- Historic Sites
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…
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Meanwhile, up the Bitterroot Valley, an apple called the Mclntosh Premium was growing fat and sassy, and hundreds of city-weary Eden seekers, anxious to start life over, moved west to buy orchards. One of them was my wife’s great-grandfather, who set out for Missoula when his infant son developed ill health in Chicago. Once established, he could send for his family. In a matter of months John Patterson believed his future was so rosy with apples that he was barely able to restrain himself, and he wrote home to tell his wife: “I’ll make enough money here in a few years so both of you and grandma and Kate will have more than they no [ sic ] how to spend. This is the place for the whole crowd to come and cut out all worrying.”
In comparison with Montana’s famed Big Sky Country, Missoula feels closed in. The city sits in a kind of three-sided box, the eastern edge abutting a pair of grassy, spudlike mountains, Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo (named after P. T. Barnum’s famous elephant). In the summer the sun doesn’t clear the ridgeline until hours past daybreak. The narrow drainage to the northeast halts at the mountainous Rattlesnake wilderness, and the rugged hundred-mile span of the Bitterroot range stretches off to the south. The only real vista is to the west, where the valley broadens into riparian prairie as far as the eye can see.
Through most of the summer the rivers run green and powerful, and Missoula looks lush, prosperous. The maple-lined streets pool with shade, and by evening the day’s heat dissipates quickly in the mountain twilight. In the winter, with its valley inversions and monochrome textures, the city looks harsh, and the snow highlights things other than ancient shoreline, like the way the mountainsides are pocked and scarred with patch cuts, burns, and logging roads, or like the numerous abandoned lumber mills that point to the decline of the once-thriving timber industry.
A few miles east of town, near the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot, there is an ominous concentration of metals. Washed a hundred miles downstream from Butte’s notorious Silver Bow Creek, these tailings are further evidence, as if any were needed, of the party-on environmental insouciance that was for so long the signature of the Western extractive industries. Indeed, this site boasts such a smorgasbord of heavy metals—arsenic, copper, zinc, and cadmium—that if the water could somehow be reprocessed for metal recovery (a plan actually under investigation in Butte), it might be worth millions.
For seventy years the place has had a curious attraction for writers, who arrive here regularly.
But Missoula is unique for another kind of confluence. It’s a place where coastal cosmopolitanism meets Western chic, where techno-reccies meet intermountain shit-kickers, where cowboy schmaltz meets Seattle grunge. With a population of around seventy-five thousand, it’s the hometown of the pioneer suffragist Jeannette Rankin, the Olympic gold medalist Erik Bergoust, and, in the summer, a species of bird called the indigo bunting. It has been home to the movie star Andie MacDowell and the rocker Huey Lewis, and in a state where there is seemingly perennial legislation for the reinstigation of spanking in public schools, Missoula is a bastion of liberals. Liberals but not bleeding hearts. The town supports a ninety-piece symphony orchestra and averages three firearms per household. It plays host to an international choral festival, a wildlife film festival, and one of the better-attended powwows in the Northwest, and also has hosted a Gay Pride parade. It is the site of the first wooden carousel built since the Great Depression. It is the headquarters for the largest touring children’s theater company in the country as well as the home of orchard-burglaring bears, bad-apple mountain lions, and a resident street person in full leprechaun attire who claims to be Jewish. It has the country’s first Smoke Jumper Training Center, a fledgling minor-league baseball team, and its own French honorary consul. Perhaps this is why every few years a team of French journalists shows up to rediscover the place. The July 1995 Le Point magazine puts it this way: “A coup d’etat has taken place in the American literary world without anyone noticing. Forget New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, the new literary capital of the United States is called henceforth Missoula. . . . [which] counts more writers per square foot than any other town on the north American continent, Greenwich Village included.”