It has been a week since we packed up the car and drove out of the mountains. It was cold and rainy on our way out of town and even though we left well after sun-up, the sky continued to look like day break until almost noon. The sun elbowed its way through the clouds and cast a pinkish light on the mountains and fields, lighting them up like they were glowing from within. We were so quiet, all three of us. It’s like we needed every ounce of energy to just soak in the last of our Montana fall. I don’t know about the rest of my companions, but I was overcome with melancholy, like I was leaving something that I’d never really get to experience again.
I am so in love with Montana. It is so vast–the mountains are monolithic, the meadows go on forever, the sky lives up to its moniker. It is hard to be there and not be completely overwhelmed; it is hard to take in so much vastness. But when you catch your breath, when you can get your head around the fact that you are in the presence of something indescribable, you begin to feel small. And we all need a dose of small every now and then. I am smitten with the way Montana reminds me of just how inconsequential I am.
Mr. B might be less in love, primarily because of the prevalence of large wildlife (read: bears), but I still
think he has a little crush on those velvety yellow hillsides and mountain streams. Actually, that’s not true. I think what Mr. B is most in love with was the food. But I’ll get to that in a second, trust me.
We spent four weeks in Missoula, the longest we’ve stayed anywhere since we left Seattle. It didn’t take very long before we felt pretty at home there. There is so much to love about this town:
- People are Nice. It deserves a capital letter because they are so darn good-natured and friendly. They say hello and good morning when they see you on the street, young and old. They smile. They meet your gaze. It’s amazing how much we noticed the difference as we began to head east.
- Yellow lights mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.Yellow is just another shade of green to Montanans.
- The first 10 seconds of red lights are like yellow lights.
- Those people are badass on so many levels. We went hiking and we ran into marathoners racing on the mountain. There are guns everywhere (we were warned about that) and being a person that doesn’t really enjoy firearms, that was hard to get used to. Everyone hunts everything all the time. They regularly deal with bears hanging out in their backyards. That gumption is awe-inspiring as the landscape itself.
But let’s talk about the food. It deserves its own paragraph. A whole post, really. The thing is, I can’t necessarily endorse the fancy eats in Missoula, or anywhere else in Montana. The co-ops and The Good Food Store were fabulous for grocery shopping but the upscale dining was just okay. Nothing to complain about at all, but nothing that is particularly memorable. But the burgers, oh, the burgers.
We went to Flipper’s Casino to watch post-season baseball. Brian was skeptical about this. First of all, it doesn’t even claim to be a bar or a grill, just a casino. It is a windowless building (as casinos generally are) that regularly has a whole cast of characters lined up outside smoking and sipping. But after more than one recommendation, he tentatively agreed to go for a beer. The inside looked just like your typical sports bar, with a whole bunch of gambling machines lining the walls. All of the televisions were tuned to the baseball games except one, which was tuned to the local news and Jeopardy! The barkeep explained that the half a dozen people lining the bar came in every day to watch these two programs together, but that when the game show ended, he’d be glad to change the channel. We bellied up to the other end of the bar and assured him that wouldn’t be necessary.
We had a couple of beers, got hungry and decided bar food was in order. We both ordered cheeseburgers and fries and what came out in those little red plastic baskets was a work of art. It was a simple cheeseburger, cooked medium rare, on a toasted sesame bun with tomato, thick cut Bermuda onion, lettuce and pickles. It was the best burger I’ve had in years.
If you looked at the menu, it just said “cheeseburger, $7.95.” There were no modifiers. There was no fusion of anything, no need to tell where the cow grew up or what it was fed, no special aioli or red pepper sauce or some such thing.
Seattle, and as far as I can tell, most of the West Coast is completely lacking in dive bars. They think they have dive bars, but they don’t. If you leave the city of Seattle and head just north or south, you can run into a good dive, but the places that make the the top ten lists? Those aren’t real. Those are cultivated. They’re designed. Someone said “we should open a dive bar.” And then they bought some tables that looked wrecked, spent a lot of time putting graffiti on the bathroom walls and they bought a bunch of stuff from an expensive vintage shop. And then a lot of hipsters showed up and said “wow, this is so divey.” I would bet my life savings that the owners of Flippers didn’t say “hey, let’s open a dive bar.” They just opened a bar. They served beer and whiskey and really freaking good burgers and they don’t slather anything with pretension.
The art of writing a menu west of the Cascades should be studied in undergraduate creative writing classes. I am continually amazed, and each restaurant seems to need to one-up the next. A description of a simple grilled cheese sandwich can be a paragraph long. Burgers come from cattle that are grass-fed, locally raised, bathed in holy water and blessed by a fairy-virgin. They are lightly dusted with a mixture of pecorino romano cheese and pixie dust, topped with locally grown micro greens and slathered in AIOLI. I AM SO SICK TO DEATH OF AIOLI!
Flippers did an amazing thing. It reminded me that the most basic meals are absolutely perfect just as they are, without over-dressing. It gently called attention to the fact that the best things in life are the ones you don’t have to oversell.
Missoula, in turn, reminded me that the most satisfying things in life are equally as simple–the sunrise, muscle aches after a long hike, a warm “hello, good morning,” and a burger and a beer. Montana is the place that will give you a gut-check and remind you that you really are just one tiny speck in this massive universe. No matter how much time I spend there, I don’t think I’ll ever have that feeling quite the same way again.