Stinky Free

 "This town smells like B.O. and marijuana." Nicholas A. ca. 1998 age 12, which is somewhere between these two photos of him.
My nephew, Nick, is studying to be a designer in Indianapolis. We were discussing the city of Missoula's identity for a design project that he is doing. I'm not sure what the perimeters are for the project yet but I started making lists  and collecting photos to help him. Since it basically launches a Missoula Break Down, I am posting it here, too.

It's not my inclination to take pretty pictures plus my view can be downright grim this time of year, so if you seek pretty pictures of wildlife, landscapes, architecture, and/or people, investigate the Rocky Mountain School of Photography website (RMSP).  This town is crawling with very capable photographers and RMSP is a good place to start finding them.  And if you follow links to some of the websites I've incorporated here, no doubt you'll find promotional images for everything.

Nick said he remembers the town of Missoula as outdoorsy, chain-free - boasting lots of independent restaurants - and artsy.  He hasn't been back for a few years but his memory still holds somewhat true.  We do have a part of town that developed after his time here that I refer to as The Hell Hole where lots of big box stores and chain restaurants appear to thrive.  (North Reserve Street.)  I'll ignore most of that here today.  I'll never forget when Nick piped up about the smells he so astutely observed, either.  Since nearly everyone (except me, of course) is so aggressively athletic, you'll easily find yourself sitting alongside someone who just came off the ski hill or their bike to grab a beer, cup of coffee, lunch, or whatever.  Sometimes you smell them before you see them.  As to the marijuana part, I will leave it somewhat how I left it with Nick when he was a pre-teen. "Is that what pot smells like?"

This is not my thorough and final word by any means on this town but it is a start.

Intellectual Diversity.
When I first moved to Missoula in 1996 (ah hell, don't do the math) one of my clearest observations of the Missoula valley is that no matter how liberal or conservative you believe that you are, you can always find someone whose beliefs are more conservative or more progressive than your own.  And you can often find common ground with any of them.  Never underestimate either side of any line because people are well informed and independent thinking here.  In my encounters,  people push past towing the party line on either side. Their positions zig-zag rhetoric and often for entirely different reasons than one party advocates.  More than just politically active in an old-boy-school way, people here take social activism seriously and with a passion.  That said, Missoula is very left leaning.  There are literally hundreds of non-profit organizations based here.  Most are socially conscious. To find out what current lecture, fund-raiser, event or activity is happening here with calendars and such, I recommend news sources like New West, The Missoula IndependentThe Missouliancollege radio and Montana Public Radio.  Don't forget that this is also a University town that offers rotating student and faculty populations, plenty of research, presentations and activity all on its own.  And even though I don't fully understand it, I'll share a tip to cover my bases. "Go Griz!"  A handy standby phrase if some morning you walk past a bar filled with drunk people clad in burgundy sweatshirts. Probably a game day.

Tolerance With Limits.
Coffee houses are always buzzing.  Pun intended.  We have many places to get a cup of coffee downtown Missoula.  Break Espresso. Catalyst. Le Petit Outre. Liquid Planet. The Butterfly.  Bernice's. Many are also bakeries. And there is significant loitering in all of them.  Students meet to discuss group projects, freelancers check their email, writers check their spelling, and so on, every day and all day.  Maybe we are the Parisians of Montana, I don't know, but it's definitely a past time.

It's mean, I know, but I'm proud that Missoula killed a Starbucks.  Here's the building downtown where it WAS.  The franchise supposedly had its own problems that helped its demise here, but it also didn't belong here. When it opened people here drew lines in the sand.  I understand the argument for consistency.  You are traveling, want a cup of coffee and see a known quantity such as Starbuck's and know the difference between grande and latte and so on.  And I hear there are other reasons why Starbuck's aren't all bad as far as big corporations go.  Whatever. (Insert my own personal soap box here.) My point is that Missoula has independent coffee shops a plenty that offer varied qualities to meet different tastes and a corporate owned cookie cutter cafe right downtown was way out of place.  Hence the bumper stickers that read "Friends Don't Let Friends Drink Starbucks."

Moral pressure is strong here.  That said, it's also respectable to buck the moral trend in this town.  Someone will definitely argue their belief to you, but I've always felt others respect your decisions and opinions especially if its informed.  Independent thinking is equally respected.  Now consensus on how to take action is another matter.  And another post another day. (BTW, You can still visit a Starbuck's at the Barnes and Nobles out at The Hell Hole.)

Myths Still Alive

Yes, like Norman Maclean's book (and Redford's movie) says A River Runs Through It.  The Clark-Fork River cuts through Missoula.  In the summers there are events along the river in Caras Park. Like Out-to-Lunch every Wednesday with food venders and live music. Nicknamed the Garden City, the Missoula valley has a decent growing season and a lot of locally grown food sold in groceries and the Farmer's Markets.  (A second Farmer's Market called the Clark Fork River Market opened along the river a few summers ago.)  A nice bike trail winds along here with points past the University and out past the mall across town.

Bar Stool Rodeo

I think the bars are another place besides the rodeo and the landscape where the Wild West mythology still hangs on a bit.  Luckily there are no gunslingers.  But there are a lot of bars for a town this size compared to Midwestern states where I was raised. Gambling is legal in this state so there are lots of gambling machines and 'casinos'.  A few bars still have poker tables, but this is not the Vegas type setting at all.

It is hard to explain but western bars are unique.  The Oxford, called The Ox, pictured above, is on the main drag, Higgins Avenue, and  is one of the oldest in town. They have an active poker table in their front window.  The bar has a rough rep and is open 24 hours a day. You see its patrons lingering outside regularly.  This is also where college rowdies might end a night of bar-hopping to get a burger or whatever before stumbling home.  For a good greasy spoon type burger, I recommend them. They are large patties on a basic white bun and come with standard lettuce, pickles and onions.

Beautifully Fit

In seeming contrast to the bar scene, there is a serious fitness culture as I cannot repeat enough. It takes little effort to reach the outdoors to enjoy it.  And people do. (Even me.)

You can hike a trail to the "M" on Mount Sentinel.  I took this photo from the bridge in the middle of downtown.  (I thought about cropping out the lines from the power station but that is also one of the charms of Missoula - I'm not sure if it comes from not trying to hide everything or limited vision in planning but there it is.)

For sake of time (and Nick is on a deadline) I'm jumping to a list for some more points.

Yes, there is definitely an art scene.  Oodles and oodles of writers live here.  The Missoula Art Museum  (in a clever building that is half historic Carnegie library and half modern architectural edition) is the downtown hub for much of it.  There is an active theater scene with local playwrite's producing here (as well as traveling, too).  Plus a symphony, opera and big concert tours like the Rolling Stones that make this one of their stops.

The Red X's.  This is a public art sculpture (BLUSH, I'll need to look up the artist's name later) in front of the old railroad depot.  This is at the end of Higgins Avenue where the road stops (the railroad is on the other side of here obviously).  To the right of this photo is where the original Farmer's Market is in the summer and bikes are piled up all over around here.

An extension of the creativity here are the boutiques.  There are lots of fun little independent shops in town.  I picked Tsunami for a photo because I want to take Nick there.  Sadly, Macy's department store is closing downtown.  A few other places that I like are Betty's Divine, Noteworthy, Shakespeare and Co., Red Rooster and House.


I am sure that neither one of these skyscrapers were here when you were here last, Nick.  It seems strange to even put the word skyscraper in the context of Missoula but there were already a few from way back.

The Wilma.
Which houses The Wilma Theater. (Look at their website for some good photos.)  And hosts the annual Nutcracker and several Film Festivals including the one closest to my heart, The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival coming up this February.  Plus there is the Florence Building, below.

Now for my disclaimer:

I dropped a huge pile of generalizations here. They are as reliable as far as generalizations go.  There are a ton more places, people and things to feature about this town.  Some things I cover on other posts in this blog, others I will eventually point out.  And I riddled this post with as many links as came to mind while I madly typed this up.


trena said...

I miss Missoula. And you. That is all.

Holland Lake Lodge said...

i love nick's quote! and his long hair (didn't recognize him at first)!! quite the post on Missoula but i loved it and enjoyed reading all you had to say.

Chris said...

This is great. I'm going to link to this as a go-to post for whenever anyone asks me what Missoula is like.

Tonette said...

Thanks Chris. (Hey! Felt a little strange, but great to see you in person the other day. And at the Old Post - readers, this is another good Missoula bar & food spot. I gotta get out more!)

Chris said...

You too! I would have talked more, but didn't want to interrupt your table. That, and I had just returned from being in San Francisco for most of a week and needed to reintroduce myself to Julia.

Tonette said...

I understand. I'm the same way after traveling. I just want to eat and get home before I 'chat'. Speaking of Julia, I'd like to meet her one of these days. We were visiting with out of town guests who are much fun.

Chris said...

We'll definitely make that meeting happen.