Sunday, May 6, 2018

Montana: other travelling notes

Great Falls: Where my flights terminated and where I stayed three of the seven nights of my journey, something of a home base and the only city I spent much time in, Great Falls has lost an industry (or two: hydroelectric power and smelting) and not yet found a role. It's a large city but curiously vacant: there was hardly anyone there and no significant traffic, even on the main drag at commute hours. Yet it was not closed down or boarded up as decaying midwestern or southern cities are. It seemed healthy but there wasn't much there. In particular, I had trouble finding anything not a chain (and not too many of those, either) open for lunch on a Sunday except diners still serving only breakfast food. I had a great omelet, though.

Countryside traffic: Not too much of that, either. On any of the back unpaved roads, if a vehicle, usually a pickup, is coming the other way, raise your hand to greet its driver, because they will to you. You're probably the only other driver they've seen all day.

The California of Montana: The only even moderately heavy traffic I saw was while passing through the outskirts of Missoula, my only encounter with that city. The road (Reserve St.) was lined with malls and chain outlets, more of it in 5 miles than in all of Great Falls. I told a store clerk in an outlying village that it was the only thing I'd seen in Montana that reminded me of urban California, and she thanked me warmly for confirming her own impression.

Montana Leisurely: The reason I was chatting with the store clerk is because by then I'd learned that that's what you do in Montana. Even in Great Falls I found the service style I dubbed "Montana leisurely." It's not unfriendly or uncaring, it just takes a long time. Allow two hours for a meal at a restaurant that would take one hour elsewhere. And, in particular, for checkout clerks, chatting extensively with customers who've already completed their purchase takes a much higher priority than helping the next person in line. If you're the next person, you'd just better get used to it. (And, while nobody was unfriendly, by far the warmest and most friendly were the clerks and servers at every place I stopped in the small towns of the Bitterroot Valley. They really make you feel welcome there.)

Steaks? Since I like to focus on local cuisine wherever I go, you may wonder how many steaks I ate in a week in Montana. Three, actually: one basic sirloin, one small marinated ribeye, and one T-bone so huge and thick that my first act was to saw off the strip side to save it for the next day. A couple hamburgers, lamb chops in a chop house, and a Butte-area special, the (boneless, needless to say) breaded pork chop sandwich. In Salmon, Idaho, I figured that I'm not often in a town named for a food, so when I saw that namesake food on the menu, I ordered it. Two meals in the small Montana town of Dillon rather surprisingly yielded me 1) some of the best jambalaya I've had outside of Louisiana, 2) the best tamales I've had outside of ex-Mexican territory.

Unexpected echo: In some of the smaller towns (smaller than Dillon), the best place to eat was often a saloon, a bar (for drinks) with a table seating area off to one side and a small menu focusing on burgers, steak sandwiches, and the like. This is not a kind of establishment I've seen in California, though some of our restaurants have bars, which is more the other way around, and felt more like eating at an English pub than any other experience I've had over here, albeit with a very heavy Western American accent. For one thing, you might find yourself sitting underneath a majestic antlered deer head mounted on the wall, or if you skittered away from that, next to a player piano on the other side of the room.

On the reservation: Members of the Blackfoot tribe are very proud of being Blackfeet. Even the ones panhandling in front of the tribal museum are very proud of being Blackfeet. I gave them a generous tip in hushed respect.

Culture in Montana: The Great Falls Symphony plays in an auditorium inside a WPA-era building labeled "City Hall" on that side and "Convention Center" on another side, and which is consequently hard to find. The musicians were dressed formally, but in the audience I saw a couple men in sports coats but not a single necktie. This was, already in late April, the last concert of the season, under first-year music director Grant Harville. The theme was music connected with movies. Of the two standard concert works, Gershwin's American in Paris was relaxed and easy but Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé (I was probably the only person there who'd actually seen the original movie) was stiff and awkward. Two chunks from more recent movies, Empire of the Sun (John Williams) and The Mission (Ennio Morricone), both featured chorus, an outstandingly clear and balanced ensemble directed by Paul Ritter, just then retiring.

A newspaper article alerted me to a children's theater production of the first act of Sondheim's Into the Woods and I couldn't resist that, so I adjusted my schedule to stop in Butte in time to see a performance. The tiny theater was even harder to find than the symphony hall, requiring one to pass sequentially through the lobby of a Masonic temple, a large gymnasium, and a door labeled women's restroom (it wasn't) in order to enter. The cast was mostly teenagers, with parts for younger children in a few cases that were obvious (Jack, Little Red) and some that weren't (Rapunzel's Prince). Like Linus's pumpkin patch, the show had sincerity, but what came out of anyone's mouth could not charitably be called singing. The narrator, for instance, was a girl made up like a Midsummer Night's Dream fairy, with a strong stage presence and a good line in eerie contortionate gymnastics, but ... she could not sing.

Bookstores: One advantage of the back of beyond is that there are still big used bookstores there. Second Edition Books in Butte (commercial space, wide open plan) claims to be the best used bookstore in Montana, and it's good but I'd give that prize to Montana Valley Books in Alberton, 30 miles outside Missoula (converted house, packed and cramped but not musty).

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