On the Banks of the River of Awe
by Caroline Patterson
When I think about Missoula I think in images: the long-haired, baggy-pantsed kid on a skateboard sidewalk-sailing across the Madison Street Bridge, facing down a logging truck, with its shaggy load of Doug fir. Or I think of the evening my family and I were walking along the Kim Williams Trail that threads into Hellgate Canyon between the UM campus and the Clark Fork River, known to the Salish as In mis sou let ka or River of Awe. We listened while the steady throbbing of drums from Jacob’s Island dueled with high female voices echoing from a cheerleading camp at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. I think about Al and Vic’s, a smoky, dimly lit downtown bar where older men gather for their nightly “poison,” ignoring the fresh-faced, floppy-haired university students who prop their elbows on the bar and drink microbrews. These are contrasts we Missoulians love about ourselves. We love to think of ourselves as driving a pickup to the symphony, as river-rafting aesthetes, as diamonds in the rough, even though others might just think of us as rough.
But the contrast I love best is that of my great-grandfather, who boarded a train in Chicago to come west to find a healthier place for his family to live. He decided against Butte, because the country was too forlorn and the air too smoky, and settled instead on Missoula. “Missoula is the place you can expect to settle,” he wrote back to my great-grandmother in Chicago on May 6, 1900, of the town that grew up around a flour mill in 1863, the hub of five mountain valleys drunk with rivers—the Blackfoot, the Clark Fork and the Bitterroot, the Rattlesnake. The town he encountered was bustling, the rawness of frontier settlement rapidly being replaced by the settling types—homeowners, entrepreneurs, churchgoers—and the fledgling state university. “Missoula is a beautiful town,” he wrote. “The business portion is very well built, several nice four-story brick buildings with elevators, steam heat, etc., and the residences are pretty .... There are plenty of lovely drives along the river for us and Johnnie and waa [their nickname for the child my great-grandmother was carrying].”
The image I love is this: this stolid, Scots-American man, with his portly carriage and wool suits and round-rimmed glasses, heading west for the adventure of his life, then settling in the brown, prairie-style house he built in 1903 on the banks of the Clark Fork River, recreating the solid, respectable middle class life that he had before. Originally, he was going to live in Missoula a year before he moved his family west, but he missed them too much and realized his credibility as a businessman was better if he had a family with him. “I am delighted with Missoula,” he wrote in his formal script May 11, 1900, “even if it seems as if all the nice pleasant sociable fellows I meet go to cockfights, etc.”
It was in this house that I grew up, amid a jumble of family history: sepia-toned photographs of my great-grandmother next to my brother’s swimming ribbons, old sermons in elegant script written by some great-great-grandfather next to Time-Life paperbacks, an old Paxson painting next to a color photograph of our dog surrounded by chickens. Growing up, I could hear from this house the clatter of freight trains from the Milwaukee rail yards, now the domain of lank-tongued dogs and joggers. It is from this house that we explored the dangers of the ditch, where people tossed old refrigerators and stoves and bedsprings.
When I was growing up, Missoula was still a small town, population about 30,000, and the town belonged to children. We walked everywhere—downtown, to school, even to kindergarten—which is something I wouldn’t dream of letting my children do. My parents weren’t permissive—the area around the rail yard, a haven for hobos and mysterious-goings-on was forbidden, but likely as not if we were lost, someone would know our parents and would send us home. We feared the mythical stranger offering candy, of course, but, in fact, there weren’t many strangers in our town. Today, as a parent, I always fear strangers.
“My dear boy,” my great-grandfather wrote his son on June 28, 1900, “right near where you are going to live when you come is a nice river. Won’t we have fun fishing, though? And we can throw stones in the water, and when we get tired doing that, we will hitch up the horse and take a buggy ride.”
We’d cross the Clark Fork River on the Higgins Bridge to go downtown to visit the Missoula Mercantile, where the buyers knew my great-grandmother and my grandmother and would keep them in mind on their buying trips, where the children’s department had swivel racks that lifted and turned to reveal, magically it seemed to me then, another row of dazzling new dresses, where the man in the hardware department had the largest ears I had ever seen. Downtown we exchanged empty pop bottles for nickels to buy ice cream cones at a bowling alley, or, when I was older, my girlfriends and I would steal Evening in Paris cologne from Woolworth’s.
Downtown was where we’d enter the dank hallway of the basement children’s section of the Missoula Public Library (now the Art Museum of Missoula), a hallway that seemed a passageway into Ali Baba’s treasure—books upon books with their black-taped spines and titles written in shivery white ink. Downtown was still a place where, if you went shopping, you dressed up, although not in the gloves and hats of the 1950s.
Downtown was a very different place in the mid-1970s, when I was an undergraduate at UM. It was a place to drink, to snake your way from the Stockman’s Bar to the Top Hat, to the Flame, walking through alleys, older, wilder, and certainly drunker, but still with that same sense of ownership we had as children. But the downtown proper was dying. The Mercantile had become the Bon Marché, but what was most prevalent were empty storefronts, for-rent signs, litter, and the hollowed-out, empty feeling of better days gone by. A transient we knew only as Sandra often stood on the street corner holding up a Barbie doll with a sign that said, “Jesus loves Barbie.”
Today, on any morning in late spring and summer, downtown is humming. River-sandaled feet run or pedal bicycles down the streets or the trails lining both sides of the Clark Fork River on the site of the Milwaukee Railroad’s abandoned beds. Strains of “Puff the Magic Dragon” rise from the organ at Caras Park’s hand-carved carousel and mingle with shouts of children running, sliding or swinging across the monkey bars at Dragon Hollow or the music rising above the throngs at Caras Park’s summer Out to Lunch program. The storefronts are full—boutique stores feature displays of bath soaps, dresses, artwork, custom light switches, books and juice made with ice and fruit. Nearby, at the $6 million theater that was once an inner-city school, kids rehearse the Missoula Children’s Theatre’s latest musical.
The Missoula community was responsible for the transformation, says Daniel Kemmis, Missoula mayor from 1990 to 1996 and author of The Good City and the Good Life. Take a cosmopolitan populace, Kemmis says, put it in a remote place, and stir in economic despair and what you get is a city that is self-determining. People realized that if they wanted jobs, if they wanted culture, they had to create their own. And they have. In the past twenty-seven years, Missoula citizens have established Caras Park and Pavillion, the Missoula Farmers’ Market, the Missoula Children’s Theatre, a Carousel for Missoula, and Dragon Hollow playground. They’ve funded trails along the Clark Fork River and purchased Mount Jumbo—the 4,768-foot mountain that forms the town’s eastern edge—as open space.
Missoula town has changed drastically since my childhood, from the smoky, small mill town where every year we measured winter by the soot layers in the snow, where my father was outraged the first time he was asked for identification when paying by check, where my great-grandfather was giddy with the promise of the place, the possibilities of abundance, comfort, clean living. “My darling wife and boy,” he wrote June 4, 1900. “There are great opportunities here for raising fruit, principally apples.... A person for $1,500 can put out an orchard that in six years will begin to pay from $2,000 a year. To tell you what apples and pears will do, you’d think I was daffy.” In a later letter, he drew a sketch of where the apple trees would be planted on the planned house site in what is now Orchard Homes. He wrote that he would plant potatoes in between to bring in even more money. He was a city boy. “I’ll make enough money here in a few years so both of you and Grandma and Kate and Abby will have more than they no (sic) how to spend, “ he wrote. “This is the place for the whole crowd to come and cut out all worrying.” My great-grandmother nixed the whole plan for a house in town.
Now, nearly a century later, Missoula is on the verge of becoming a city. Its population is now nearly 60,000 and it serves a county population of 96,000. Those pretty residences, such as the one my great-grandfather built, are now expensive real estate, worth up to $350,000. Working men—the loggers, mill workers, and ranch hands that drank side by side in the bars with the more novel university students or professionals—have become novelties themselves as the natural resources industries have declined.
“We are struggling with how to put ourselves together in a city way,” says Mike Kadas, Missoula’s mayor since 1996. “We all value countryside, but we can’t all live in it and expect it to survive. We have to build sidewalks, short blocks, parks, trails.” Today, instead of visiting in neighborhood markets or churches as my great-grandparents did, we gather in masses: at the thirty-year-old farmers’ market, at Out to Lunch, on the river trails, on the hiking trails that lace the face of Mount Jumbo where ancient shorelines—forty of them—are mementoes of Lake Missoula’s Ice Age.
“We need to create a good, high-density design that is a catalyst for social and cultural interaction and opportunity,” Kadas says. “If we don’t do it well, Missoula will be unlivable.” In other words, we must build places for people to get out of their cars to walk as my great-grandparents and grandparents did. They built their houses in order to be close to things. They were city people huddling together for warmth. My grandparents built their house and never left town—never went on vacation, never felt the need to for their lives, as I imagine them, were slow-paced, quiet, the covers of my great-grandmother’s editions of Dickens worn threadbare. Today we want getaway homes to restore some kind of peace in our lives, we want vacations to escape the noise, the phone, the hurly-burly that is Missoula, that is our modern lives.
In other words, we want to build a place that makes us feel, in some way, that we’re still in a small town because everyplace, everywhere, there are reminders that we are not. There is Reserve Street, which I knew as a child as some dusty road in the country, now a stretch of nameless, faceless stores that offer choice upon choice, deal upon deal, that I have to fight through the traffic to reach. There is Grant Creek with its high-priced real estate where I used to go horseback riding. There is Miller Creek, where we used to listen to music in a beer-soaked haze during Aber Day, now a platted, developed subdivision. There is even road rage. I remember how shocked I was the first time someone flipped me off because I’d turned in front of them. Shocked and hurt. This was my town.
I remember clearly the Saturday I decided not to shop at a nursery because it would be too crowded—realizing, with a shock, that this was an urban behavior. Now, instead of the claustrophobia I used to feel as a teenager whenever I went to the grocery store or the mall, I find myself looking for people I know, wanting, in some way, to reassure myself that this is still my town. I know fewer and fewer faces.
It is Saturday morning in downtown Missoula, a light drizzle graying the lush green mountains circling the town, the river rolling and high with snow melt. And, in spite of the rain, there is a sea of umbrellas headed north on Higgins: students with empty plastic bags, older women with their smart woven baskets, drippy bicyclists with empty panniers, families with small children skirting their sides. All are headed toward the farmers’ market, at the former Northern Pacific Railroad station. On their way, they pass the old Missoulian building, now a hive of offices, the old Hamburger Ace, now a smart new brew pub. On the corner, a saxophonist plays, the notes rising, winsome, interrupted by the ranting of the street-corner preacher who has been at it for so many years that his sermon is pure sound, a wordless rant.
I park the car and join the streams of people heading toward the market. Under the chartreuse locust trees, shimmery in rain, this is the place, as Kemmis notes, where democracy begins. Where old-time Missoulians mingle with the newly arrived, where old mix with young, where fifth-generation Bitterrooters are elbow to elbow with shaggy-haired organic farmers doing a brisk business in morel mushrooms. And then there are the Hmong families, some of them now in their second generation at the market, families who came here after Vietnam fell to the Communists in May 1975. Originally about 1,000 families resettled in Missoula from the mountains of Laos, but the climate, the job market and the racism some encountered sent them to larger Hmong communities on the coast. The older Hmong women and the children sit patiently under their umbrellas behind tables of bright red radishes, lettuce, round orange carrots, and green onions.
Nearby, an older Belarussian couple sits behind an offering of thick green cucumbers—the Belarussian’s specialty crop. About sixty families, or 250 refugees, arrived in 1989 from the low farmlands of Belarus, as part of the Evangelski Khristiane, an evangelist sect whose members were persecuted under the U.S.S.R.’s Communist regime. Children were shunned in school; one man, I heard, was raising bumper crops of strawberries in Belarus until the local authorities learned of his success and smashed all of the greenhouses he had built.
They have made lives for themselves here—landscaping, fixing cars, cleaning houses—doing work that many Americans shun. I wonder how this town looks to them, pioneers from another country, like my great-grandfather, but in another century. I long to see the town through their eyes—to see it as someone newly arrived, someone who doesn’t see a place in layers of history, but as itself, at that moment. I wonder what hopes they have, what prayers they make and how they describe the place when they write letters home.
I find all of this heady, sweet, cheering—this rain-driven pursuit of fresh fruits and vegetables, this mix of saxophone music and sermon, of Hmong and old Missoula hippies, of Belarussians and society matrons. But I have to admit this: I rarely go to the Saturday farmers’ market. I applaud its vibrant presence each Saturday, but there is something so relentless about the sociability and the throng, that it’s too overwhelming for me to face every Saturday. I, like many old-time Missoulians, shop the quieter Tuesday evening market.
There is something about the calmer, more everyday interaction I miss in Missoula these days—something I miss about the spontaneity of meeting in the course of a life rather than in the course of yet another entertainment. Whether I’m joining the lines of cars on Reserve or the streams of people heading toward the Saturday market, it is the noise and busy-ness that I tire of. I don’t want to go back to the old Missoula—to the smokiness, the claustrophobia, the xenophobia—all the phobias of my childhood. I don’t think it was necessarily a better place. But it was a quieter place.
While I hate nostalgia, while I think Missoula is lucky to have had such forward-thinking mayors and community-spirited people who create things like the children’s theatre and the carousel, I sometimes shrink from the relentless civic-mindedness. Even though I think my children are growing up in a place that has more opportunities than the Missoula where I grew up, in a place that will show them more about the world than I learned as a child in this smoky valley town, I wish, too, that they could experience a bit more of the dreamy, child-driven days I knew, where social interaction wasn’t a phrase I knew or something that was engineered—it just happened all the time in the supermarkets, at the playground, in the churches. A place where, as my great-grandfather wrote his son in May 1900, excitements were small, spontaneous. “There is a whole island in the river,” he wrote his son in May 1900 from his office in the Florence Building, “and the deer was on the island eating grass. A lot of men and boys tried to catch and lasso it and nearly did, but it got away from them by swimming down the river.”
Caroline Patterson, former editor of the Montanan, is now a freelance magazine writer. She is raising her two children in Missoula where she hopes they'll have fond memories of their own.