Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 26 – Cabin City to Missoula

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!

Camping is a pain. Set up. Break down. Walk a quarter mile just to use the bathroom. Bring your own roof. Bring your own bed. Bring your own food. Bring your own everything.

But then, you wake up under a canopy of evergreens, hear the world stir, and inhale life.

There’s no substitute, and while room service and showers and pillow-top beds have their appeal, sometimes waking up in the woods supersedes any physical discomfort because you are the most physically aware you’ve ever been.

That was my world, on the 26th day. Emerging from our tent was a rebirth. I had been tired and anxious, but after a few days with family and a night in the forest, I was ready to jump back into this journey.

Camping in Cabin City, Montana

So was Jim. We were about an hour and a half from where he’d spent the first eighteen years of his life and he hadn’t been back since. He didn’t say much, because that’s not his way, but I could tell he was antsy.

It was nearly eleven when we reached St. Regis. When the Goodriches traveled back and forth between Missoula and Colfax, this had been their pitstop. It was also everybody else’s pitstop, and we navigated with the other tourists around huckleberry-flavored treats, huckleberry-scented candles, hats, t-shirts, and an aquarium of trout.

It was a riotous and joyful celebration of the American tourist-trap, and if I’d had an extra hundred or so I probably would have dropped it on a plaid robe and moose slippers. I didn’t, which is just as well since Jeannie the Jeep still had no room (even less, now, since we were carting twenty pounds of Uncle John’s flour). We left without so much as a frosty treat and continued towards the place of Jim’s birth.

There was a vibration and an energy radiating off of Jim and he fairly hummed as we neared the outskirts of Missoula. We approached the Smokejumper Visitor Center and he told me how, as a child, he’d been invited to jump off one of the platforms and his parents said NO, in no uncertain terms was he allowed to do that. He didn’t remember how or why he received that invitation, but it didn’t matter.

We browsed the museum, quickly, amazed by the extraordinary people who jump into fire to save forests, farms, towns, and people. There were many more places Jim wanted to show me, so we left the smokejumpers and landed at Fort Missoula.

Fort Missoula has a colorful past. The U.S. Government built the fort in 1877. Its purpose, like other frontier outposts, was to protect settlers from the tribes whose lands they usurped. In 1888, the 25th Infantry arrived, the same regiment of black soldiers that would later be assigned to Fort Meade in South Dakota. Those Buffalo Soldiers were one of the first regiments deployed to the Spanish-American War in 1898, and they were also sent to Cuba and the Philippines before their assignment in the Midwest.

Soldiers trained at the fort during World War I, but once that conflict was over the place was nearly abandoned. Then, in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps made Fort Missoula its Northwest Regional Headquarters. Volunteers trained each summer and then spread out to places like Glacier and Yellowstone. That lasted until World War II, when the Department of Immigration and Naturalization took over.

The first thing Jim and I saw when we began to explore the grounds of the fort was a small gray guard shack and a sign explaining that Fort Missoula had been an internment camp housing Italian and Japanese detainees. The 1,200 Italians were civilians who’d been on boats heading to the U.S., or were hotel employees or marooned workers from the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

There were about a thousand Japanese Americans who were held, subject to “loyalty hearings,” although none were ever charged. For three years, the internees lived surrounded by chain link fences and forty foot tall guard towers. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1944, the Italians held at Fort Missoula could either enlist with the U.S. or be sent back home. The Japanese got shuttled to other internment camps until the war officially ended a year later. We’d seen two of those internment camps the previous year, and it was devastating.

Jim had grown up less than a mile away and was never taught about Fort Missoula’s history as an internment camp. That could be because the fort was decommissioned in 1947 and was taken over by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Missoula County. Most likely it was because the fort technically wasn’t an internment camp; instead, it was a detention center that imprisoned non-citizens during the war.

We walked the grounds of what was now the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Dispersed throughout the grounds was a schoolhouse, a church, a 1900-era cabin, mill stones from a mid-1800s flouring mill, and a root cellar, among other buildings that illustrated what life was like in this frontier town. There was a lookout tower, moved in 1983 from Sliderock Mountain, and Engine #7, a rare locomotive. As we walked, we met a man walking his dog. I don’t know if it was our cameras or our friendly hellos, but he invited us into the Trolley Barn.

The building had been locked, but Steve, who we learned was a volunteer with the museum, opened the doors so we could get a look at the restored interurban streetcar that ran from Fort Missoula to Bonner in the early 20th century. Inside, he and Jim lamented the loss of Tower Pizza. The restaurant had been a favorite of Jim’s and his sisters’, and as soon as he brought it up Steve said “Oh, wasn’t that the BEST?!” Sadly, it had closed just a couple of months before we’d arrived. Sounds like I really missed out, because Steve rescued a menu and put it in the museum.

After bonding with Jim over lost pizza, Steve and his dog, Toby, brought us inside the Tipi burner. Jim thinks the structure looks like a shuttlecock. I think it looks like a Dalek. (And that tells you pretty much all you need to know about us.) Either way, it and others like it were the reason Jim remembers layers of pollution. Tipi burners were used by sawmills to burn waste, and they expelled wood smoke into the valley. Now, the burner at Fort Missoula is a harmless display in a museum and it also acts as storage. Steve opened the door and inside was, appropriately for my caroling husband, a red one-horse sleigh.

The grounds of Fort Missoula from the lookout tower
Engine #7 at Fort Missoula
Is it a shuttlecock or a Dr. Who villain?

It was time for lunch, but first, Jim wanted to see his childhood homes. There were two, and they were much closer to each other than he remembered. He pointed out the hill where kids would slalom down on their bikes and crash in front of his house. He showed me the field where Farmer Perry would pull out his shotgun if they crossed the wrong line – the epitome of “get off my lawn.”

We left his old neighborhood and went straight to Hoagieville. Jim had been talking about this place ever since he knew we’d be visiting Missoula, and he was like a kid when he found out it was still there, that they still used carhops, that they still served the original, and that it tasted exactly the way he remembered. There wasn’t much to it: a French bun, salami and swiss cheese, lettuce, and their “special Hoagie dressing.” I don’t know if it was Jim’s excitement or it really was that good, but I looked over my bun at him in shock. We paired the sandwich with seasoned fries topped with neon cheese and a huckleberry shake. I told you – huckleberries are everything.

Our next trip down memory lane was a visit to downtown Missoula. But first, we had to take a spin around their carousel. This didn’t exist when Jim was a resident. A Carousel for Missoula opened in 1995 and it was truly a community project. Missoula cabinet-maker Chuck Kaparich started the project in 1991 with four ponies and a frame. Four years and 100,000 hours of volunteer work later, the hand-carved attraction opened along the Clark Fork River.

It’s so popular we had to wait about half an hour before we could ride. Remember I thought the Looff Carrousel in Spokane was fast? I had NO IDEA. I swear, if I hadn’t been strapped in and holding on for my dear life I would have been catapulted straight out of that jewel box building and across the river. This was no Sunday in the park with grandpa kind of ride; it was a heart-pumping WHEEEEE! kind of ride. Not only was it fast, we reached for our rings from the mouth of a dragon. And, to put the cherry on top, they had a real brass ring.

A Carousel for Missoula

We cooled off from that thrill with a walk around downtown. Jim showed me where his parents’ radio station had been. There were two locations, one of which was in the Florence Hotel. Inside a building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places was the old On Air sign he remembered.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen that man so happy. (Except for our wedding, of course. But this was close. Very, very close.)

Our visit finished with a bike ride along the Riverfront Trail, stopping to watch kayakers and surfers – in Missoula, Montana. Brennan’s Wave is a man-made surf that was built in 2006 as an homage to Brennan Guth, a world-class kayaker from Missoula who died paddling in Chile five years earlier. As we watched, kayakers would spin, flip, and then float back to calmer waters. Wet-suited surfers jumped up on their boards and balanced as the river churned and held them in one spot.

Worn out just watching them, we ended our day at the motel curled up with a $6.99 large one-topping from the pizza joint next door.

Brennan’s Wave - surfing & kayaking in Montana

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