The last best place in Montana before Canada might be the small town of Eureka, 9 miles from the Canadian border.
I had never been to Montana before. And I had to see what the hullabaloo was about. I didn’t get as far as Eureka, but I did make it to Whitefish and Glacier National Park and along Flathead Lake.
If one checks the stats of the 50 U.S. states, Montana is the 4th largest, the 7th least populous, and the 3rd least sparsely populated, with fewer than one million souls and millions of acres of untouched wilderness.
Montanans do. As they like to say, Montana is the “last best place,” wording coined by William Kittredge, professor of creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. See The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, University of Washington Press, published 1988, edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith. It’s 1158 pages are about Big Sky Country, stories about the good old days – legends, Indian tales. and pioneers struggles.
So, when a Las Vegas business with a dude ranch in Montana tried to expropriate (steal, to be precise) the long-used phrase, Democrats and Republicans alike, in Senate and House committees, stepped in and forbade the Commerce Department from registering or enforcing a trademark of the phrase.
Kudos to William Kittredge, a hard drinking, Western writer who left Oregon for Montana, and finding it more to his liking, taught classes in bars and wrote his way into the hearts of readers. He writes in the tone of John D. MacDonald, whose Travis McGee novels warned of the imminent destruction of Florida by developers, and with the passion of Louis L’Amour, who loved the West and its heroes.
Thank goodness for Kittredge, the power of the people, the common man, and Montana.
And what did I discover?
Small cities with great restaurants and brewpubs. Wide open space, scenic roads through Glacier National Park, over the continental divide through the Rocky Mountains, looking for mountain goats, bears, elk, and tiny chipmunks. A few lines of cars here and there, but nothing as long as Yosemite, for those who been there. At the western edge of Glacier, past Bowman Lake because the tourists are there, to Kintla Lake, and a walk north, eating the last few Thistle berries of the late summer and watching for Grizzlies who also like the berries, and then chatting with a park attendant who hikes the trail alone, armed with bear spray, checking to make sure out-of-state tourists know to make noise and frighten the bears, not to confront them. A trip along the largest lake west of the Mississippi, where a cool dip in the lake is topped off by a local brew and conversation. A trip to Bigfork and visit to a small bookstore. Travel up a gravel road to Polebridge, Montana, a town that is not so much a town, but a destination for a pastry called a Bear Claw.
Asking all along the way, were you born in Montana?
The answer was almost always no. This is not surprising as our statisticians say 11 million visitors come to Montana each year. But they come and often they stay, and they continue to come.
Conclusion, Montana is the last best place. But, maybe not for long.