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The Last Best Place: Reflections on a Trip to Montana

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Montana: The Last Best Place

Exploring Montana and the Pacific Northwest

From the second we are born our imaginations are constantly shrinking. As a child the world we find ourselves in is full of small mysteries, everything is new. A trip to Burger King or the bowling alley is an act of discovery and we go to sleep that night having charted a new course in our own personal histories. But after fumbling around for a while, we recognize nearly everything. Nearly every place or activity we do is either something we’re familiar with or something that reminds us of something else that we know. The mythological world we once knew is not really there anymore, in its place, a life of serial familiarity and people at the office that are exactly like the people at that other office you worked at.

Of course there’s the hope that there is something more. We keep the hope alive that everything is not just a recycled version of something else. New stuff is out there. And of course there is. There will always be Turkey or Mozambique or Chile to sink your teeth into, but that’s not what we’re after. Not what I’m after, anyway. I want to see and do cool stuff right here in our own country, the nation of Google and Sarah Palin and Sesame Street. I want to explore the only country in the world somebody like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen could ever become a legend.

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Vacations mean something in this family. Our last family vacation was in February of 2001, and before that it’s anybody’s guess when our ill-fated voyage to Hershey Park transpired. These vacations are rare occurrences, and as such, serious business. But then again it’s a little disingenuous to call the trip we were about to take a vacation. It was a trip, not a vacation. Vacations are something couples and families with minivans do, involving some combination of water parks, mojitos, boardwalks and monument gazing. What we, my dad and I (what’s left of a fractured family), planned on doing fell somewhere short of that. There was a bit more immediacy.

Beginning at age fifty, it is recommended both men and women get a colonoscopy every ten years to check for colon polyps and cancer. My dad will be sixty soon, and like many people in the richest country in the world, he hasn’t been able to afford it. For him, the cost is around $1,250, and that’s with what passes for being called health insurance. For another $1,400 he could get himself an overdue stress test for his heart–he has a condition, an enlarged aorta, which puts him at a risk for a variety of sudden and often fatal incidents.

After 10 years without a vacation my dad decided the few dollars he had saved up should go somewhere else, to some sort of trip. He figured that it’s not unscrupulous or irresponsible to draw a line in the sand somewhere. This was his line; he was going to put this money towards something interesting, not for the over-priced but overdue medical exams. And so for the cost of having a video camera inserted into my father’s [expletive], we bought our plane tickets to The West. We were going to Montana.

The state of Montana has an unofficial saying that is plastered all over everything, calling it “The Last Best Place.” Perfect. That’s what we were looking for—somewhere that hasn’t been colonized by endless strip malls offering slices of greasy pizza and tasteless overweight woman’s clothing. I dreamed of going somewhere where there were absolutely no Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant locations, a place where people have never even heard of Office Depot. A sort of half-secret place that we could share with nature and the locals, or at least the cool people who knew better than to drag on in Connecticut or Ohio, or wherever else.

Montana. Photo by Dan LongSo after landing in Spokane, Washington we took the three hour drive over to Missoula, Montana, home of the University of Montana. Driving through silver country in Northern Idaho into the Bitterroot Valley in Montana is an indescribable experience, especially after flying out of LaGuardia earlier in the day. This was so far from Queens and it felt really, really good. Miles and miles of nothing but mountains and railroad tracks that mimic the moves of the windy rivers and streams. It’s a liberating feeling, to be relieved of all the sensory input, all the nonsense that passes for everyday life and just facedown the world as it was before us, as it will be after us. 

We spent that first night in Missoula and hung around in the morning before leaving. The cornerstone of our trip was ahead of us, Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park. Photo by Dan LongGlacier is a massive, largely remote place. It encompasses well over one million acres of unadulterated earth, with only one road, the aptly titled Going-to-the-Sun-Road, bisecting the park. Many visitors, like us, stay within a few hundred yards of the road, snapping pictures to flaunt to friends and family back home, not even toying with the idea of hacking it out in the bush with the bears and whatever else is out there. Still, it is a stunning experience. 

The Going-to-the-Sun-Road climbs the continental divide quite literally alongside waterfalls and, eventually patches of snow, even in August. The trip was made in a very unique tour bus with a canvas top that pulls off, giving us a huge field of vision.

Along the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Photo by Dan LongThe ride up to the top of the divide, a place they call Logan’s Pass, was one the few times in my life that the sense of amazement partially gave way to the creeping sadness that comes with the realization that words and pictures would not do it justice. You lose yourself in such enormity, the mountains like dominoes, falling into the horizon. Not even memory itself does an adequate job of bringing to life the feeling of being there.

We stayed three nights in and around Glacier and moved on like everything else in life. We decided to work in a trip to Seattle on the fly. So we drove from Northwest Montana to the Pacific Coast in one shot, arriving in Seattle after spending countless hours in the high desert nothingness of Eastern Washington.

The first thing we did in Seattle was go to the market where the people throw fish around, because like most people, that’s all we really knew about Seattle. It was closed, but at least now we can tell people we were at the market where people throw fish around (like right now).

In the sunlight Seattle is a very impressive city. There is water everywhere. The city is a clean, cultured, substantial place to visit or live. We meandered around for a couple of days and the trip started taking a toll on us. We were getting tired of staying in Motel 6 every night, and we were getting more than a little tired of bickering at each other. After about 8 days, we were ready to go home, but then we got some bad news.

The whole trip we were worried about Hurricane Irene messing up our travel plans. It was tearing up the east coast and we knew it was going to cause us some trouble. As it neared we even decided to preempt the storm and move our flight up one day. We timed it well and the storm was set to hit the day of our original flight, giving us the perfect escape plan, leaving a day early. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg cancelled all inbound flights into New York City for both the day of and day before Irene hit. We were rescheduled on a flight 4 days after our original one, bringing us up to a total of 12 days on the road. We were devastated. We wanted to go home really bad, and worse–my Dad couldn’t really afford to miss work, never mind pay for four more days on the road.

Nonetheless, we knew we had to make the most of it. And so the driving continued—to Bellingham, WA, then Vancouver, British Columbia, then Seattle again. With a few days left we decided we might as well squeeze in Portland. The next day we took the back roads down, unintentionally spending miles and miles on gravel roads in the woods of logging country. We ended up in the town of Brooklyn, Washington where we saw some lumberjack competition going on in the woods. We just had to go.

Lumberjack. Photo by Dan LongIn one competition, the lumberjacks scaled these huge old tree posts to see who could get up the fastest.  At the top the guy who won decided to crack open a can of beer and celebrate by taking his time drinking it, suspended in the air at the top. In another, the lumberjacks competed in some strange ritual using chainsaws to carve into a barren tree to make it land precisely on a beer can on the ground. Now that’s America.

The trip continued on to Astoria, Oregon, a seaside town on the border of Oregon and Washington. There is probably a lot to understand about this town, like with any town really. But my knowledge is limited to the fact that it was where Free Willy and Free Wily 2: the Adventure Home were filmed. As a child (and as an adult, to be honest) this was my only real image of the Pacific Northwest, a kind of placeholder of what life was actually like here, just like I’m sure “True Blood” is with Louisiana for fans of that show. There were no hotel rooms available in Astoria so we had some amazing fish and chips and took off. All told we would unintentionally end up driving 3,250 miles, longer than the distance from New York to Los Angeles.

From there, we eventually got to Portland and stayed for a couple of nights. Besides an honestly impressive rose garden, an incredible light rail transit system, and the worlds largest book store (it’s over a city block long), I felt like the city was missing something. It was missing some guts. As a book nerd, I enjoyed perusing through the bookstores inventory over 4 million books, being delighted by rare and out of print editions of work by my favorite authors. And the city is a genuinely interesting place, but there was just a little something missing.

Portland wasn’t quite the alternative-hipster mecca I had imagined. There are more fine dining options than you would expect and not quite as many places to get a vinyl record or a tattoo. It was a cool place, one of many cool places I saw on the trip. But as I got lost in their meta-world of books, I couldn’t eventually help but think: who needs this crap? I just graduated college and I need to go out and find a good job. I miss my girlfriend. What am I doing with all these god damn books?

The city of Portland was one place I’ve always thought would be a great place to live, ideal even. And it is. I’m confident it is a great place to live. Montana and Seattle certainly are, too. I was even accepted into the University of Montana a while back, having constructed some idea of a life of pastoral beauty and peace there. But after going to, and enjoying these wonderful places, I couldn’t help but feel that this whole idea of the “last best place,” this idea of life being tangibly better elsewhere is little more than wishful thinking. Life is what the hell we do with ourselves, not where we do it.

Even the state of Montana’s slogan that tantalized me is quite literally being grabbed up. After returning home from the trip and looking up the origin of the phrase, I learned that it started as the title of an anthology of essays about the state. Eventually it took on an identity of all its own. People in the sparsely populated state of Montana felt comfort sharing in the lore of living in the “last best place.” You can feel it when you’re there. Interestingly enough, when I looked more into it, I also found out that a multimillionaire entrepreneur from Las Vegas is now trying to patent the phrase to use for his line of ‘Last Best Jewelry,’ as well as his other brands in kitchenware, underwear, even lingerie. Yikes. Even the god damned phrase is being bought and sold. It has become a real scandal, with Congress, the Senate, and the Governor all getting involved to protect their beloved slogan from being privatized.

To be honest, I guess that’s just the way things are. No one place is immune from all this sort of junk. The fact is none of these really interesting places we went to on our trip were the imaginary place in my mind.  None of them were that one place where everybody is witty and interesting, where everybody has fun jobs that in someway or another help us be less dependant on foreign oil. That is an imaginary place.

And speaking of imagination, this trip squashed mine a bit. It’s a weird feeling, because as your experience of the world grows, your imagination of what it could be shrinks. Luckily, I like the world. Both as it could be and actually is. Imagining unrealistically awesome places is good fun anyway. And as far as that “last best place?” I think I’ve already been there. It’s that place where everybody that has ever mattered to you lives, where all those annoying people you love are. And that place is thousands of miles from Montana.

Dan Long is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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