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"A Mask and a Minivan" - Our Pandemic Road Trip (Part 7 - Missoula)

Updated: Dec 14, 2022


This is the seventh post about the 5-month road trip my wife, daughter, and I took in the first half of 2021. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go back and read a little of the background/ context behind the trip.


I took a long hiatus in finishing these posts, but am finally getting to finishing them.



Photo by Varju Luceno on Unsplash

Even before everything that had happened to us on our trip (from my shingles, to our daughter's chicken pox, to falls and ER visits), we'd been looking forward to our stay in Missoula. I'd first visited Missoula more than a decade earlier on a trip through Montana to Glacier National Park and later my wife and I had stayed a few days on our road trip from Kansas to the Pacific Northwest in the Summer of 2013. The quaint college town vibes of the city, combined with the awe-inspiring natural beauty of that part of Montana, made it one of our favorite parts of the country.


The Drive



The 11-hour drive from Bend to Missoula was one of the longest of our trip thus far (remember, we're doing this trip with a 9-month old child, so 11 hours of driving time translated to significantly more total travel time) so we made it a point to get out on the road early that morning. Shortly after starting though, my wife insisted on grabbing some breakfast:



After our little pit stop, we made pretty good time heading north through the desert-like terrain of eastern Oregon before reaching the Columbia River and following it east along its southern banks for about an hour, before crossing and heading north. We had a late lunch at a vegan restaurant in Spokane (we got takeout and ate in our van). I convinced my wife that we didn't really need the vegan brownie sundae – something which she still regrets more than a year later and brings up from time to time.


The stretch of highway from the Idaho border all the way to Missoula is one of the most beautiful stretches in the country. The drive through dense forests down into Missoula was inspiring and excitement grew in me for the several weeks' stay ahead of us.


Missoula Background


Note: As I'm finishing this entry ChatGPT has just launched to much public fanfare. Given that I often source a lot of the background info from the internet anyway, I thought I'd ask the chatbot to write a few paragraphs about the background of Missoula. This is what the chatbot had to say:


***


Missoula, Montana is a city located in the western United States. It is the largest city in the state of Montana, with a population of over 75,000 people. The city is situated in the Rocky Mountains and is surrounded by forests, mountains, and rivers.


The area that is now Missoula was originally inhabited by the Salish and Kootenai Native American tribes. The first European settlers arrived in the area in the 1860s, and the city was officially founded in 1866. The city was named after the Missoula Valley, which was named by the Salish tribe.


Missoula grew quickly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks to its location along the Northern Pacific Railroad and its abundant natural resources. The city became a center for logging and mining, and it also became a hub for trade and commerce.

Today, Missoula is known for its vibrant arts and culture scene, its excellent schools, and its beautiful natural surroundings. The city is home to the University of Montana, which is a major contributor to the city's economy and cultural life. Missoula is also a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, who come to the area to enjoy activities such as hiking, fishing, and skiing.


In conclusion, Missoula, Montana is a city with a rich history and a bright future. Its unique location, natural beauty, and vibrant culture make it a great place to live, work, and visit.


***


It's not the most inspiring prose, but it's mostly accurate as far as I could tell.


The one thing I'd add from my most recent visit though, is that it was clear that, much as was the case with Bend, Oregon, the pandemic was having major effects on Missoula. Given that Missoula was one of my favorite places for a long time, over the years of living in Brooklyn I'd often find myself perusing Zillow listings at Missoula real estate. During our road trip though, perusing those same listings, it had become abundantly clear that real estate was skyrocketing as more remote workers, no longer bounded by geography, were snatching up homes in beautiful locations like Missoula. These demographic shifts, of course, are double-edged swords, on one hand they bring a significant influx of money into new areas of the country, on the other hand, this influx has the result of raising prices and causing affordability issues with long-time residents. It will be interesting to see how some of these changes persist (or don't) in a potential recession and with more businesses returning to offices.


Our Stay


For our stay in Missoula, we rented a modern, multi-level house on the north side of town not too far from the train tracks. The space's decor was a mix of native and Mexican influence along with a sort of bohemian/ hipster vibe. Case in point: as opposed to, say, a Sonos or set of bluetooth speakers, the house was outfitted with an old school amp and turntable along with a record collection (more on this in a bit). On the top level of the place there was a hot tub as well as a deck from which you could see much of Missoula as well as the surrounding mountains.


The view from our deck

They house also had a large color-coded bookshelf, including many books about Montana and the surrounding area. I'm always sort of torn on color-coded bookshelves. On one hand, they look cool, but I find it somewhat objectionable to organize books simply based on the colors of their covers rather on the content inside (be that by author, subject matter, genre, etc.). In any event, probably one of the most famous works of fiction having to do with the surrounding area of Missoula is A River Runs Through It, which, of course was turned into the 1992 movie starring a young Brad Pitt. They happened to have a copy and I picked it up and gave it a read – only now realizing for the first time that it was a short story, not a novel.




Record Players


As I mentioned before, the house was outfitted with a turntable as well as a substantial collection of records (many of them of music from the 70s and earlier), and we had a great time listening to the records as we cooked, ate, or just hung out. At the fear of sounding like some snobbish audiophile (I'm not), there was something just about the slight scratchy/ earthiness of the sound that made listening to records different than listening to music digitally. I can still vividly remember putting on a record of Aretha Franklin's Greatest Hits and getting chills down my spine when Aretha belted out the first line to Respect: "What you want!"


Also, records force you (unless you want to be constantly changing the record) to listen to an album all the way through. Obviously, I see the virtue in being able to listen to the songs you want when you want, but when you're forced to listen to songs you might not otherwise select, you start to get an altered appreciation of the musician. I may not be articulating this perfectly, but oh well...


Hikes


Of course, especially given all the natural beauty of the area, we went on a lot of hikes. Two of our most memorable were:


Just north of town, Rattlesnake Recreation Area was one of our favorite hiking spots the last time we were in Missoula, and continued to impress this time around. There are miles and miles of great trails there (definitely more than we could hope to hike with a baby in tow). Easy to access and very recommended.


Overlooking Missoula on one of the high hillsides is a giant white M. This trail is a series of switchbacks up to said M (and beyond). There isn't a lot of tree cover, but the top offers an amazing view of the Missoula Valley. My wife and I actually each hiked this trail separately. For my wife, doing this hike was a big emotional moment as it was the first time she'd gone on a hike with our daughter since her fall in Bend. Luckily, this time the hike was without incident!

Butterfly Herbs is a quaint tea shop in downtown Missoula with tasty bagels and sandwiches.

Garnet Ghost Town


Over one of the weekends we were in Missoula we decided to take a mini day trip to explore more of the outlying area. After a little googling we landed on visiting Garnet Ghost Town.


Garnet Ghost Town is a historic ghost town an hour or so into the mountains from Missoula. It was founded in the 1860s during a gold rush and was named after the garnet gemstones that were found in the area. At its peak, the town was home to more than 1,000 residents at, but like many other similar places, it declined in population after the gold deposits were exhausted.


It was a slightly cold, partly overcast spring day when we left Missoula, but as we made our way into the mountains the weather grew increasingly wintry:





When we got to the ghost town there were only a few other visitors. Here's what the place looks like in warmer months:



And here's how it was on our late May visit:





Not an absolute must visit, but a worthy day trip if you're spending a good amount of time in Missoula.


Cutting Our Stay Short


About a week into our stay, we started to get a bit nervous about leaving the house we'd purchased in Lawrence unattended for so long, and so, regrettably we decided to cut our Missoula trip 2 weeks short. It was sad to leave, but we were excited about one more stop on our way back to Kansas.


Moving On





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