Friday, January 1, 2010

Go Griz, Western Style

Posted By on Fri, Jan 1, 2010 at 1:51 PM

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MISSOULA, Montana — The Grizzlies own this town under the big "M" on Mount Sentinel.

Their "Go Griz" slogan and trademarked maroon paw print are on convenience stores, billboards, bars, restaurants, newspapers, and jackets. Of course the Grizzlies are from the University of Montana, not Memphis.

If a team longs to be embraced, it helps to be good. The football team went 14-1 in 2009 and lost in the national championship game in Chattanooga for the second year in a row. It also helps to be the only game in town. The closest pro sports teams are in Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Canada.

Other pleasant surprises about Montana: no sales tax, free samples of Trout Slayer Ale and Moose Drool beer, snowshoes, the Clark Fork River, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, books about mountain men, George Winston's CD "Montana: A Love Story," and the discovery of a disparaging word for immigrants — honyocker.

This is a place where people ride bikes in the snow to get to work, walk across the frozen river to get to class in winter and jump into it from bridges during the summer, cope with the vanishing lumber industry and rising unemployment, and escape to the surrounding mountains to ski, snowshoe, and hunt elk or spot a moose. The spirit of the mountains was captured by author Pete Fromm in his "Indian Creek Chronicles" detailing his seven-month stint living alone in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness about 75 miles from here. Fromm's fortitude was inspired by the likes of mountain man Hugh Glass, Montana's answer to Davy Crockett only tougher. Legend has it that Glass crawled 100 miles to safety after being stripped and left for dead by Indians.

The mountain man defined. The honyocker despoiled. As described by Joseph Kinsey Howard in "Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome," the homesteading honyockers flooded into Montana after 1910 as "the Joad of a quarter century ago, swarming into a hostile land: duped when he started, robbed when he arrived."

This short-term honyocker felt neither duped nor robbed, although casinos are everywhere, as common as convenience stores, with the qualifications for licensing seemingly about on par with the qualifications for running for the Memphis City Council. The typical one has a few video poker machines and a bar. Locally brewed beer is the beverage of choice, and one brewery offers generous samples in its tasting room, conveniently located near the airport. The daily newspaper headlines this week include two stories about DUI fatalities, both involving pedestrians killed while crossing or walking along highways. The metro section features a summary of the debate over the reuse of the fairgrounds — sound familiar? — and the editorial page defends Sen. Max Baucus, slurred on a YouTube video as a drunk, which the newspaper says he is not.

My son Jack, who moved here a year ago for the hunting and fishing, says Montana is kicking our asses. We went ice skating and cross-country skiing a few days ago and took several tumbles, one of which sent me back to the outfitter with my skis tucked under my arm. The diagnosis two days later: bruised but not broken. My wife caught a bad cold the same day.

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But egged on by our daughter Katy, who also moved here, we rallied to kick some Montana/Idaho ass the next day. Wearing snowshoes, which grip instead of slip, we climbed to the top of Lolo Pass for a terrific view of the snow-laden pine trees and mountains under brilliant blue skies. Then we drove down the mountain and hiked another mile to a hot springs and stripped to our skivvies in 20-degree temperatures. A hot tub seems a nuisance in Memphis but a godsend in Missoula, especially when you are nursing a bruised wing or a cold.

Montana is kind to tourists. There is a state income tax of up to 6.9 percent but no sales tax. A $3 pair of socks costs $3, a $9,000 used car $9,000, and a very good Thai dinner for four with appetizers, beer, and dessert $71 plus tip. A hotel room overlooking the Clark Fork and Mount Sentinel was $64 a night, plus a bed tax of $3 and change. It is not cheap to get here, however. The flight was $620 round trip, with a layover in Salt Lake City. But we'll be back.

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