Blue Suburban Skies

our backyard

The alleyway behind our new house in Missoula

We’ve been in our new house in Missoula exactly a week. The greyness that had plagued us in the Yaak Valley didn’t last long. As soon as we moved in, the skies cleared. I am being dragged back in time to my suburban childhood and those late summer days where the blueness of the sky and its immensity are difficult to fathom. As I sit in this house in the Slant District of Missoula, I am surrounded by the sound of leaves rustling, high up on very tall trees. It is a sound I have not heard since childhood. London’s trees are not high, nor do they rustle outside one’s house. And usually everything is sodden. Wet leaves do not sound like the pre-autumn leaves which are just beginning to crisp around the edges. You can hear the brittleness in them. It goes with the blue sky. I know what is coming, of course, having grown up in a place with the same weather and similar landscape to Missoula. So our adventure of launching ourselves into a future together is throwing me off course. I am instead being pulled backwards in time to my childhood in Ottawa, a town I left as soon as I graduated from high school.

chair on porch

Waking up with the sun on the first morning in our new house

E will be going to school in two days. And these blue skies and rustling leaves way above my head are bringing back my memories of the end of summer. I am feeling sick on her behalf. She seems very cool and collected about the whole thing. Here in the US you have to bring your own school supplies. So we took a trip to Walmart, list in hand, and bought her what she needs. I think her new rucksack (I mean, backpack) and the newly sharpened pencils and the spanking new marker pens are so exciting (she shares my love of stationary) that they are usurping any fears of walking into a new school knowing not one person. I took a tour of E’s school with her last week so we could see where her classroom is and so on. On our tour we met a teacher who is originally from Lewes. She gave E a big hug and told her she knew what E was was going through as she had moved from the UK to the US when she was ten. I exchanged numbers with this teacher who magically arranged for us all to get together on the Sunday before school started and introduced E to a girl who is in grade 3 and one in grade 2. So E does have some familiar faces in the throng. And the teacher, let’s call her JN, seems completely wonderful. I know we will see more of her.

fawns fisrt morning

The first visitors to our front porch on that first morning in Missoula

But, since arriving in Missoula, my brain has not been functioning properly. I keep thinking that J and E and I are moving into the future, and yet the visual details and the sounds around me keep dragging me backwards in time. The sidewalks which have grass on both sides. The street lights. The smell of the ground. The blueness of the sky. The puffiness of the clouds. The look of the houses. The sound of the cars on this particular type of pavement. The words people use. It is all so familiar and yet from a period of my life I left way behind when I moved to London. I am not sure I like this trick of time and place. I am being knocked off balance. I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t expecting Missoula, Montana to be so similar to Ottawa, Canada.

front door copy

Our new front door. This house has many similarities with the house I grew up in

But this is the US, not Canada. So there are some differences. For one thing, our healthcare is a problem. The Obamacare website simply does not work. J has spent over seven hours on the phone to them to try and sort it out. After months of phone calls and attempts to enrol us into Obama’s healthcare programme, it looks like we may have got close to getting it. E will have to be on a different plan to us for reasons that are way too complex to go into here. We have been told by E’s school that she needs more immunisation shots. In Montana, her DTP (Diptheria, Tetanus and Pertussis or Whooping Cough) and Polio shots need to have been done after her fourth birthday. However, she had them done when she was three. I was told by our doctor in the UK and the US federal centre for disease control, she can’t get these inoculations now as she is only seven and they need to be spaced at least ten years apart. But in order to get this in writing, we have had to make an appointment with a doctor here. To simply walk in the door and talk to them, will set us back $210.00. Oh, how I miss the wonderful NHS! And my lovely doctor in Bethnal Green.


E reading ‘Alice in Wonderland’ on the swing in the backyard. Look at all that space and light.

I am trying not to focus on what I miss about my adopted homeland. And instead I am trying to focus on the good things about being here. A big one is the weather. I have been hearing from friends in London that it has been raining non-stop and the central heating is being turned on. I do remember that endless rain and that infinite greyness. And that horrible wet cold that allows mushrooms to grow inside the house. I do not miss it. I am enjoying these huge blue skies. Even though they make me lurch back in time to my weird suburban childhood.

I am enjoying the friendliness of the people here. Everyone we have met has been incredibly warm and helpful.

Children are welcome here. The restaurants in Missoula do things like give children a bit of dough to play with while they wait for the food to arrive. And then they bake it while you eat. At the end of the meal you have a little loaf of bread to take home.

ciao mambo

I have broken my promise to not upload any food pictures to my blog. But this is different! The baked dough ball E ‘made’ at supper in Ciao Mambo.

There are a million activities for E to get stuck into. And they don’t cost a fortune. Nor does it take most of your day to get anywhere. Missoula is a very easy city to get around in. Even for someone like me who doesn’t drive.

potter's wheel

A potter’s wheel we stumbled upon during a bluegrass festival in Missoula. That’s the beginning of E’s pot.

And lastly, the space. There is so much of it. Again, like my hometown, you can spread out. Our house in London, which is utterly gorgeous, is like a doll’s house compared to the houses here. When you have space, you can think, you can be generous with it. It alters your entire mindset. I do often feel cramped in London, not just physically, but mentally, simply because the walls are too close together and I know on the other side of any wall, are more walls too close together.

sunrise first morning

The view from my bedroom.

So with these positives in mind, I am trying to look to the future and not allow my nostalgia and my memories of a disenchanted childhood to cloud my vision.

Another Kind of Wild

The old bank in Troy, Montana where the gold would have been hauled from the rail carriage to the front door

The old bank in Troy, Montana, right next to the railway line. No doubt gold and silver, and all the other riches from this area, would have been hauled straight from the rail carriage to the front door. Not sure what it is now.

We got to our cabin in the Yaak Valley just as the rain began. Running Bear, the owner of the cabin, was there to greet us. Running Bear (RB for short) is one of those people who knows the names of every animal and plant and their uses and habitats. A font of knowledge. One evening he showed E and I how to make a stove out of an empty can of Foster’s beer and some denatured spirit. He also showed us how, with two empty cans of paint and some more of that essential denatured spirit, you can make a portable heater to keep in the car. Perfect for those long Montana winters. He heats his workshop with these things during the coldest months. The cabin we rented had been hand-crafted by Amish builders and finished off by RB himself. Small, simple and perfectly built with a ladder on a pulley to a mezzanine level. Clambering up and down kept E busy. Mornings we were greeted by some of RB’s pet deer. E and I got to hand feed Sweetpea. There is something odd about feeding wild animals. RB, I think, feels a mixture of emotions about it. He reminded us that they were wild animals, and yet he also added that if he didn’t feed them, they would probably starve. Wolves have been reintroduced to the area and so the animals’ major predator is back. All this tampering with the balance of nature is not good. But now that we have started, there is no going back. And so, RB basically runs a tiny deer sanctuary.

deer at cabin

One of Running Bear’s deer greeting E and J on the steps of the cabin

A very curious Sweetpea

A very curious Sweetpea

We were all set with our maps and our bottles of water and bear spray only for the clouds to gather ominously and the first rain in ages to fall from the sky. We waited for a slight break in the weather and headed to the Kootenai swinging bridge which spans the two banks of the Kootenai river.

kootenai bridge

The swinging Kootenai Bridge in the rain

Just as we set off on our hike to the bridge, it started to spit. We decided not to turn back. By the time we got to the bridge, the rain was no longer light – it was now heavy. We were not wearing any waterproofs or jackets and decided that since we were already wet, we might as well continue. Crossing a swinging wooden bridge in the pouring rain while rapids swirled below was pretty wonderful and scary in that safe way, where you know it looks worse than it is. The noise was deafening. We walked along the bank enjoying the rain now as we were beyond the point of return in terms of how sodden we had become. Rain dripped from our noses and our shoes made that squishy sound. Then, thunder and lightning struck. When some of it cracked fairly close by we decided to turn back. I noticed walking back across the swinging bridge that the handrails were metal. You notice this stuff in a thunderstorm. The walk back was scary in a not very safe way. I kept picturing the headlines: “British family fried on Kootenai Bridge”.

yaak valley river

The view from the bar in Yaak Valley. That big sky again.

The rain carried on the whole time we were in our cabin, but we did manage a few trips to the Yaak river which ran through the property and we spent a lot of time in a cafe in Troy, the nearest town. And then J and I had the idea that we would turn our dream of hiking the wilderness (which rain and thunder had scuppered) into a literary pilgrimage. Literary pilgrimage in Northwestern Montana? Yup. Two of our favourite living writers have connections here. Denis Johnson lives in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho just over the border from Montana, and Marilynne Robinson set the wonderful “Housekeeping” in a fictional town called Fingerbone which is actually Sandpoint, Idaho. So we set off for Bonner’s Ferry.

e.bonners ferry

E on the bridge in Bonner’s Ferry facing north towards Canada

First stop was the bookshop in Bonner’s Ferry which had every book by Denis Johnson – and all of them signed. J bought a signed copy of “The Stars at Noon”, the one book by Johnson he doesn’t have. We got to talking to the woman in the bookshop and she told us about the Boundary Country Fair which takes place in Bonner’s Ferry. From her description of it, I thought it would be like the Fair in Ottawa where I grew up. You know the sort of thing: prize pumpkins and winning ponies with some arts and crafts and a few rides thrown in. I could not have been more wrong.

bonners ferry

Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho

In the first exhibition hall we were greeted by a towering, smiling Republican, father of six, who charmingly explained to us why Obamacare is wrong. He was extremely intelligent and enjoyed a bit of sparky debate. The sort of man I could never agree with on anything, and yet, I couldn’t help but feel on a deep level, he was probably very decent and kind. Politics here is often complex, it seems. Then onto the next stall: the National Rifle Association, which was raffling off a long-barelled gun. The kind that has its own tripod. The guy manning that booth asked me if I had taken E to the Bonner’s Ferry shooting range yet. I had to admit I hadn’t. He said she was just the right age to start using a gun. I said, maybe next time. The entire exhibition hall was full of odd denominations of Christians with all kinds of messages, most of them claiming to be able to save me.

just jesus

Some very friendly, happy Christians at the Boundary Country Fair, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, giving away free water.

Right at the end of the hall were three middle-aged men in jeans and shirts. They looked like the sort of people you might want to sit and chew the fat with, the sort of people with some very good stories up their sleeves. Their faces alone spoke of some good times. It turned out they were the only Democrat representatives at the fair. One had been married in London at the Kensington and Chelsea registry office. He was keen to point out that was with the first wife. I didn’t ask how many more he had. Another spoke of his years on the Magic Bus. Jerry, the guy actually running for office was a car mechanic and a friend of Denis Johnson’s. I asked if they were ever lonely being Democrats in this uber-Republican state and one of them piped up, I’ve got Jerry to hold my hand. I took that to mean, yes, they were very lonely indeed. But they were hopeful of a win in the next election. I wish them well.

sleeping pig

A prize-winning pig at the Boundary Country Fair, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho

We wandered the fair in a slight state of disbelief. Families in nineteenth century clothing thronged the stalls admiring the llamas, pigs and goats. If you’ve ever seen the film “Stop the Pounding Heart”, you get the picture. The girls wear long dresses, often with slips or light crinolines. The men wear trousers and shirts. They live the word of God literally and generally don’t like the government very much. I wanted to take pictures of them, but felt awkward. I got a couple of not very good snaps as I was too shy to ask them if I could take their photographs properly. I am sure they wouldn’t have minded, but I felt uncomfortable.

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Members of a Fundamentalist Christian family at the Boundary County Fair, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho

Taxidermy was all over the place and for once you could touch most of it. E was pretty freaked by it. There is something really very weird about stroking the fur of a dead animal. Like the eyes in a portrait that seem to follow you across a room, the spirits within these dead souls feels as if they could be re-animated at any moment. The message at the fair was loud and clear: hunting was good, poaching was bad. We stroked the various pelts and marvelled at the size of the stuffed grizzly, whose paw was bigger than E’s head.

stop a game thief

Some poacher spoils on display


Taxidermy at the Boundary State Fair, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho

Yes, you can touch

Yes, you can touch

The Oath Keepers had a stall and, like all the other group members we met at the fair, they were friendly and happy to talk. The Oath Keepers are mainly made up of ex-servicemen and women or their families. They claim to be Guardians of the Republic. Like so many political groups here in the US, they have a strange overlap with the Left in that they supported Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing. They hate the federal government and therefore anyone who stands up to what they see as meddling from the State is a hero.

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Some Oath Keepers at the Boundary State Fair, Bonner’s Ferry Idaho.

The last thing we stumbled upon was the spitting competition. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

spitting contest

A young spitter giving it her all.

I was feeling dazed and overwhelmed by the variety of beliefs and enthusiasms and ideas I had come into contact with in such a short period of time. I don’t think you could find anything even remotely like this in the UK. The Republican politician who had originally greeted us was very up on UK politics. He loved Prime Minister’s Questions. When I told him you could even watch it on TV if you wanted, he thought that was amazing. We need that here, he said.

rex.bonners ferry

The Rex Cinema, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho

As the afternoon came to an end, we headed out of Bonner’s Ferry towards Sandpoint, Marilynne Robinson’s birthplace and setting for the transcendent “Housekeeping”. We stopped at some motels looking for a bed for the night. None was to be had as it was the Sandpoint Music Festival. We called motels within a fifty-mile radius. Everything was booked. So we decided to do the five hour drive back to Missoula. We left Sandpoint just as the sun was setting. Driving out of town, we saw The Bridge from “Housekeeping” just as a train flew onto it from the tracks running along the lake. We may not have got a motel room, we had a long drive into the night ahead of us, but we had found the springboard to one of the greatest novels ever written. That was enough, certainly for one day.


Some winning vegetables at the Boundary County Fair, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho

The Road to Wisdom

Shop in Wisdom, Montana

A storefront in Wisdom, Montana

We left Butte after another sleepless night – this time due to the An Ri Ra, an Irish music festival. The drunks were howling Irish ballads well into the night. The following day, we headed into a part of Southwestern Montana called ‘The Big Hole’. It is a large valley nestled between the Pioneer Mountains and the Beaverhead Mountains dotted with small towns and working ranches.

The flat land of the Big Hole surrounded by mountains

The flat land of the Big Hole surrounded by mountains

First stop: Wisdom. We didn’t have a plan and decided to drive until we found somewhere we liked. E wanted to stay in Wisdom. She had the idea that we should all dip our fingers into the Wise River and then suck them so we would become wise. But the town was full.

wisdom barber

Wisdom Barber Salon and Nails

So we carried on to a slightly weird place called the Elkhorn Hot Springs. It was a small crumbling hotel with a few cabins on the side of a mountain with an outdoor pool fed by the eponymous hot springs. As it was a getting late, we decided to check in. After paying for two nights upfront, we were told the place was run on the honour system. There were no locks on the doors, and we could simply leave money at the bar or at the pool if no one was working. It was part hippy commune, part hotel and part film set (although I wasn’t sure what genre: horror, comedy or suspense).

The rustic 'charm' of the Elkhorn Lodge

The rustic ‘charm’ of the Elkhorn Hot Springs Lodge

The people running it were wonderful as were the other guests who were mainly Montanans or visitors from neighbouring Idaho. Ranchers and cowboys came to eat and drink, too. But there was something spooky about the long shadows cast by the surrounding pine trees, the tattered carpets and ripped lampshades. Spider webs stuck to you as you walked across your room. There was a party of Germans staying. They come every year apparently to visit their Montanan relatives. I am hearing a few German accents in this part of the state. Maybe generations back some of the ranching families came over from Mittel Europe.

The hail storm brewing up at the Elkhorn Lodge

The hail storm brewing in the clouds over the Elkhorn Lodge

The charm of the Elkhorn wore off quickly for me. The walls were so thin that my bed vibrated from the man snoring in the next room. Every door squeaked and the floors creaked. When someone visited the shared loo down the hall, we ALL heard it. Despite the dirt, the discomfort, the lack of sleep, there was a strange magic here. Evenings were spent on the porch drinking the local brew watching hummingbirds. One night we were treated to lightning, thunder and a hail storm (yes, hail in August).

Eve's photo of a hail stone in her hand

E’s photo of a hail stone in her hand

Crystal Mountain is five miles away along some windy roads. The ground here sparkles under your feet like the Yellow Brick Road. You can dig up however many crystals you like to take home with you. E of course loved this.

digging for crystals

Digging for crystals on Crystal Mountain, Montana

I enjoyed it, too, but it felt a bit like I was defacing the pyramids. This business of taking from the earth whatever one wants sits at odds with me. I wonder if those who allow tourists to dig up the land and cart away what they like are at odds with those who actually live from the land. Do they sit on opposing sides of a debate about the land and its uses. Another subject for me to get to grips with while I am here.

Our lost crystals

Our lost hoard of crystals

That night, we ate supper at the Elkhorn Lodge. When I got to our room after dessert, I realised I had left our small hoard behind. I ran down to the restaurant to find that the waitress had thrown them in the bin. She was very apologetic and said we could go through the garbage together. I did see a few crystals sparkling among the rice and bits of chicken and pie crusts scraped from people’s plates. But I couldn’t bring myself to put my hands in there, so I went to bed empty handed. Easy come, easy go.

Wise River, Montana

Wise River, Montana

The following day we made the short drive to the town of Wise River. It was similar to Wisdom in size and layout: one church, a couple of stores, one school and a smattering of houses, some falling down, some impeccably well cared for.

wise river.03

Wise River, Montana

But the thing I really noticed down in this part of Montana which is proper old-fashioned ranching country, is the quiet. The people have a reserve to them. So far I haven’t been told of any embarrassing illnesses or about anyone’s tricky divorce. Nor, has anyone looked meaningfully at E and uttered those five words: “So, just the one then?” In fact no one has commented on E’s status as a singleton, which is a first for me. I normally get asked in sharpish tones about my decision to deprive her of a sibling. Here, one senses that people’s private lives are just that: private.

Wise River, Montana

Wise River, Montana

Children here hold doors open for adults, and at mealtimes they sit and eat all their food – yes, imagine, all of it and without a fuss. If they get bored they round up a few plastic cows with a plastic Border Collie. I haven’t seen one kid on a device. Not even one. A guy who works on the front desk of our motel in Missoula told me last night that Montana really is the ‘final frontier’ of a certain way of being. And you can feel it. I worry that this way of living, this closeness to the land, this deep respect for animals and humans and an acceptance of people’s lives being what they are (rather than what they should be), is under threat.

E's photo taken in Wisdom, Montana

E’s photo taken in Wisdom, Montana

In Wisdom, I saw a pick-up truck drive past as I sat by the side of the road. In the bed of the truck were some empty, flattened cardboard boxes. A few flew out and landed on the highway. The driver, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, reversed, stopped, got out and picked up the pieces of cardboard. And I realised then, that in the ten days I have been in Montana, I haven’t seen anyone litter. There is definitely a sense of personal responsibility here. I wonder if some of this is linked to the fact that so many rural Montanans work the land and are tied to it for their survival. I really don’t know. But whatever it is, I am liking it.

A big hole in Big Hole

A big hole in Big Hole

But the motel clerk, along with several other people I have met worry that this genteel, old-fashioned sense of respect for the land and an acceptance of otherness is fading. Wealthier Americans (particularly from California) are buying up property. It is easy to see why: every step you take is like walking through an Anthony Mann film. These emigrés from other states are pushing prices up. Younger Montanans can’t afford to stay and they are the ones who would be passing on this way of being. It is fragmenting. At times I feel more like an anthropologist here than a visitor. Montana is so different from anywhere else I have been in the US.

The unfortunately-named  Sandman Motel in Wisdom, Montana

The unfortunately-named Sandman Motel in Wisdom, Montana

We will be leaving cowboy country behind and pushing up towards the Canadian border to a place called the Yaak Valley. As a change from our motel lives, we are renting a cabin. It sounds beautiful  but there is one very big problem: it has been a very dry summer and the bears and mountain lions are hungry. The owner of the cabin (who is called Running Bear or RB for short) told us it would be a good idea to take not only bear spray on our hikes, but firearms. As we aren’t gun owners, we will see if someone up there might take us along with them hiking. I really want to immerse myself in that wilderness, and yet, I am utterly terrified of it. I keep thinking of the David Vann book, ‘Legend of a Suicide’ which is the most visceral description of two people unprepared for a life in the wild. But that is a work of fiction and this is real.

We’ll be out of any kind of phone or Wifi range until Saturday. Over and out.

The Richest Hill in the World (or an episode of the Simpsons)

The New Tait Hotel in downtown Butte, Montana

The New Tait Hotel in Uptown Butte, Montana

Butte is still working its magic. This morning we went for coffee in the Venus Rising cafe near our hotel. When the waitress wasn’t toasting bagels, she or her friend sat at the piano playing everything from Leonard Cohen to the theme music from the film Amelie. I started chatting to a guy called Bob who works as a nurse in the local operating theatre. He invited us to hear a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas at an outdoor gig tonight. It turns out that Bob is a professional harmonica player and has played with Junior Wells and Warren Zevon. He will be bringing his mouth organ with him in case the urge to play should come over him this evening.

Uptown Butte

Hopper buildings in Uptown Butte, Montana

Closed shops in Downtown Butte

Closed shops in Downtown Butte

Then this afternoon took us to a very different side of town – different psychologically, although not geographically. We went to the Berkeley Pit. I had never heard of it either but it is known as ‘The Richest Hill in the World’. Well, it was the richest hill. Now it is a one-mile long, half-mile wide and 1,800-foot deep hole in the ground formed by the open-cast mining of copper. When mining stopped  in 1982, the pumps that kept groundwater at bay were shut off and the hole began to fill up with water. It is now a huge lake of toxic water that kills passing birds and by 2020 is expected to seep poison into the groundwater of Butte. But, in a very American way, it is has been turned into a tourist attraction. There is an audio guide that tells you about the pit, which could have been scripted by Matt Groening. A very cheery woman (who speaks against a background of homespun, upbeat banjo music) tells you how you can touch objects that were excavated from the toxic hole before it filled in. Imagine that! You and your kids can fondle a bunch of rocks poisoned with heavy metals, arsenic, sulphuric acid and a host of other nasties.

The Berkeley Pit on the edge of Uptown Butte

The Berkeley Pit on the edge of Uptown Butte

In the making of this mine several neighbourhoods in Butte were depopulated and the houses razed to the ground. But according to our cheerful guide, the people were more than happy to have their houses and businesses destroyed because they knew that ‘without the mine, there would be no jobs’. I could hear Mr Burns whispering in my ear, ‘burn their houses, kill their babies, send them down the mines!’

A working mine just next to the Berkeley Pit. You can see the haze from it in Uptown Butte

A working mine just next to the Berkeley Pit. You can see the haze from it in Uptown Butte

Butte is certainly a complex place. Piano-playing waitresses, harmonica-playing nurses and toxic tourist attractions. Of course, we are loving it.

Our motel in Butte. The town is a signage lover's paradise. Look at this typeface.

Our motel in Butte. The town is a signage lover’s paradise. Look at this typeface.

En Route to Butte, Montana

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On the road between Missoula and Philipsburg where children play with little lawnmowers and trees are decorated with animal skulls

We left Missoula just over 24 hours ago. In that time I have been off-grid and have no idea how Sir Paul’s gig was. I will google it secretly later to feed my Beatles’ obsession.


The ridiculously photogenic town of Philipsburg, Montana.

Our first stop out of Missoula was Philipsburg, a town of just under a thousand people whose claim to fame was that it was home of the Hope Mine, Montana’s first ever silver mine, in 1866. It is a bit twee now as it has become somewhat of a tourist destination. However, two things about Philipsburg made it perfect for E:

1) It has the biggest sweet shop on this side of the Mississippi called the Sweet Palace

A Ford pick-up just outside the Sweet Palace in Philipsburg, Montana

A Ford pick-up just outside the Sweet Palace in Philipsburg, Montana

2) It has a sapphire mine where you can buy buckets of gravel and sift for gems. E found 8 high quality sapphires that we were told we could send off for heat treatment and polishing. Not bad for a first-time miner.

E and J with their tweezers painstakingly sifting through gravel to find sapphires

E and J with their tweezers painstakingly sifting through gravel to find sapphires

Although I have to admit to a slight sense of discomfort at the idea of trawling the earth’s resources being turned into a family day out. But this is Montana and the the relationship to the earth here is so different from anywhere I have ever been. Montanans seem very connected to the land, with many living off it either through mining or ranching or hunting. Much of Montana’s wealth came from mining, and although the bad side of raping the earth far outweighs the good (in my liberal and humble view) I can understand the desire the get at those gems and all that gold and silver. The vastness here does give one the illusion that it will go on forever. And the knowledge the locals seem to possess about the land around them is astonishing. To use a much-overused phrase, Montanans seem very much ‘in touch’ with the land. Even a parasite knows it’s host inside out. But because many do need the land in order to survive I am sensing a deep respect here. But I haven’t spoken to enough people yet to be able to really get at the heart of this relationship.

Capp's taxidermy shop in Anaconda where a weird confluence of left and right meet

Capp’s taxidermy shop in Anaconda where a weird confluence of left and right meet

In Philipsburg, we found a great motel, the Inn at Philipsburg. It was was on the edge of town, picturesquely wedged between a Conoco and a church. The flamingo-loving owner of the Inn at Philipsburg is a transplant from Florida. She told me her pink flamingos are fading because there aren’t any shrimp in Montana. We bumped into her today working in a Pizza joint in Anaconda, the next town over. Are there any B+B owners in the UK daylighting in Pizza restaurants? Doubt it. The Yanks work damn hard.

Some of the owners beloved and faded flamingos at the Inn at Philipsburg

Some of the owner’s beloved and faded flamingos at the Inn at Philipsburg

Anaconda is tiny but, like pretty much any town in Montana, insanely photogenic. The vast, rolling landscapes and the golden light coupled with that iconic Western architecture is too enticing. Unlike Wyoming, however, I get a stronger sense of history here. Maybe it’s because the people who live here have been here for generations.

Outside a bar in Anaconda, Montana

Outside a bar in Anaconda, Montana

The gentrification is starting though. I even heard of a bumper sticker that says, “Montana is full, try Wyoming”. I can understand why some Montanans feel antagonistic to yuppies (they hold a special dislike for Californians) coming here and buying land or even worse buying ranches without understanding the land and the animals. I saw a poster today that read: “The next time you are moved by wilderness, thank a hunter”. This is a massive issue that lies at the centre of Montana: the idea that it is the hunters who are keeping the wilderness wild as opposed to the activists. In the embodiment of Montanan hunters you find that strange American axis where left-wing, eco-activists meet right-wing, gun-toting Republicans. As a vegetarian who wouldn’t be able to pull a trigger if the gun were sighted on an apple, I find myself siding with those who feed their families from the land. I can’t find it in myself to condemn it. Today our waitress in a diner in Anaconda told us how she and her husband shoot enough elk to feed their extended family, some of whom are disabled and unable to look after themselves. If the alternative for these people is a soup kitchen full of factory-farmed chicken nuggets, then I know what I think is the kinder, less destructive option. But I am just dipping my toe into the hunting/anti-hunting debate. I am sure I will have more to say about this in a later blog.

jfk bar.anaconda

Some gorgeous signage in Anaconda, Montana

We left Anaconda reluctantly and got into Butte this evening. Butte is half the size of Missoula and, like Philipsburg, was an extremely wealthy mining town in the late nineteenth century. The nearest I have been to somewhere like Butte is Detroit. The faded grandeur is incredibly melancholic. Once this town was home to gold, silver and copper mines and the original prospectors were richer than the Rockefellers. But when the great depression hit, the bottom fell out of metal trading and the town began a long, steady decline. In the 1980s, a Montana-born man called Denny Washington bought up the remaining open-pit copper and molybdenum mines and some industry still thrives. But the feel of the place is like a film set after the film has had a champagne-fuelled opening night and then flopped. J and I have fallen in love with Butte. The ancient mansions crumbling against the silhouettes of mine heads and the famous blue sky are calling out for documenting. I am not sure how, but I feel I need to explore this place and get under its skin.

Our walk home from supper in Uptown Butte, Montana

J and E on our walk home after supper in Uptown Butte, Montana


Sir Paul and a Hobo spider kept me up all night

Sir Paul in his somewhat younger days

Sir Paul in his somewhat younger days

So, Paul McCartney (or Sir P as he is known in our house) is coming to Missoula to play Grizzly Stadium. Despite being Beatles obsessives, J and I don’t have tickets. Their exorbitant price, our lack of baby-sitter and the fact that motels in Missoula are booked solid for tonight means we will be heading out of town today. I am gutted. I am a massive Paul fan. I know he needed John to lessen the saccharine in him, but nevertheless he has always been my favourite Beatle (despite the annoying cheeky chappy thing he does). I would go so far as to say I adore the songs he wrote almost more than any songs ever written. But this is not why he kept me up all night. His fans did. The town is abuzz with folk arriving for the concert. Tie-dye shirts and long hair and VW vans are trouping into Missoula. Last night a party sprung up in our motel.

I felt churlish asking them to be quiet, but by 3:20 a.m. I thought it was reasonable to don my flip flops and head upstairs to where the action was still going strong. As I opened my motel door, what looked like a venomous Hobo spider came rushing at me. Despite my sleepy haze I managed to squish it immediately. I asked the partiers to quieten down and by 4:00 a.m. they did. But now I had late-night Hobo spider paranoia to contend with.

The venomous Hobo Spider. You do not want to run into one of these at 3:20 a.m.

Thanks Sir P for ruining my night of sleep. But I forgive you. Geniuses get away with anything. That Hobo spider, though, is another story.

Tubing and Soaking

Downtown Missoula

Downtown Missoula

We’ve been in Missoula almost a week. The people whose house we are going to rent (let’s call them R and ED) have been so generous with their time and energy even though they are in the midst of packing up and saying their goodbyes – the same process we just went through in London. I know how emotional and exhausting it is to pack up a house, clean it all, sort out final bills and leave one’s friends behind.

R and ED invited us over for a glass of wine on our third evening in Missoula. That was my first visit to the house I will be cooking, eating and sleeping in for the next year. I immediately noticed the copies of the Nation in the bathroom, the Rothko posters and the walls of books. I am at home here. As I left R and ED that night, I wished that they weren’t our landlords, but our neighbours. The conversation could have gone on for hours. On Friday they invited us to a reading of a book (‘Painted Horses’) by a first-time Missoulian novelist and to the after party which was in Lower Rattlesnake (an area of Missoula). Again, we were welcomed in the most gracious way. The hostess presented the author with a cake she had made which read: “He killed the Horse” which, judging by the gasps from the crowd, is a bit of a plot spoiler, and also very funny.

Earlier that day E ended up spending the morning with R and ED and their children while they packed, and J and I did a few errands. E loves the new house and thinks it is much ‘cooler’ than our tiny terraced house on Wellington Row. Saturday saw us invited yet again by R and ED who seem to be able to make time for us despite their crazy schedule to go ‘tubing’ down the river. No, I had no idea what this meant either. Basically you sit in an inner tube and float down the Clark Fork that runs through Missoula. E wanted to be with R and ED’s eight-year-old daughter whose tube was being tethered to her dad’s. So J and I left her to go down the river without us. After a few hours of floating under the famous Montana sky, we navigated ourselves to the shore with a weird sort of doggy paddle in order to avoid the final rapids which are a bit rough. Some of our party did them and afterwards the stories flew of previous trips down the rapids in which ED lost a shoe and various friends were tossed from their tubes. I was happy to have floated the baby rapids.

E on the banks of the Clark Fork where we ended up tubing

E on the banks of the Clark Fork where we ended up tubing

On the river we met more of R and ED’s friends. Despite never having been to Missoula before choosing to relocate us all here, I have somehow ended up amongst like-minded people who could be transplants from Columbia Road. It is great when one’s gut feelings prove to be worth following. Having said that, we have only been here a week, so we’ll see if Missoula continues to welcome and enchant us. First impressions can be deceiving.

After tubing down the river, J and E and I headed west into the neighbouring state of Idaho where we had been told of some hot springs by a guy in the Verizon shop who was happier telling us where we could go and strip down for a ‘soak’ than he was in telling us which SIM card to get. We stayed overnight at the Lochsa Lodge, the nearest bed to the Jerry Johnson hot springs, which is basically a bunch of log cabins in a forest.

The view from our cabin at the Lochsa Lodge in Idaho

The view from our cabin at the Lochsa Lodge in Idaho

The hike to the hot springs is only about half an hour and consists of walking through a pine-scented trail along the Lochsa River. Eventually you come to a series of rock pools lining the river. There are no signs, nothing to tell you where they are, you just have to kind of find them.

The suspension bridge in the distance is the beginning of the hike to the Jerry Johnson hot springs in Idaho

The suspension bridge in the distance is the beginning of the hike to the Jerry Johnson hot springs in Idaho

As it was a hot and sunny Sunday, there were a few others soaking in various states of undress. We found our own little spot and paddled and soaked. E loved testing which pools were hot and which were cold. When we got too hot in one, we dipped into the glacier-fed river.

E paddling in the Jerry Johnson hot springs

E paddling in the Jerry Johnson hot springs

There was not a ghetto blaster or iPad in sight. The quiet was astonishing with just the sound of gushing water and birdsong. So much for the cliché of the loud American.

The view as you soak in the hot springs

The view as you soak in the hot springs


There is evidence of humans in the forest, like this ode to Mother Nature which has been re-appropriated by a Jesus freak

We are back in Missoula now doing more errands: trying to get health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, utilities for the new house and also trying to transfer money from the UK to a bank account here. You would think with everything being ‘connected’ that it would all be very easy. It is not. Everything practical has been and continues to be a total nightmare and stupidly expensive, but not the stuff of blogs. I will spare you the details. Once we have managed to navigate through it all, we will be heading out once again into the wilderness. I am still freaked out by the prospect of bears and mountain lions. But part of being here is about confronting fear. Confidence will come with experience. I hope.