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June 2024
17min read

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. Two hundred miles downstream, in Idaho, the river we now call the Clark Fork was blocked by glaciers, and when it swelled to about the size of Lake Ontario, the ice dam ruptured, releasing what has been described as “the greatest flood of known geologic record.” A two-thousand-foot wall of water ripped west all the way to the Columbia River, blasting millions of acres of silt hundreds of miles downstream. In the waning centuries of the Ice Age, the dam re-formed, the lake bed refilled, and it happened all over again. This valley filled and emptied at least thirty-six times, and with a dusting of snow, striations of old shoreline pop out on the west face of Mount Sentinel like the whorls on a topographical map.

Even today, the hydrodynamics that shaped the place color our lives, dreams, and literature.

It is as if there was something here that needed purging. The writer John Hutchens describes growing up in Missoula with “the feeling of big events, in the past or to come. Nature, huge and sometimes ominous, was just outside the door.” Perhaps it gave the Salish Indians a similar feeling, for they called this place In Mis sou let ka, “the rivers of awe.” In any case, I believe the relentless hydrodynamics that shaped this place—the scores of buildings up and burstings forth—have long been part of the collective unconscious of its inhabitants, that even today the dream of flood trickles into our lives, dreams, and literature.


At the end of the century, the Missoulians who are happiest here, I venture, are the people who live to be outdoors. If all the Subarus with their ski racks fail to convince you of this, then check out some of the vanity plates, with their cryptic allusions to the licensees’ particular enthusiasms: ELKSKR, HOOKNEM, SNOJONZ, O2BHIKIN .

With the Rattlesnake wilderness ten minutes north of town, there are hundreds of miles of hiking and hiking trails available at the drop of a suggestion. Fishermen from around the world make the pilgrimage to nearby Rock Creek, and the great rivers that course through town are irresistible to boaters, from the spring white-water season into the summer, when overnight canoe trips are for many an annual excursion.

In autumn, hunting season opens the door to a more serious kind of outdoor experience, and the question around town becomes: “Did you get your elk yet?” With a quarter-million acres of roadless area to pack into, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, only ninety minutes away, is a mecca for hunters, horseback riders, and outdoor types of every stripe.

When winter arrives, Missoula’s Snow Bowl is a first-rate ski area, just twenty minutes out of town. Then there are the larger ski areas like Big Mountain, a two- to three-hour drive north, and Big Sky, a four-hour drive southeast. The historical sites along the way include ghost towns, segments of the Lewis and Clark Trail, and, if you drive a bit farther, the battlefields at Big Hole and the Little Bighorn.

Must a Missoulian recreate constantly to make it all seem worthwhile? Well, no. My family and I ski sometimes and canoe when we can. But I can’t tell you what it does for the spirit just to know that it’s all right there.

In 1865 Missoula was established at the confluence of three rivers: the Clark Fork, the Bitterroot, and the Big Blackfoot. A flour mill was built along the Clark Fork’s north bank, and soon the little town was on its way. The plentiful timber and the unceasing demand for it by the railroad and mining industries eventually made Missoula a thriving lumber town.

By the end of the century the dirt streets had been paved, and buildings like the Palace Hotel, which still provides a kind of high-water mark for Missoula’s economic prospects, were erected. Electric trolleys ran the length of Higgins Avenue, and as the cars were routinely vandalized, it became clear that Missoula had entered the twentieth century. As if to underscore this, Fort Missoula, the old frontier garrison west of town, mustered a unit unlike any other before it. Made up entirely of black men, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps rode all the way to St. Louis before shipping out for the Spanish-American War.

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.”


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.

In 1806, after a rough winter on the coast, Lewis and Clark came tramping back through Montana on their return trip. According to the journals, they bivouacked again at the hot springs south of town known as Traveler’s Rest, and there the two captains split the party, with Lewis heading northeast along the route of what the Flathead hunters called the Buffalo Road. Lewis was rafting supplies cross river at a “rapid and difficult part of it crouded [ sic ] with several small islands and willow bars” when he dumped his raft, soaking his chronometer. Arriving sopping wet on the bank, he likely continued east, down what is now Main Street, past the future site of the Union Club Bar, the Adult Entertainment Center, the Taco Bell, and the Fitness Dome, finally entering the narrow canyon later called Hell Gate, till he arrived at the Blackfoot River and a trail so prominent that, as the local tribes put it, “even a white man couldn’t miss the way.”

I think of what it must have been like to cover the incredible distances the corps did. While many of us have put in our weekends on these same rivers, the truth is, any bozo can go downstream with his raft and dogs and brewskis. But nobody paddles west against these currents. Nobody bushwhacks, pushes, poles, and drags fully loaded keelboats mile after mile through insect-ridden, rattlesnake-infested, gumbo-clotted Missouri River banks.

Today locals dote on just about anything to do with Lewis and Clark. People find these accounts inspiring for the sheer understated courage of the adventure, charming for Clark’s ingenuous spellings. But mostly, I think, people here read them because in all their naiveté and earnestness, these nineteenth-century adventurers were pretty much dumbstruck, as we all were when we first arrived here. To this day there are no better-selling books in the area than just about anything to do with Lewis and Clark, who have become namesakes of, among other things, a grade school, a taxidermy studio, and a complete line of bottom-shelf liquors, guaranteed to put you in an exploratory frame of mind.

More than 190 years past the Corps of Discovery, I stand at the ground level of my basement window and look across a back yard that was once prime terrain for the bitterroot, a lilylike flower with a tuberous root. The Flatheads mixed this root with berries, mixed it with venison and buffalo jerky, mixed it with about everything they ate. They honored the bitterroot with ritual harvests and celebrated it in ceremonies. Said to be so bitter it could induce nausea, like so many things about this place the bitterroot was definitely an acquired taste. But this nearly unpalatable plant with its gorgeous pink flower sustained the Flatheads for centuries.

If the great flood cycles of the Ice Age can be seen as an epic, a kind of geological Gone With the Wind , then the less than two hundred years of Anglo-inflicted change seem speeded up, almost superficial, like some animated feature about termites chewing away at a giant log.

The initial influx of traders and adventurers arriving in the early nineteenth century gave way to less nomadic fortune seekers: gold miners, timber barons, and the like, the vanguard of the coming flood of settlers and merchants. Missoula was an emerging town in the American outback, connected to the nation by the Northern Pacific and eventually by the Milwaukee Road too. When World War I came, Missoula’s volunteer rate was 25 percent over what was called for. Montana had the highest per capita casualty rate of any state in the Union.

By the end of the Great War, the twentieth century had come to stay, which led Jeannette Rankin, the Missoula girl who became the first woman member of the House of Representatives, to observe in an interview: “People have to conform so much today. In the old days we did what we pleased....”

Twentieth-century Missoula was first a workingman’s town, a timber town that coexisted with a large university, and this combination would give the city a certain earthy gentility. Indeed, for more than a century the timber industry seemed at the heart of Missoula, from the state-of-the-art Smoke Jumper Center at Johnson Bell Field to the annual Forester’s Ball at the University of Montana, where spirited timber beasts sometimes emptied their Colt pistols into the gymnasium ceiling. In the years following World War II, production soared. Loggers razed the western Montana mountainsides, trying to keep up with the unprecedented postwar housing boom. But by the 1970s, about the same time the great Butte copper veins were beginning to slow their output, it started to occur to foresters that while it took forty years to grow a timber tree on the coast, it took well over a hundred around here. In the recession of 1982 the timber market took a dive it would never recover from. Mills began to close. Downtown Missoula staggered. The real estate market went down hard and didn’t stir again until about 1990, when another wave of beleaguered city dwellers began to show up, this time from the West Coast. Many are successful retirees, many have brought their jobs with them, but the effect has been to boost the price of homes beyond the reach of locals who soldier along with the Missoula economy, the people who have lived here all along.

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.

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.”


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