North America. From there, through the magnificent scenery of Paradise Valley, with its cattle and horse ranches, we returned to Bozeman. The sun was smiling at us, and we dozed carelessly in the vehicle, befuddled by that much beauty. We found more seduction in the small town and the small cabin in which we were temporary occupants.

Sixth day – back on the slopes. For the first time on our ski trips, the day away from slopes had more to offer. But sliding down on the skis on a beautiful mountain can only boost one’s morale. It was Sunday, and the crowd created a little more frenzy. There were more colored spots on the white of snow, more people in the après-skis. The beer swirled flawlessly, but it was all part of life, the jubilation of being part of a community that loves skiing and the joy of life. The music played a little louder from the boom boxes. For a few hours, the genuine Montana became part of the world. One more day ahead and already a bit of melancholy appeared in our souls. We drove down the mountain, hang out a bit in the town and drove back to visit the Lone Ranch Horn and Cantle. Beautiful surprise, high-class venue but, once again, it’s all part of Montana. Horses, log cabins and cowboy dressed personnel. Country music and fine atmosphere. Montanans are great at customer care. Home we went, to rest, to sleep and to already long for this beautiful state.

Seventh day – the big skies are cloudy. We missed Bozeman beforehand. We had breakfast on the Main Street. Just one more before we will miss this place. While enjoying the atmosphere, outside the snowflakes started their dance. We hopped in the truck and there we drove. The highway turned into a whiteout. It wasn’t a heavy snow but the gust of wind blowing the snow. Our truck was a truly Californian and easily drifted on snow and ice. Stubborn as the pioneers, we took on the uphill. Just a little closer to the target, the car drifted and the rear wheels got into the ditch. Californian how it was, she didn’t know how to behave on snow and abandoned us at the mercy of others. On that day, the powder was reserved for others. A local angel driving a Toyota, old and rusty but four-wheel drive, rescued us and our day. The sheriff escorted us back to town, followed by a patient column of drivers. We waited for a bus and got to the mountain a little after noon. The powder that stopped our drive now lay fresh on the ground and we made some turns before we said farewell to Big Sky and returned for another night in Bozeman. We had dinner at Montana Ale Works and fell asleep dreaming of future adventures.

Eighth day – we drove back to the airport. The rental clerk carefully listened to our feedback about the unsuited for winter vehicle and offered us a discount. One more proof of a great customer service we received everywhere in Montana. This airport was as pleasant to stay as the Timberline Lodge on Oregon’s Mount Hood. We had a goodbye breakfast. Bison and eggs, a real Montanan meal. The plane took off, and we farewelled the fairy tale beautiful country.

As with any other place in this beautiful country, once we visited, we decided it was the most beautiful one. Indeed, America has her charm no matter where you travel.

Lawrence Sterne tried to describe the types of travelers in his novel, A Sentimental Journey. As quoted by David McCullough, he said: “There were all kinds of travelers, inquisitive travelers, idle travelers, vain travelers – but the true value of travel was not in strenuous sight-seeing. It was in opening one’s heart to feeling.” To go a little further, I would say that Montana is the country that opens one’s heart to the feeling of sight-seeing.

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