Missoula, Montana, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Missoula, Montana, USA

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The world outside... was full of b*****ds, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

The only city in the United States to be located completely within the Rocky Mountain Range, Missoula is Montana's cultural, artistic and recreational playground. What once was just a stop over on the Lewis and Clark Expedition1 is now one of the state's fastest-growing areas. The town is bisected by the Clark Fork River, named after William Clark. It's Montana's third largest city with a population of over 75,000, and nicknamed the 'Garden City' because of the great number of city parks, flower gardens, historic districts, and oak- and maple-lined streets.

A Short History

The city began as Hell Gate, an 1850s trading post on the Clark Fork River, and named after an infamous local trail through a narrow canyon where travellers were routinely attacked by enterprising Blackfoot warriors as they came down the Hell Gate Canyon's floor. The canyon was just to the east of a small valley frequented by local Salish, Pend d'Oreille, and Nez Perce tribes, Jesuit missionaries, fur traders, and government ne'er-do-wells. Intrepid businessmen from the East decided to take advantage of this built-in clientele, and set up establishments on the banks of a small creek. After a few years, especially once gold discoveries brought thousands to Montana Territory, the population swelled. Abundant natural resources including grassland, timber, and precious metals contributed to Missoula's growth.

'The Berkeley of the Rockies'

Today the city is representative of the changes happening across the Western United States. A natural resource-based economy is giving way to the service industry and modern technology. Thanks to the University of Montana and its nationally-known graduate programme in creative writing; the forestry department whose professors include Jack Ward Thomas, the former chief of the United States Forest Service; and the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a philosophical think tank, luminaries in the arts and sciences are residents of Missoula. In addition, it is home to:

  • Missoula Children's Theater
  • International Wildlife Film Festival
  • Garden City Ballet
  • Alliance for the Wild Rockies
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Missoula Symphony Orchestra
  • The International Choral Festival

The city is known as an island of liberalism in the conservative ocean that is Montana. A plethora of leftist political and environmental action groups have established their headquarters there, and the presence of the University and the many cultural attractions has led to the creation of a vibrant arts community. Coffeehouses, galleries, independent booksellers, and theatres can be found all over town. Community groups and co-operatives provide goods and services to residents. Every summer Saturday morning and Tuesday evening the downtown area plays host to the region-wide farmer's market. Market goers can find organic produce and fresh flowers for sale side-by-side with home baked breads and handmade bongs.

Please Don't Feed the Bears

The recreational opportunities located right outside of Missoula are outstanding. It lies halfway between two of America's most famous National Parks: Glacier and Yellowstone, and is the only city in the United States with a federally designated wilderness area (the Rattlesnake Wilderness) right outside its back door. This is just one of the several national wildernesses in the mountains around town, including some of America's earliest designated National Forests. They provide trails to hike, lakes to fish, and mountains to climb. There are also several Nordic and downhill skiing areas nearby. Two, Snowbowl and Marshall Mountain, are just a few miles outside of town. The trout fishing alone brings many visitors here.

A River Runs Through It

Ever since Norman Maclean wrote his paean to childhood and fly fishing, A River Runs Through It, fishermen from around the world have descended upon the area to catch the rainbow, cutthroat, brook, or brown trout of their dreams. The autobiographical work is set in Missoula in the first decades of the 20th Century and explores the Maclean family ties and the love of fly fishing that a father passes down to his sons. Three famous fly fishing rivers meet outside of the city: the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot (the setting for A River Runs Through It), and the Clark Fork. Naturally, outfitters and fishing guides galore have established businesses here.

Cows Not Condos!

Missoula's population is growing as urban refugees migrate in from other parts of the country. Unfortunately they bring with them the problems that they are trying to escape: urban sprawl, traffic, pollution, crime, and a higher cost of living. Developers are responding to the influx by building cookie-cutter suburban tracts around town. The new residents purchase the latest in SUVs2 in an attempt to blend in with the natives, and the increase in gas-guzzling vehicles, septic systems, and garbage services leads to dirtier air, water, and land. Trophy homes and cars also attract those elements who see an opportunity for ill-gotten gains.

People who sold their homes in Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, or Miami can easily outbid local residents for property, and real estate agents are naturally taking advantage of the better markets and raising prices accordingly. These new citizens value Montana's beautiful environment over the logging, mining, and ranching industries. In response, some Montanans are lashing out at the inevitable changes in their jobs, land and lifestyles by electing politicians who pander to their worst fears. Far right elements in the Republican Party and the newly formed Constitution Party are seen as the saviours of the mythological golden days: the small town values, natural-resource based industries, and Old West glamour of the Garden City's past.

1Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark led the first US overland expedition to the Pacific and back (1804 - 1806).2SUVs are sports utilities vehicles.

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