I count more fires and Harley Davidson shops, each respectively, than I do law enforcement officers on the long trek from Hood River to Missoula. Barren landscapes and a Budweiser plant send me on my way through the top of Idaho, the hills beginning to punch through the earth as I pass through Wallace. Proclaimed by Mayor Ron Garitone in 2004 to be the Center of the Universe, it has a population of 781 and steadily declining.
I’ve never been to Montana but have always had this idea that I -need to go there-. A welcome sign hangs demurely under a bridge and I just catch it before I’m under. I have arrived! This is it! With a maple donut on my lap as fat and long as my forearm, I ride the sugar wave and keep rolling onward.
As an oasis does, Missoula suddenly manifests in the valley below. So intrigued and somewhat boggled, I’ve never felt so blatantly somewhere in the middle of absolute nowhere. I get a dorm for the night at a 150-year old home-turned-hostel and think yes, I didn’t realize this is what I needed but I think I found the thing. Freshly painted white columns stand tall on two porches, an expansive patio, two (!) kitchens a small library with loads of maps an adopted 27-year-old (so I was told) African frog, all a blink from the main drag. I’ll rest well in my little oasis tonight, I think.
And then one ends up in a dim bar with cheap gin & tonics and a legendary, cash-only kitchen that’s whipping up the best Cajun food this side of the Rockies. And diving into a bowl of gumbo, one eavesdrops on reporters two stools down talking vicious details of salacious murder cases, and one admires all the coiled neon and the large black & white toothy headshots that run the walls of the entire length of the joint. Who are these men of repute? The regulars up until 1984, the bartender tells me, and the woman moving back to Philly from a town of seven seems to know everyone here, and with a where-are-you-from-and-who-are-you-into? tells me to meet her friends tomorrow and talks about her fiancé fighting forest fires. I am talking to a guy who hails from the town I worked a summer during college, and as the night goes the glass and cans stack higher and multiply and it all breeds a familiarity which makes one think, how long have I been in this city? There’s talk of coming but never leaving; of why would anyone be anywhere else? Of the lure of the mountains and this life here in this funny little place, that everyone here is in on the secret. And as the double digits wind down into single and the night ticks on, everyone is in agreeance that this city tucked in the valley is pretty special, and that this is the best spot in all of town.