on the road: Montana

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There is nothing like processing a really difficult news cycle to make me dream of lighter days.

This past fall our family of three took an impromptu road trip from Seattle to Montana.  Mimi was ten months old, and we were ready for a family adventure.  We packed up the car and hit the road, relieved to arrive in Missoula twelve hours later (we stopped many, many times to attend to baby needs).  All the elements of a true adventure were present – new landscapes, sweeping beauty, a certain level of risk, lots of good conversation and delicious food, and the ability to be spontaneous.  That we got to share it with Mimi made the experience that much richer.

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Missoula is my kind of town, with its mountain views, historic buildings, good coffee, delicious-but-no-fuss food, locally owned boutiques and shops, a weekend farmer’s market, riverside trails, and a state university.  The school gives the city a liberal vibe, a welcome change after all of the conservative political signs peppering the open expanses east of Seattle – not the most welcoming to this multiracial family.

Missoula was full of exceptionally nice people.  We met up with friends who insisted on treating us to brunch and who offered to babysit Mimi for us, though they had just moved houses that week (we did not take them up on this).  Our Airbnb host left Mimi puzzles and gifted her a hat and adorable Smartwool socks.  We loved the crew of bakers and baristas at the French bakery across the street from our place.  And the woman who owned this knitting shop made Mimi some mittens on the fly so she’d be warm on our camping trip.

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We then drove to Glacier National Park to hit the trails, where one in three people we passed joked about how easy Mimi had it, limbs dangling from the backpack carrier (we borrowed something like this and recommend it).  We stayed in a “kabin” at the Kampground of America, where we caught the end-of-season retirees who had hitched up their rigs for the week.  And on our first night in Glacier we watched the sun set at Lake McDonald, a stunning welcome.

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Our favorite hike was to Virginia Falls.  We started from the park’s west entrance early in the morning, stopping at Lake McDonald to rent bear spray.  We drove on Going to the Sun Road for two hours, winding up into the mountains and getting some incredible views of the valleys and the ever-receding glaciers.  From the trailhead we hiked into rich forest, bumping into a fawn on the trail and passing the double cascade of St. Mary Falls.

We hiked another half mile and emerged from forest’s cover at Virginia Falls, a gorgeous 50-foot cascade not visible until you are standing at its base.  Only one couple was there, and after we exchanged greetings and took photos for each other, we had the place to ourselves.  Mimi giggled at the refreshing spray on her face, and Sheikh and I marveled at the peace created by the waterfall’s raging descent.  (Great information about all hikes in Glacier, including Virginia Falls, is here.)

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Despite the immense beauty we had already seen, we experienced the most impressive landscapes from the car on the drive back to Missoula.  We took a spontaneous detour onto 28, cutting west and then south to drive through endless expanses of prairie as we crossed the Flathead Reservation.  The midday sun created miles and miles and miles of golden landscape, highlighted by its shadowy contours and the beautiful, big, open sky.  I had never seen anything like it.  We found a lovely play structure for Mimi in Hot Springs, where we stretched and snacked and did not look for hot springs.

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A little research about our surroundings revealed that we were not far from the National Bison Range, which boasted bison, antelope, deer, ramhorn sheep – it promised to be a pastoral American dreamland.  And it was.  We looped around the reserve during the final hours of the day, Mimi sleeping in the back seat, and happened upon a herd of bison sauntering toward us.  Sheikh and I watched the prehistoric-looking creatures approach us and cross the road in front of our car, mesmerized by their size and quiet power.

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This was such a formative trip for our family, and we haven’t stopped talking about it.  We’ll be back, Montana.

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