- 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
So at the tail end of the twentieth century, what drives the timber-depleted Missoula economy is the influx of newcomers, some twenty thousand in the last decade. Between the resulting construction bonanza and the accompanying service industries, the boom pretty much feeds itself, but there is no escaping the fact that much of the friendly egalitarianism that used to characterize the town has been misplaced in these transitions.
Now the loggers are disappearing, the miners are under fire, and most of the cowboys I’ve met want to be poets or maybe screenwriters. In late-twentieth-century Missoula, the Corps of Discovery has given way to the Corps of Real Estate. Their pirogues are Chevy Suburbans. Their sidearms are their cell phones. Every direction you go, you will find them flogging bits and pieces of the High West to disenchanted Californians and Washingtonians, all hungering for a taste of something pristine. Downtown Missoula reflects these changes with a proliferation of catering services, gourmet kitchenware shops, high-end clothiers, and brokerages. They have changed the face of downtown, and (depending on who you talk to) for the most part they have changed it for the better, making it a more attractive and livable place.
Like many people, I went to Missoula to somehow start my life again. I’d moved from the Midwest in 1977 to Colorado, which was where I first began to hear stories about this town in Montana. A year in the Denver megalopolis gave these stories time to germinate, and finally the little town uprange drew me north like a lodestone.
When I arrived there in the late summer of 1978, Missoula bore little resemblance to what I had imagined. For openers I had never been to a place with so many running Studebakers. The great bald mountainsides to the east were burnt brown by the powerful summer sun, and the Clark Fork was so low you could walk across it on the cobbles. I marveled at just how dry a place it was. Indeed, the climate seemed not only to have preserved old cars but also to have mummified much of the sixties counterculture, and at first Missoula seemed charmingly outdated, the people clannish, eccentric, as if they all shared a joke I might or might not eventually be let in on. The uniqueness of this place caught me up short. I did not understand that certain Rocky Mountain locutions — gal for “girl,” crik for “creek”—and the odd combination of exhilaration and loneliness the place instilled in me were exactly the things I would grow to cherish.
Like many people, I arrived in Missoula to somehow start my life over again.
I moved downtown, right on the river, to a section of Front Street once notorious for its opium dens, roughhouse bars, bordellos, and violent crime. By the 1970s the neighborhood was gentrified to accommodate a hockshop, a porno theater, two eateries, and a mere handful of bars. In short, Front Street, 1978, had about everything a fellow starting over might ever need.
One January night I sat on a shockingly decrepit bolster in a bar called the Top Hat. The buttocks-piercing springs made me consider capping off the evening with tetanus shots, one for myself and one for my adventurous girlfriend, Denny. The Missoula airport was closed for a smog alert, and Denny, who was visiting from Boulder, had had to fly into Kalispell, more than a hundred miles north, then take a Greyhound bus from there. On the wall beside us in the Top Hat was an amateurish mural that featured the still recognizable wreckage of a Missoula laid to ruin by an atomic attack. I recall thinking the idea of a nuke strike on Missoula was delusion of grandeur in its purest form. Meanwhile, Denny was losing altitude. She wore a spectacular gold party dress; I wore new pointy-toed cowboy boots. There was nobody else in the place except a three-piece band singing countless choruses of a song so obscene even the title is best left unsaid. It was thirty-three below zero outside. Denny gave me an enlightened kind of look and said, “You know, Fred, you’ve got a knack for putting yourself in some hellish situations.”
And while I thought she was right, I also knew it was my kind of hell. The next day Denny flew back home, and I stayed on. In addition to my seventy-dollar-a-month apartment over the river, I had secured a kind of place for myself along Front Street. I was thirty-four years old and felt I was running out of time. One afternoon I hiked the steep zigzag trail a thousand feet up Mount Sentinel and stared out over the Missoula Valley. The place looked wonderfully, perhaps entrancingly, forlorn. I thought, boy, if there was ever a place for me to make a stand, it would be right here, my back to this mountain. And I came back down the trail, as many perhaps had done before me, with the resolution that I would change things here, that I would become a writer or die trying. Sometimes it seemed I very nearly did.