- 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
Twenty years later my two gurus are gone: Hugo is dead; Bill Kittredge has retired. The Front Street I knew in 1978 has morphed again: The porno theater now houses a law firm; the hockshop is a fly-fishing boutique; the infamous Luke’s Bar is a restaurant. The Top Hat is still there, but the new owners have painted over the Post-Nuke mural in eggshell white.
Today there is no more collectible item around town than the classic Missoula T-shirt. It features a peculiar-looking potbellied creature, species undetermined. Neither fish nor fowl, it could be a winged platypus or some kind of big-lipped flying frog. Whatever it is, it glides serenely across the wearer’s chest above a logo that states: “Missoula, Montana: A place. Sort of. . . .” In a way, after twenty years of this T-shirt, it still seems to sum up wonderfully the strangely perverse mixture of loyalty and annoyance Missoula inspires, the dark humor, self-deprecation, and fierce pride the town is capable of producing among its residents.
Missoula is a place that makes demands on you. With its pristine backdrop and its scrim of emissions, with its nationally ranked writing program and rock-bottom faculty salaries, with its speculators’ housing market and embattled economic base, Missoula is a place where you have to want to stay.
But when Missoula opens its smoky old heart in the summer, we will forgive it just about anything. In the summer the whole town seems to move outside. The clear mountain air cools forty degrees at night and dries your sweat. The languorous twilights with their parfait of colors linger on and on, like some well-loved dinner guest.
I’ve heard it said Missoula is a great place to come back to, and that may be right. Recent studies have shown that a substantial percentage of the people moving in here are actually Montana returnees, people who went away to acquire better jobs, training, or skills and who have now come back better prepared to deal with the region’s economic challenges. Personally, I’ve returned here twice, after a sojourn East and after a sojourn West. My wife and I—whom I met, incidentally, in Richard Hugo’s poetry workshop—now have two small children and a thirty-year mortgage, so it’s unlikely we shall be leaving again anytime soon. Certainly it’s easy to imagine a place where the economy is more supportive, where the living’s not quite so hard, but it’s impossible to find a spot that’s so much fun as this one: Aurora in the night sky, wilderness at your doorstep, and those great green rivers with their rushing dreams of flood.
When Missoula opens its smoky old heart in the summer, we will forgive it just about anything.
And those mountains—lumpish and unheroic, the ones that block the morning sun—those mountains come alive in the evening, when they seem to absorb the twilight, to grow and shift into great mysterious shapes, like the pyramids, but older. A friend once said they’re like a huge drive-in screen on which, if you watch closely, the secrets of Missoula are revealed. If you watch closely and you watch faithfully, you may learn that this is a place with a preternatural ability to reinvent itself, over and over, a place where, Richard Hugo said, “Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide as the mouth of a wild girl, friable clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost in miles of land without people, without one fear of being found, in the dash of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl merge and clatter of streams.”