We landed in Missoula yesterday afternoon, and even though it took us an hour to locate our bags in the tiny airport, we could quickly tell this was a great town. The lone, harried employee at the Delta counter was as patient as a kindergarten teacher. Then again, not one of the dozens of people whose flights had been messed up due to some sort of snafu was making a stink. And when we asked the rental car place whether I could be added free as a driver, because AK and I are Canadian-married, he didn’t miss a beat before saying yes.
Yesterday was our bumming-around-Missoula day. We hit a thrift store, explored downtown with its charming old cottages and winding river, and finished the day at the Iron Horse Brew Pub, a place with a menu after my own too-many-flavors heart: salsa-flavored sour cream! Honey pesto scallops! A cocktail called the chai-tini! Everyone gathered around the TV to watch the Charlie Sheen roast, where we were all blinded by Seth MacFarlane’s creepy white teeth.
Today has been more of an adventure day. We started off with a “river float.” AK wanted to try whitewater rafting, and if this were an essay in a women’s magazine, the story would be, “I was feeling shaken and fragile after a difficult year. Taking up whitewater rafting made me feel strong again.” But instead I just said no, and she booked us a non-whitewater raft ride.
We shoved off in four inflatable teal rafts—we being AK and I, our five guides and thirty mostly European tour guides testing things out to see if they wanted to bring their countrymen to Western Montana. In our boat were an Englishman, a guy from Arizona who liked to tell stories about eating road kill and scorpions, and two German women who said of the raft full of singing French guides, “It’s been like a French musical all week.”
The trip was staffed by what I’m realizing is a common type here: the REI hipster who may have left a hometown like mine (where he may have been president of the Ecology Club) for a place like Humboldt State or U of Montana. He talks with a bit of a brah and can geek out in a conversation about ski jackets. I mostly like this type.
The river itself: smooth, shallow, surrounded by hills, some of them drenched in gold-pink light that rivals L.A.’s, some casting shadows and nearly freezing our toes off.
2. young men and fire
In the afternoon, we went to the Smokejumpers Center, which is a base and training site for guys who parachute into forest fires. That’s right. They are firefighters who jump out of planes.
I don’t usually go for beefcake-y guys, or men in uniform, or men for that matter, but sensitive, green-eyed guys with super elite training who kind of look like Daniel Craig and give you a free bottle opener from the gift shop? Sign me up.
He showed us the hundred-pound pound suits they wear, with gear in one pocket and miscellaneous personal items in the other. One guy’s had a big bottle of Sriracha sauce in it. When we learned that their food rations consisted largely of Spam, it made sense.
Daniel Craig also told us all kinds of amazing facts about the history of smokejumping, which started in 1939:
- During World War II, the Japanese had a plan to divert U.S. war resources by parachuting into the U.S. and starting forest fires. They were actually successful a few times, even killing a farming couple in Oregon, but they started too late in the year for the fires to get very big. (If only they’d had global warming, with its year-round fire season, on their side.)
- A lot of smokejumpers did go to Europe or Asia during WWII. Their spots on the home front were filled by an all African-American division and by conscientious objectors who nevertheless wanted to help their country through a tough time.
- They still use a WWII plane, the DC-3, for many of their jumps.
- They can also suggest great post-tour activities, like visiting the Big Sky Brewery, which offers free samples of Moose Drool Brown Ale and Slow Elk Oatmeal Stout.