movin’ to montana

… just to raise me up a crop of dental floss (sorry, I couldn’t resist …thanks, Frank Z)

But indeed, from Yellowstone in Wyoming we moved on to Montana – just passing through on our way up to Canada.

It’s funny how things turn out sometimes. An unexpected fork in the road, a turn left instead of right and a whole new world opens up.

Our plan had been to camp out in Yellowstone and then make our way up to British Columbia with a stop overnight in Missoula, Montana, to break up the miles. When it turned out that Yellowstone was totally booked up, as were all the hotels in the towns along our plotted course just north of the park, we ended up on the road that led us out the park’s western entrance, taking us to Virginia City, Montana, and a room at the Fairweather Inn. We pulled into town, population 132, shortly after 11 pm and hurried to the hotel to get checked in before Kenny, the night clerk, headed home for the evening (on the phone a few hours earlier, as I was making our reservation, Kenny had said if we didn’t make it by 11, he’d leave our room keys in an envelope on the front desk; and while I had no reason not to believe him, I was having a hard time figuring out how we would get to the envelope on the front desk if no one was there, assuming he’d lock the front door behind him as he closed up shop). Fortunate for us, Kenny was putting in a bit of overtime and was there to greet us, give us our room keys and direct us to our room. When we opened the door to our room, it was as though we’d taken a step back in history. Right out of the 1860s.

The rooms at the Fairweather aren’t the only throwback in time … the whole town is straight out of the gold rush days, dating to 1863, when a group of six prospectors, including Bill Fairweather, stopped by the nearby creek to set up camp. It was Fairweather who discovered gold in the bedrock by the creek, in what turned out to be one of the richest gold deposits on the continent. Within a week mining camps were set up all along the creek, including one in what’s now Virginia City.

Today, Virginia City is like a town that has never changed. It looks like every old cowboy movie I’ve ever seen – wooden buildings, wooden sidewalks. When we got out of the car, we could hear music blaring out onto the sidewalk from the bar across the street, and I half expected to see a cowboy swagger out through swinging saloon doors, jump on his horse and head off in a cloud of dust. Alas, no cowboys tonight, no swinging saloon doors either. But the live music was a treat, so we headed over to the bar after getting settled in at the inn.

In the morning, I struck up a conversation with Patti Hamstra, who was working behind the front desk at the inn, and as we shared stories of what had brought each of us to Montana, I mentioned the historical research about the Irish I’ve been doing on my road trip, first in Ireland then in New Orleans. Now, I don’t know how other storytellers go about writing their books, but in my case, I spend all my time not writing. At some point that’s going to have to change, but for now, while I’m on the road with a hundred and one other things to do besides write a book, it’s safe to say that since leaving New Orleans back in February, everything book related is going on in my head, not on paper. I know my character leaves Ireland and comes to New Orleans, and I know the action will take her to a third place, somewhere in the United States, but I had no idea where until this morning, when Patti said, “Oh, there’s a lot of Irish history in Montana. You should head down the street to Rank’s Mercantile; they carry a selection of books and I’m sure there’s some Irish ones there.” I beetle it on down to Rank’s Mercantile, and sure enough, Brenda Thyer is happy to help me out. She’s got just one Irish book in stock, but oh, what a book, and when I see it, it’s like I too have just discovered gold. It’s funny how things happen sometimes. If there had been a campsite available for us in Yellowstone, we never would have come to Virginia City and I surely would never have come across this obscure book that has opened the door to Montana for me. I don’t know how that book came to be in Virginia City. But it seems like it was just waiting for me to come along.

From treasure trove to breakfast at the Star Bakery in Nevada City – another of those original creek gold towns, this one a mile up the road.

I don’t know if these date from the 1800s, but they sure look like they do …

Like Virginia City, most of the few shops and eateries are open only during the summer months when they can cater to tourists out roaming the Old Wild West. I can imagine that in winter, they resemble ghost towns. And speaking of ghosts, apparently the Fairweather Inn has a few of them wandering the halls. Not that I met any.

North of Nevada City on Hwy 41, the brown roadside marker said this was the Lewis and Clark Trail, and that took us to Route 2, a scenic drive carved out of the mountains and up into Butte. I scoured two bookstores in Butte and came away with a couple more Irish-American titles, and that was the last of my Montana book buying. I’ve got some reading and research ahead of me, but something tells me I’ll be moving to Montana for a spell somewhere down the road. Heading north from Missoula to the Canadian border, we passed to the west of Glacier National Park – with lakes, trees, open fields and roads cutting through the mountains, seriously beautiful country that deserves a return visit.

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