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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Go east, young man

Most Portlanders know that if you really want to see the American West, you've got to go east from here. A recent trip to northeastern Montana provided some much needed perspective.

It's a hard land -- rocky, sandy high plains, hot as blazes in midsummer, and (I hear) deadly cold in winter. There's a unique beauty under the big sky, but the civilized side of the place has fallen on very hard times. It's never really thrived economically, and the last decade has been particularly harsh. Many of the scrappy towns along U.S. 2, known locally as the "high line," seem well on their way to becoming ghost towns. One grocery store each, maybe two or three gas stations, three or four bars, a motel or two, one old-fashioned cafe if they're lucky, two banks, maybe a car dealership or two, a handful of fast food joints. Not a land of opportunity, or of hope, except among the stubbornest, strongest individuals in the community. There's big talk of turning the two-lane highway into a four-lane, but it's truly impossible to see why, as there's hardly enough traffic through there to justify more than one lane with some turnouts.

Lots of Indian country, where time stands still in ways both good and bad. Grace and mystery and spirit and struggle and failure and desperation all together, coming at you so fast it can't all be processed by a white man.

South of there by several lonely driving hours, Billings looks as though it is getting by. A couple of regional hospitals, a nice little airport with a runway that can handle big jets, a downtown business community that's hanging tough. It's got a palpable spirit, reminiscent to me of downtown Portland in the 1970s, or Reno in the '80s. The volunteers still hang the flower baskets from the street lights at eye level. Lots of nice, accessible street art, which wouldn't last more than a week in most big cities. Historic neighborhoods walking distance from the court house. A terrific place for a visit.

The food ain't fancy, but it's cheap and good. You like steak or river trout? Well then, you came to the right place. But don't be looking for anything on the menu that wouldn't have been there 25 years ago; you won't find it.

The small scale of the cities and towns, the vastness of the spaces that separate them, the tight connection of the human enterprise to the land, the closeness of the current population to the area's history, all provide a charm that no longer reaches to where the sea breezes blow. In Montana you don't celebrate the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in a climate-controlled museum or a fluorescent-lit lecture hall. You let a beautiful native of the area take you down the road to a breathtaking swimming hole she knows on the Missouri, where you share the water with just a handful of kids and their folks.

Then you come home to the Rose City, and the next day the cupboard's bare, and you take a short trip over to a gorgeous New Seasons Market, and you pick from the finest food and wine that you can find anywhere, and head back to the house to walk barefoot through your garden, where it's so easy to grow everything, and after a simple dinner that couldn't be bettered in all the restaurants of Paris, you open all the windows to the delicious Oregon cool, and it may not be high plains quiet, but it's still quiet enough, and you can't see many stars, but you can still see enough, and you sit there and you realize how good you've got it.

Comments (11)

This Jersey City born kid couldn't agree with you more, Jack. And while NY and Paris --and even Seattle-- are fun and have their charms, its nice to reflect on what we've got here and recognize it really is something special, and worth treasuring. I'm just glad my wife's the awesome gardener she is...so we had tomatoes off the vine last night and didn't have to go to New Seasons.

Don't you miss the smells of the Ballentine Brewery? Tuesdays and Thursdays they brewed the ale. How about the aroma of double Italian hot dogs at Sue's?
Is there a better meal on the face of the earth than the Spanish Sangria? How about running on the Boardwalk in Spring Lake? Is there a better sausage, peppers and onion sandwich than at Midway at Seaside Heights?
Go to see Springsteen at Giant Stadium where the band enters the stage to the sounds of "Summer Wind" by Frank Sinatra.Go to the House that Ruth Built in October to see Derek Jeter go from first to third on a single. Be able to explain episodes of the Soprano's to your friends. Take a guest to meet a guy named "Patty Eyeballs".
New Jersey and you, perfect together.

Out of curiousity, did you get to visit around Augusta and maybe a little town called Choteau? If you want to dis-abuse yourself of the rustic West, visit Bozeman.

I had to spend 3 summers working on my father's family farm around there. Back then it was not too much fun (and is still tough if you want to be a farmer), but now that I look back on it, it did build character. Once you went about 20 miles west and got into the Rockies, they had some nice places.

Glad to hear you enjoyed eastern Montana. I grew up on a farm outside of Wolf Point on highway 2...on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Most people think that area is an aquired taste, but having been raised there, I know its vast beauty. When I took my San Diego born and bred husband to visit the first time (in the month of November, mind you) he spent hours just staring out the windows alternating with napping by the fire. Now we find that we both get homesick for Montana. I hope that you visit again!

Well said. Montana's a wonderful place, and eastern Montana has a special, beautiful quality to it. Here's a tip: next time go in the couple weeks around the beginning of July, when summer has its full purchase but the grass is still green. After 22 years in Montana I came to Oregon and discovered the qualities of Portland and the Willamette Valley, chief among them YOU DON'T HAVE TO SHOVEL THE RAIN.

great post bojack

Good work in God's country, Jack. Now, how much did the Billings chamber of commerce pay ya off?

That was a joke. A Missoula native just can't let that stuff pass, however!

Well this eastern Washington Indian has really enjoyed his time spent up on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Did you get up thataway? Ronan, Pablo?

If you folks have not seen the Mission Valley it is surely one of those things one must see before they die. Although it could very well be one of those things you get to see WHEN you die.


We've enjoyed Flathead many times, but not this go-round. That area's been Californicated, but with such a spectacular base to start from, it's still special.

There's nothing like the feeling of coming back home after a long road trip.
Great post.


Say hello to ***** for me:)


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