Enough with Lewis and Clark! They are everywhere. Several Lewis and Clark trails thread through this area. Every museum has its Lewis and Clark exhibit; even the travelling Rivers of America exhibit in the Helena shopping mall emphasized their discoveries. Roadside signs show where the company camped. Small cafes are decorated in a Lewis and Clark motif. Souvenirs abound, from t-shirts to belt buckles. If a schoolkid can remember Lewis and Clark, he or she may pass the history course! Montana hay stacks
But there's more to local history than Lewis and Clark. For example, we learned in the Montana State Museum in Helena, that about 1832 Prince Maximilian of the Habsburg empire, accompanied by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer made an extensive trip throughout the region, producing engaging and evocative etchings of wildlife, natural beauty and native people. Returning to Europe, Maximilian published a lavishly illustrated book in several volumes describing what he had seen and learned. Do you think his contribution to the exploration of the American West is mentioned on road signs? No way. After Lewis and Clark, the next events mentioned are the Indian wars. And speaking of Indians . . . and cowboys . . .
Cattle ranching had to be a difficult business; for every rancher that grew wealthy with huge herds and gigantic spreads there were dozens who went broke, hundreds more who were just hired hands and didn't own a cow. If the paintings of Charles M. Russell are any indication, the cowboy's work was always exciting and often dangerous. There must have been lots of injuries and deaths on the range.
There were plenty of other pioneering activities going on in the West at the same time, including sheep ranching, farming, mining, lumbering, and railroad building; yet it's cattle ranching and cowboys that became the universal descriptive symbols known around the world. Little children in almost every country have been excited by cowboy movies. The market for boots, Stetsons, and levis has never been stronger. Recreational riding, especially in the West, is very popular, and not inexpensive. Helena auditorium
Like the image of the kilted highlander playing the pipes or tossing the caber, the vision of the cowboy astride his horse and lassoing a dogie or gunning down a badman has been promoted to build a legend and exploit the ensuing market. But the cowboy alone does not embody the American West any more than the piper alone embodies Scotland. If we (Bob and Elsa) have a legitimate gripe, it's that the myth of the cowboy oversimplifies The West, which has a rich variety of scenery, wildlife, recreation and industry to offer.
After Lewis and Clark, Montana popular history revolves around a few more names: Custer, Chief Joseph, and perhaps even David Thomas, who mapped the Columbia River system. Our meanderings have encountered the Nez Perce trail, along which Chief Joseph and his people fled the advancing cavalry who sought to avenge Custer's defeat, and eventually succeeded in capturing most of the Indians and confining them (and with them their spirit) to reservations.
Helena is a small city, as state capitals go. It's fairly compact and hilly. Its historic center is Last Chance Gulch, where four prospectors - former Confederate soldiers - gave it one last try and found gold; today's gold is in the shops which line the pedestrian mall. The most astonishing sight in Helena is a full-fledged Roman Catholic cathedral, built with donations from a mine owner from 1905 to 1912 and very beautiful. As the tour books say, it's reminiscent of churches in Bavaria and Austria, with a bright and airy interior.
Missoula, home of the university and a flourishing colony of writers and artists, is a pleasant small town at the edge of the Clark Forks river. We Helena cathedral walked past outdoor outfitters, bars, the old train station, casino/cafes, banks, pawn shops, coffee houses, craft shops, and the courthouse, where a small wedding party had gathered in the gazebo on the front lawn, while excited and dressed-up children dashed through, up and over the railings. A small knot of people outside an office building debated the possibility of a mayoral veto. The automated city parking lot had a machine which asked us to enter our license plate number on the touch screen; it talked back at us in its computer-generated voice, and wanted to know how much parking we wanted to purchase. It took dollar bills and gave change, and had a special procedure for people without a license plate.
The newest attraction in Missoula is the carousel, restored by a carousel-horse carver and many local volunteers. In the middle of a weekday morning it was crowded with small children and their parents, plus other adult carousel-lovers, everybody having a grand time.
On the way out of Montana, we continued through landscapes which changed from farm to mountain to high desert and back again. We saw some haystacks with hay laid across the top like thatching to let rainwater run off while the interior hay stays dry. We generally drove alongside rivers, sometimes in bucolic alpine meadows, sometimes shaded with trees and (no doubt) filled with trout, and sometimes so frothy that we literally understood the origin of the term white water. Indeed the rivers are so beautiful in August, we wondered how magnificent they would be in May when the spring melt is at its peak. We saw more deer, but missed the elk and bighorn sheep which inhabit the country. We found that, for a state with fewer than a million people, with only one member of the House of Representatives, Montana leaves a big impression on tourists!