By Robert Hall
When I ventured out to Roscoe, Montana, in 1979 for a summer job, leaving behind my childhood home just west of Chicago, I was totally unaware Montana was so timelessly memorizing and would later become such a substantial component of my life.
It was during that summer that I worked on the Lazy EL ranch as a cook (their bad luck!) and ranch hand. My learning curve was steep that summer—riding fences, fly fishing and cooking grub were novel experiences for a young mid-Western urbanite.
As expected, the cowboys loved to give it to me. When I wore shorts, they suggested “whole” pants. I wanted to ride Pokey, a real plug of a horse, but they put me on a mercurial Pistol and kindly referred to me as “city boy.”
Yes, my fly cast was lousy, the cowboys were tough and my riding was worse, but after a few weeks I caught a few rainbows, figured out how to settle into a Western saddle and at least the cowboys knew I worked hard (just not smart).
Leaving Montana that summer after a full-scale crash course in the lifestyle and culture, I knew I would be back. I just didn’t know it would take 25 years.
As a father of three ski racers, and with a wife who is a reformed Vail ski bum, we collectively grew a bit tired of our quaint Pennsylvania ski hill, opting for an annual pilgrimage to the West for a ski trip. We hit the classic, obligatory checklist: Vail, Aspen, Jackson and most of Utah. No doubt, they were all great spots, but Vail was a bit like Disneyland, Aspen, well, glitzy for starters, and Jackson, despite those incredible Tetons, never seems to ski well in late March. For those reasons, among others, none of the destinations really grabbed us for repeat visits.
In 2002, our family visited Big Sky for the first time in the midst of a warm spring. Until that point, we never knew what “chicken heads” were and learned, quickly, what “slide for life” meant. Though the conditions weren’t ideal, we loved the terrain, the lack of lift lines and picked up on the Montana vibe. Simply, we were intrigued: Everyone seemed to be on fat powder skis, we never saw a stitch of Bogner and a fancy lunch was a perfectly grilled bratwurst.
The next spring our family made a repeat visit, during which we were blessed to receive several inches of cold powder and discovered the earliest days of a love affair with the steeps of Lone Peak. We relished watching our kids transform into big mountain skiers and, with our PIEPS handy, will never forget those first tracks on North Summit Snowfield.
In July we came rushing back to glorious weather, endless hiking opportunities and, wouldn’t you know it, that hard-earned fly cast came back in full.
That summer, we were lucky enough to meet several of Big Sky’s gritty locals; as it turns out, they were approachable and friendly, and we quickly figured out that the fishing guides, ski patrollers and various outdoors instructors were the ones that with the real status in this town, unlike many ski town counterparts throughout the Rockies. We liked this.
Over the years, that array of local friends shared some of their most valuable secrets; where the best hiking trails, fishing holes and powder stashes may be. Encouraged by this intel and eager to gain some all our own, we have made it our mission to explore the state over the last two decades, ripping up 12 of the 16 Montana ski areas, fishing nearly every major river and hiking to the breathtaking summit of many of Montana’s storied peaks. Rodeos, pig races, music festivals and river floats have delivered us to one-of-a-kind places like Red Lodge and Whitefish, even allowing for foray into neighboring Greater Yellowstone haunts like Jackson, Salmon and Cody.
Lessons abound: Every river has its own character, each mountain range its own majesty and each local bar a classroom packed with learning opportunities. Such is the dynamic educational fabric of Montana.
Back East it’s not always easy to move into a new town, where one might heavily factor the right business opportunities, preferred schools and even an expected way of dressing.
In Montana, quite conversely, life all about existing in the exquisite moment, where instead of stock market or political chatter dominating at tables of friends, a Big Sky resident will hear “It’s a powder day tomorrow, meet you at Swifty at 8:15—pack a lunch” or “the spruce moth hatch is going off on the Gallatin, let’s head out tonight.”
Perhaps being a part of this community will lead you to moments a bit more mundane (no less worthy), like getting involved in raising money for a community center or fighting for the school bond to pass. There are no wrong answers, and no matter your route, all of these activities are what makes a visitor become one with a small town in this truly great state.
How lucky I am that I was talked into driving across the country in 1979 (frankly, on a whim), only to return to those charms 25 years later. We came as visitors and, with some work, feel as if we are soon approaching the distinguished rank of “local.”
As Tom Brokaw once said, “Montana truly is the last best place, just don’t tell anyone else.” I may have done just the opposite of Brokaw’s plea, but you’ll find every story in Montana is all its own and my words have only revealed a sliver of that experience. There is plenty of storyline yet had by Montanans, including myself, and two questions arise: how will yours start, and what will you learn?