On Saturday morning, we woke up and had to drive the rental car to the airport before catching the plane to Montana, with the brief stop over in Salt Lake City. I was a little miffed at having to pay ten dollars to park the car in the gated lot at the hotel, shared with another hotel. It was a large lot that looked like it had no shortage of spaces, though the complaint is a frequent one in San Francisco, according to the online reviews we read when we were researching hotels for the visit. That is, that the hotels in San Francisco often charge for parking. I can see that downtown, where there looks to be a shortage, even for the permanent residents of the city, but out by the airport? There’s nothing here. But it is what it is. We held on to the car overnight so we didn’t have to rely on the hotel shuttle to get us to the airport on time. And it was quick to drop off, compared to picking it up where we stood on line for about 30 minutes. We waited in a queue, got waved in, showed some paper work, and were sent on our way. We stopped by a small cafe with a little time to spare for a small breakfast, the hotel being one of the few I’d ever seen that didn’t seem to follow the trend of some kind of free breakfast for patrons. Phil found part of a latex glove when he bit into his muffin. I lost my appetite. Clearly, this was no breakfast of champions.
As said in earlier parts to this travel essay (or whatever you want to call it), I have only been on the West Coast once before, but barely enough to really see anything. A two and a half day visit to Long Beach about two years ago, marred by unnecessary delays, hour-long circling over Phoenix in what I was sure was going to be the storm to kill us, a re-route to Las Vegas, another to L.A., and finally destination: Long Beach, which was mostly spent at a backyard party and later, a recording studio, before shipping out again. My imagination of the West, therefore, was still very much influenced by B-grade neo-noir movies and pristine Ansel Adam prints. In other words, red mountains and large expanses of isolated desert that may or may not contain scheming con artists and indiscriminate psychopaths. Salt Lake City, at least from the few minutes we stood shuffling through the Tarmac to board a much smaller plane than we left San Francisco in, looked like miles and miles of flat, brown land, the mountains nearly watery blurs off in the bluish horizon.
Montana really earns it’s name, Big Sky Country. Outside of the college towns like Billings and Missoula, which have the demarcations of downtowns, so much of the state is rural. Huge mountains break up the flatland and the sky seems so tremendous, so low, like it distinctly begins somewhere just above the mountains and goes on forever. As it was in California, we saw numerous signs regarding the threat of forest fires. Montana has the additional worry of rocks sliding off the mountains, though it seemed to be a caution raised in a way to have you believe that a fierce sneeze in an empty area will eventually result in a rocky avalanche.
On the road.
Phil’s parents picked us up in Billings. The airport was small, reminding me of the one in Portland (Maine) or Long Beach. The kind you could imagine turns into a ghost town by ten o’clock at night. Though I guess that’s not hard to imagine of even large international airports these days. Phil’s parents live in a teeny tiny town near the Canadian border called Opheim. Before he pointed it out on a map, I had always thought the town was called Opine. There seemed to be a generational hold on Opheim, and that when it’s eldest residents left, that would be the end of the town. It had nothing to offer the young who needed at least some promise of meaningful employment and probably leisure activity to cultivate their futures. In fact, it’s such a small town that his folks have to drive about an hour to Glasgow, the next largest town to do any considerable shopping, a trip made longer in the dreadful winter months, of course. There had been a small cafe in Opheim purchased by a non-local who operated under irregular hours before shutting it down altogether, which seemed to be a real offensive move according to Phil’s folks, who optimistically spoke of getting a few people together to open a new locally-owned cafe, some of these people somehow being linked to the people we’d meet along on our trip.
The trip. We were supposed to be going to Flathead Lake where a friend of the parents owned a lake house. I had been under the impression that this would be the only thing we’d be doing while in town. But as it turned out, that was only part of the trip. The other part was something like a tour of the western half of the state. We spent the first night in Three Fork, which was such a small town that, if Phil’s mom hadn’t remembered where it was from some previous visit years back, we would have missed it entirely turning off the highway. We stayed at the Broken Spur motel, a perfect name for small town lodging, though it wasn’t a hotel in any kind of real disrepair. Just perfectly named and a little dated. It sat in front of a small industrial park and General Custer’s Last Root Beer stand, which was no longer in operation. That’s another thing so typical to Montana. So much of the state’s real estate seemed up for sale, especially once we got around Flat Head. It seemed possible to shelve a couple of bucks during the year and buy a decent piece of summer property. But then again, we weren’t retirees and couldn’t get away from work for probably more than one or two weeks in the year.
Banksy’s influences, down on Main Street (Three Forks, MT)
As would be the case with most of the people we met on this week-long visit, Phil’s mom and dad shared a mutual friend with the hotel owner. Big as the state is, it feels much more like a small town. This particular person had some wood decorations in the lobby, which was the owner’s house, and Phil’s folks knew the artist. The hotel was small and homely, in part because it was attached to the owner’s real house. There were rifles and animal heads on the walls. Random merchandise decorated with some icon of state, including these black and white postcards of ironic moments (i.e. dog riding horse) that we found pretty much everywhere we went. The room was decorated in various shades of avocado, orange, yellow, and wood paneling.
We arrived at the hotel rather early in the evening. The sun was only just setting, and Phil and I decided to walk down to one of the bars on the main street. It’s a historic town, Three Spur – the place where Sacajawea was captured by the Mennetree tribe in 1800. They have a bronze statue of her at the other end of Main Street, just in front of the historic hotel that was up for sale. Main Street had about four bars that were open, the rest of it was made of up a few restaurants, the city hall, a law office, a craft shop, and other things that weren’t open past eight. We were a little nervous stepping into the locals bar, though we really shouldn’t have been. The historic hotel presumably brought outsiders to the area, and we weren’t looking to start any bar brawls. They were rather quiet. The bartender set us up with two beers, we sat a minute to watch whatever sporting event was one TV, then went to the back where they had a bunch of gaming tables. Slot machines mostly. Mostly slot machines all over the entire state. A chain-smoking off-duty waitress with a grizzly voice and shabby ponytail sat next to us, engrossed in her game of electronic keno, talking to another bar regular about how she had to get up early in the morning to work there the next day. I watched Phil play a few rounds of keno, without much success, and when we finished our beer, we went to find another bar.
There were about three or four locals immersed in conversation with the bartender, a friendly guy who welcomed us to the bar, pop the top on our beers, and went back to his conversation with the regulars as we walked over to survey the slots and pool table in the back, bathed in the pink light of the Coors light sign. Phil picked up a few bucks, and it seems odd having to take that printed winnings ticket and go cash out in a bar. We shot a round of pool and picked out a few tunes on the jukebox, certain not to pick anything that strayed from typical country rock, since we still had this lingering self-consciousness as “city kids from back East.” The jukebox was far too loud for the duration of a few Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix songs, though for the most part, we shot our round of pool mostly unnoticed. I wondered how long the bar would stay open while the rest of the town slept, though by about eleven, we started walking back to the hotel. In the morning, we’d be — I would soon learn — on our way to Yellowstone National Park.