I first heard of Montana’s majesty from a handful of friends back home in Connecticut. They would swoon over its umber mountains, of Glacier National Park in the northwest and Yellowstone due southeast in Wyoming, of a bar in Bozeman where ladies are enticed with free drinks to walk the bar topless and hang their bra on the wall. They told of hot springs, of top-grade beef, of Missoula’s indie music scene, of beer and elk and trout.
Montana, a state slightly larger than Japan with a population smaller than that of Dallas, Texas, is one of those places where photos don’t do justice, but you pull over and take a few anyway, eager to take a piece of it with you. It’s a place where you feel you’re driving through an IMAX movie more often than not, where the cowboy-meets-artist culture is almost exclusively white and overwhelmingly friendly. You look up at the yellow-sided mountains and imagine them as fluffy comforters you could tuck yourself into; you gaze into rivers so clear and blue-green it looks as though someone’s dropped their old watercolors in somewhere upstream. If you’re up early enough to catch the sunrise, you’re sure another artist is at work with acrylic and oils of hot pink and lavender.
Maybe you get lost on your way to Bozeman, a small city on the eastern side of the state where the most delicious caramels known to man are made, and drive an extra two-hour loop around Interstate 90, but you don’t complain – this detour takes you up a long stretch of dirt and gravel paralleled by fencing on either side – a road that cuts through a ranch, a big, big, ranch, with not a house anywhere in sight. Cattle are tiny black dots peppering a great expanse of flaxen hills and valleys, the only sign of life for miles, save for the occasional post-hung tire warning “NO TRESPASS” in faded white paint.
When you grow up in a place as condensed and tree-filled as New England, a state like Montana stuns you with its spaciousness, and all you can do is stare in wonderment while you quietly push your jaw up from its dropped position.