I looked out the plane window and down at the landscape over which we were flying. Range after range of snow-capped mountains spread out as far as the eye could see. It looked so surreal, almost like looking at a 3D rendering on Google Maps on your cell phone.
I saw my share of great views on that flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Missoula, in Montana. I’d even seen the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet in the air! It was still as impressive as the first time I’d seen it from the ground, if not even more so as one could get a better idea of the scale. Succeeded in making me feel small.
The plane went into a sharp descent, marked by a falling sensation in the pit of my stomach and a lurching feeling that sent a brief wave of adrenaline throughout my body. I clutched at my seat with pitiful nervousness. I only fly because it’s impractical to walk everywhere. I reasoned that the plane had to land at a steeper angle because of the mountains and tried dismissing the feeling of apprehension.
I was traveling to Montana at the invitation of Sam, one of my American friends, as he’d be visiting his dad. I’d been told many things about Montana. That it was a place of wild beauty, a land of undisturbed, pristine wilderness populated by mountain men with bushy beards and hardy frontier women. Anecdotes on mountain lions and bears and snow drifts as tall as a man inflamed my imagination. It’s hard to imagine a place like that still existing in modern times, especially in the United States.
Well, I’m sure I’ll find out soon, I thought as the plane skidded down the runway. We were landing in Missoula. The high rolling hills, like perfect waves of dirt, stone, and gravel, were a mixture of light snow and the spring green that I saw erupting everywhere in the region.
We were picked up by Katie, Sam’s stepmom, and together we drove into downtown Missoula for the afternoon. Missoula, being a college town, is a very hip place. You can see coffee shops and bars full of beautiful young men and women. I even saw a couple of crazy, but nevertheless, cool guys surfing on the Bitterroot River. The cold and murky brown waters that flow from the melting snows are a far cry from the beaches of southern California.
As we walked down the streets of what appears to be Montana’s hipster capital, some of the quirks of the locals are immediately apparent. For example, everyone -and I really do mean everyone- wears hiking boots. The young and old, men and women. I suppose it’s a necessary thing in a place that still retains its frontier flavors.
After walking around town for a while, we then headed south, traveling next to the river on the road to Conner. I saw houses and barns, fields and corrals, all lined up against the background of the Bitterroot Mountains. Since it was early May, the peaks of the mountains were still snow-capped, which gave me the impression of traveling in the Swiss Alps. Indeed, these mountains are the American Alps!
As we sped down the road, I observed large dark, brown blotches that looked like oversized cattle. I pressed my nose against the glass, like an overeager child, and looked at the fascinating creatures.
“Are those Buffalo?” I asked Katie. I did nothing to contain the awe in my voice.
“Mother of God! They’re magnificent!” I’d never thought to see buffalo, last I knew they were all but extinct. This was truly a wondrous land.
To the west, I could see the tall silhouette of Trapper’s Peak against the setting sun, going down in a blaze of glory over the snow. At 10,157 feet, its summit is the highest of the Bitterroot Mountains. I couldn’t behold it without getting the sudden urge to climb it.
This is the land Lewis and Clark passed through on their journey of exploration west. I can’t but imagine the awe that this land, as well as its inhabitants and wildlife, must have inspired in them.
A little ways past Darby, a logger-themed little town of less than a thousand people, we deviated from the road and made towards the high hills that flanked the road. We crossed the river over a plank bridge (with no safety barriers on its flanks, I might add) and drove up the road towards the mountains. We finally reached the house where we’d be staying, at the top of one of the hills at the base of the southernmost tip of the Bitterroot mountains.
The view from this vantage point was simply breathtaking. It had a commanding view of the entire southern portion of the valley. Open fields and farms adorned the landscape close to the road while forests of tall pines could be seen hugging the base of the mountains. I observed maybe a dozen shades of green and, here and there, the pure white of the surviving snow drifts.
This area suffered a devastating fire in 2000, a cataclysmic event from which the landscape is even now only starting to recover. Stump after stump of dead pines, bleached into a tone of pale silver by the sun, littered the hills. I’d heard stories of that fire from my Montana friends who’d lived through it. It wasn’t until I saw the true extent of the burn that I realized the severity of the disaster they’d gone through. Sometimes, seeing is believing. Travel thus tends to show you the realities of the world.
Adrian, Sam’s father, took us on a tour of the surrounding landscape on his four-wheeler. We drove past abandoned cabins, through and over streams and creeks, and around the last patches of dirty snow that still littered the road. On one occasion, as we sped through the roads up and down the hills, I turned my head to see a herd of deer springing between the fallen pine trees. They were close, no more than a stone’s throw away. I stared at them in awe.
This is just too cliché, I thought to myself. First time out into the Montana landscape and deer were flanking us on our motorcycle like something out of a movie. It was an ineffable feeling, one of those brief moments of travel where everything comes together to create a magical moment that nobody back home will believe.