Nourished by powerful rivers and an equally powerful sense of its past, a town of cowhands and poets and bikers and professors distills the whole history of the American West—its hope and rapacity, its calamities and triumphs. Fred Haefele makes clear why our third annual American Heritage Great American Place Award goes to…

Fifteen thousand years ago my study here on the Missoula valley floor in Montana was seriously underwater. The peaks surrounding me—today the launch pads for hang gliders—were a string of islands, an archipelago in Glacial Lake Missoula.

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