26.08.2014 - 28.08.2014 26 °C
This was a stint of 350 miles or so. We left the park quite late in the afternoon, planning to stop at Whitefish MT for the night. It was a pretty wee town, with a couple of streets worth of very good looking bars and restaurants where I am sure it would have been fun to hang out and sample the wares of the local brewery. Unfortunately, it was not to be - too many other people had had the same idea and had the foresight to arrive earlier. So, after a fruitless scan of hotels on my phone on some free wifi I stole from one of the bars, we headed south to Kalispell - a more functional but still pleasant enough town. It gave us a good hotel room (although we didn't stay at the very trad looking Kalispell Grand), and thanks to a recommendation from the hotel, a nice dinner in a very old skool seeming Italian restaurant, ScotiBelli's. In the morning, we stumbled into the very busy Colter's Coffee Roasters (thinking it was a bit early to hit the Kalispell brewery next door) and set off.
A fellow guest at the hotel was trying to get the receptionist to saying that either Bigfork or Whitefish was prettier: she said she couldn't. Since it was only a minor deviation, we headed to the east of the gigantic Flathead Lake to see for ourselves, and then down the eastern side of the lake on a slowish road to Missoula. The town was a bit older and perhaps had a bit less on the boil, but that was made up for (at least) by the wee inlet from the lake and the lake itself.
Missoula was a bit of a disappointment - I had fond memories of a great bar I had visited last time, but we were there late morning. We took a punt and went out to Fort Missoula, where there are some barracks and training grounds. Our wee automated friend (i.e. the GPS voice in my brother's phone) got us hopelessly lost getting into Missoula proper, trying to tell us that a convenience store or similar was all there was of downtown. We eventually found it, had a very quick walk around, grabbed an enormous lunch at Crackerbarrel and headed for Helena. I even relented enough to take the Interstate.
I really wish I had done a bit more reading about Helena before we got there, because there is a lot to see - I did enjoy it, but there's more. We were unfortunate enough to get there just as the two coffee shops closed for the day, so had a wander through the central open-mall/pedestrianised street - an odd mix of some quaint shops and brutalist architecture, but with attention paid to street art to make it appealing. There was a fair going on (as has been the case in almost every town we've visited). Off this main street, there are lost of cool old buildings and, of course,a few blocks away, the State Capitol.
Just on dark, we made it to Butte - my second visit. I first read about it in a book called The Road to McCarthy, in which one of my all time favourite travel writers, the late Pete McCarthy, travelled to various places to trace his Irish roots (he has also inspired me to drive across Tasmania). On St Patricks day, 30,000 descend upon Butte to celebrate (mind you, 50,000 come to celebrate Evil Kneivel day and 170,000 for the folk music festival (according to Wikipedia)!) I then saw it in a Wim Wenders movie, Don't Come Knocking. The blurb for the film has this to say about Butte:
In 1900, Butte, Montana was the biggest city west of the Mississippi. Now it is a place of deep depression. Downtown Butte is a ghost town...
The reason it was the biggest town was copper: it struck it rich - to the tune of $50 billion or so, making it the wealthiest town on earth for decades - and was also processing ores from mines around the USA and Canada (including the one we visited in Kimberley). This made it the "richest hill on earth". With all this money, they built grand brick buildings up on the top of a ridge - most are still there, but their purpose has gone. There is a gigantic open cast mine, but the most substantial mining happening today is extracting dissolved copper from the poisonous water which is slowly filling the pit.
But the ghost town thing seems to be history - there were quite a few signs of regeneration, and the population has stabilised at nearly 35,000. I'd have liked to have spent a couple of days or more to soak up the atmosphere and get some photos, but instead we did our best to see the sights in the last hour of near-daylight we had. There's a hill at one end of town we drove up and had a view for miles around, and we drove in and out many of the streets containing small miner's houses before hitting the uptown historical district.
Across the road from our hotel was the fabulous Uptown Cafe to provide "Civilized Dining in the Wild, Wild West" - one of the flashest meals we had on the whole trip. The same can be said for the hotel, the grand old Finlen - we've been in Motel 6 style rooms with two beds but in this hotel we had separate rooms, and they were extremely well presented. If the motels have provided breakfast, it has mainly been in a wee corner of a small reception area - the Finlen has a proper lobby, and a bar where we hung out and had a couple of rums, along with the three elderly gentlemen who were obviously regulars and the young couple who hardly noticed their surroundings. All in all, it was a great evening for me (my brother had not so good news from home).