Friday, October 19, 2007

Boom-town Helena and Icy Days Ahead

Well, the trip to Glacier is a no-go: the weather is starting to get dicey, and most of the roads into the park are already closed. So, it just means I'll have to come back for that particular Montana Adventure... with Stuart in tow, of course.

Yesterday, I woke up, drank a ridiculous amount of coffee, and headed north up Hwy 15 to the state capitol: Helena. It was the first time I'd used a hairdryer and makeup in days. (Ha... my sister will smile at that.) Anyway, we'd gotten a bit of rain in Basin, which meant of course that the mountaintops around all got snow. The drive there and back was gorgeous, despite the gray roads, zooming truckers, and the aspens slowly starting to lose their golden leaves.

I've spent a few days in Helena now, and I like it more and more each time I'm there. The city--a large town really, except for quite a bit of suburban sprawl--sits in a long, flat, glacier-carved valley. Its lovely little downtown abutts Mt. Helena and the Helena National Forest, so those lucky enough to live in one of the aspen and cottonwood-lined cottage streets, or in the historic district with its Victorian mansions nearby have access to miles and miles of incredible hiking trails. So many parts of this state remind me of Alaska... and Helena, with its trail systems, is a bit like Anchorage.

I wandered around the Last Chance Gulch walking mall, popping in and out of art galleries and antique stores and boutiques. It was an afternoon of encountering kindness: from the cashier and jeweler who gave me great tips on exploring Montana, pulling out a city map while they cleaned my wedding rings, to the super-friendly proprietor of the Pickled Pear antinque store-- where I bought a beautiful, well-preserved edition of Ben Hur--who advised me to grab lunch at Taco del Sol.

At Taco del Sol, a small, downstairs restaurant on the Gulch, I was the only patron for a while (it was after 3 p.m.), and the cook made me a delicious burrito, welcomed me to Montana and offered more great tips about her city. After this I wandered into the Missouri River Artists' gallery, and saw the most incredible paintings by an artist named Brian Devon. If you get a chance, look him up: they're these stunning, dream-like pieces of the West that still seem fascinatingly realistic, and the colors are gorgeous. Two of my favorites are "Ghosts of the Buffalo Hunt" and "Shadowland." Sadly, I'd have to count my pennies for about a hundred years to afford one.

And so, I've decided that I'm certainly not immune to Helena's friendly western charm. I'll certainly return before I head back to N.C. at the end of this month. There's something to be said for living at the foot of a mountain, your travel among city streets punctuated by frequent views of snow-capped mountains and rolling yellow hills three hundred and sixty degrees around. It sort of makes you feel like you can do anything.

On the way home I passed a Ford truck with its back hatch opened, a gorgeous black lab leaning out, his ears flapping in the chilly wind. I snatched my camera from the passenger seat and tried to get it on film. I swear the dog winked at me.
To top off the day, Kate Kahn and I headed to the Boulder Hot Springs for a soak in the mineral waters that evening. Ahhhhh.... heaven. We swam in the outside pool, talked about life and watched huge mule deer--the size of prize-winning bucks back East--meander through the grass nearby and flick their big ears at us before disappearing up into the darkness of Deerlodge National Forest. Though it was a cloudy night, a crescent moon kept emerging ghost-like from the clouds above the trees. I'm not sure if life can get much better than this.

I'm including some photos of the day. And I'm still attempting to find someone around here who'll let me ride one of their horses, despite the fact that most ranches have stabled their riding programs for the winter and are just leading packed-out elk hunts. We'll see. If I'm able to ride, I'll certainly take photos. Happy October to all!

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