- 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
Ever since the University of Montana’s Professor H. G. Merriam founded the literary magazine Frontier in the 1920s, the place has had a peculiar attraction for writers, who arrive here regularly on some kind of twentieth-century version of a vision quest. Sometimes they come for a conference, sometimes for a semester at the university. Sometimes they come to stay, and sometimes, or so it seems, they come just to get their photographs taken with their pointy-toed boots propped on some obliging Montana desktop. From 1964 to 1982 they gathered here to study with the seminal teacher-poet Richard Hugo or with the prose writer William Kittredge or because it was so beautiful and so inexpensive to live. But things, of course, have changed. Still beautiful? Yes. Inexpensive? Not by a long shot.
Yet the writers come. According to James Crumley ( The Last Good Kiss , Bordersnakes ), the reason goes something like this: “Missoula used to be at the bottom of a lake. Writers like damp, sticky places.” Whether you buy into any of this or not, one thing is sure: There are a couple of famous books that are simply inseparable from this town. Almost everyone knows Missoula is The Last Best Place (edited by Annick Smith and Bill Kittredge), where A River Runs Through It (by Norman MacLean). And it’s certainly true the traffic in literati exceeds that of cities many times its size. Some of the most famous American writers of the late twentieth century—Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, James Lee Burke, Ian Frazier, James Welch, and Annie Dillard—have come to Missoula to teach or to live, or just to sport and socialize, to exchange stories in one of the town’s many cavelike, majestically slow-moving Western barrooms.
Maybe this raconteur fest really began when Mark Twain passed through in 1895 and found himself outmatched by the men of Colonel Burte’s Fort Missoula post, who proved to be such relentless and voluble storytellers that the repeatedly interrupted Twain finally exclaimed, “I beg you. Give me just one chance.” Significantly, the only existing photo of this fabled event features the back of Twain’s head.
This would not be a piece about Missoula if I neglected the bar scene, which in no small way has long been a kind of signature of the place. Many of Missoula’s bars, from the Oxford to the East Gate Lounge, have appeared in fictional guise in various works of literature. For a small town, most of Missoula’s bars are models of big-city tolerance and egalitarianism, with the professor and the poet, the smokejumper, the freight hopper, and the cross-dresser amiably bellying up together for happy hour. At bars like the Missoula Club, Charlie B’s, and the Union Club, there is generally a remarkable conviviality that some might view as the town at its best. Take, for example, the former Front Street biker bar called Luke’s. Twelve years ago I sat next to a kid I knew, a hometown punker who had gone to school at Amherst and, for whatever reason, had shaved his head back to a ten-inch swatch of Mohawk, which he had dyed hot pink. As we nursed our beers, the heavyset biker on the next stool studied the kid’s hairdo thoughtfully. When he finally stood up to tap my young friend on the shoulder, everything went quiet. Any oddsmaker in the world would have bet on trouble, but the biker only asked if he could cut himself a two-inch lock to tie a dry fly with.
Being both a timber town and a university town gave Missoula a certain earthy gentility.
In September 1805, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first encountered a band of Flatheads up the Bitter-root Valley, the Indians had never seen white men before. According to one Indian account, there was something not quite right about these travelers, and the fact that the Corps of Discovery wore no blankets led the chiefs to conclude the white men had been robbed somewhere along the way. Captain Clark, for his part, was positive that the gurgling sound of the Flathead language could only mean these Indians were descendants of a mythical lost tribe of Welshmen.
These miscues notwithstanding, the Flatheads showed great hospitality to the expeditioners. Unlike the fierce Blackfeet to the north, the Flatheads were so generous and amenable that they soon found themselves in the white men’s way, and by the mid-nineteenth century the settlers were obliged to displace them. For the price of $120,000 and a ten-acre tract for each chief, the Flatheads were moved seventy miles north of their ancestral home in the Bitterroot Valley.