Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cross dressing in Montana

As the previous post details, getting to Bozeman Montana was a trial. But why am I here? Last year while I was in Hungary, I met an inordinate amount of Americans either travelling or studying there. And while staying with Andy and Laurie in Budapest, I was hooked in to a constant supply of Yanks, Canooks and Aussies. One of the groups I had the pleasure of meeting was Erin, Lorie and Charlie – the Montana Massive. They were a lot of fun to hang out with while they were in Budapest, giving me a nice hot dose of Western, native English speaking culture. As always while travelling, when you meet someone on the road, the age old offer of a place to stay when you’re ever in either one’s home country is put on the table. At that stage I had no plans to come to the States on this trip, but I thanked them for their offer and returned the gesture. Fast forward to March this year, when, by accidental design I arrive in California and by chance, the Montanans get curious about my whereabouts and look up my blog. They email me, and within a week a plan forms to go to Montana and check out their home town.

Just writing this now, half a dozen offers of a place to stay or a person to catch up with have flooded back to me. The Peace Core girls in Mongolia. The couple from Alaska who found my email address in a book left in a hostel in Pingyao. The retired couple travelling the Trans Siberian who had a collection of ducks I wanted to meet. The dudes in Budapest who christened their local bride “Steven Colbert”. The shit tonne of Mormons (Hungary, Germany, Mexico) who, for better or worse, have invited me to Utah.

Montana is gorgeous. This truly is a beautiful part of the world. I can understand why people are proud to be from here. But the vibe I found here was a little unexpected. The people love and respect their guns, but are fairly liberal minded. Aware of the environment around them, Montanan ranchers are more in-line with Gore inconvenient attitudes than the Bush Clear Sky attitudes. The small town attitude carried by the young people here is complimented by an understanding for the world outside and appreciation for further education. As the Rocky Mountains track their way through the State, a diversity of landscape opens up and different subcultures develop. To the people from the plains, the mountains are full of hippie Democrats. To the people from the mountains, the plains are full of Republican hicks. There doesn’t seem to be much of a tolerance for gay men here (Brokeback Mountain wasn’t able to be filmed there because locals didn’t think that real cowboys sniffed each other’s shirts), but the governor is looking to become energy self-sufficient within 15 years through bringing in hundreds of wind turbines. One thing that impressed me (being the tree hugging, snowboarding, constantly at odds with the environmental consequences of my hobbies person I am), there is a snow resort up here that only uses green energy to power their lifts and resort facilities. As long as you are an environmental rancher with a taste for the outdoors, women, steak, snow and guns, Montana appears like the place to be.

Waking up super early and missing breakfast to go to Salt Lake City airport to make sure my bag was checked in on the correct flight, I was told that there was no need for me to recheck the bag manually and that it had been put on the Bozeman flight. I walked away from the baggage counter in a fairly sceptical, “we’ll just wait and see” attitude. Once I arrived, I waited a good 20 minutes near the baggage carousel for a bag that wasn’t even in the state any more. I had a chat with a rude arse Delta clerk (“of course your bag isn’t here, your ticket clearly says Billings” – umm fuck you too). My bag, it seemed, had gone AWOL and he couldn’t tell me where it was. You’d think in these Amber Alert times we live in, keeping track of someone’s luggage would be a fairly standard procedure. No. – Anyways, I’ve whinged enough about my bag going missing. Thankfully the wonderful Erin was there to pick me up and take me away before I slipped into the unpleasant, pissed off customer from hell. What this does result in is two days in Montana and only what I had on for clothes, with nothing to keep me warm or dry while walking around outside. Cue the mystery, “unisex” vest (with a badge shaped like pickle pinned to it), which had magically materialised in Erin and Mandy’s flat 6 months previous. When I put it on, I couldn’t help imagining a diner owner asking me why I was wearing a life preserver and if I had jumped ship recently. Sure, from the outside, the vest appeared like any other. But I knew that the tag resting against the back of my neck had a “W” printed on it.

Mandy, Erin’s flatmate gave me the 20c tour, meeting up with Erin in the downtown area. We kidnapped Lorie from her work and took her to the local for a couple of beers, making plans for the evening. After I cooked up a nachos storm in their kitchen, a group of us went to the pub we frequented earlier and had a few of their “Long Island Ice Teas”, which tasted nothing like, nor provided the anticipated kick, but weren't wholly unpleasant and were consumed with guster.

The following day, Erin and I headed to Yellowstone National Park. We got there a little after 1pm, and found the roads down to Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone had just opened for the first time this year. Walking around the hot springs, Erin was able to use her primary school teaching prowess to give me an educational tour of the park. I now know that these things are called travertines, that most of the park is sitting on top of a super volcano (which if it erupted, would take a fair chunk of the US with it), and that most of the park is mostly in Wyoming and Idaho, with only a little bit of it in Montana. Mammoth Springs are really impressive, with the back of it looking like the Moon and the front like Mars.

We then headed to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where a diminutive, but still rather impressive, natural recreation of the Grand Canyon has been dug out by the Yellowstone river. As we walked up to the edge, it started to snow, just like my time at the real Grand Canyon. Looking down into the canyon and over at the massive waterfall (which a skin of frozen water covers during the winter months), the view would be welcome in any Lord of the Rings movie. After that we headed to the Paint Pots, a collection of multicoloured hot springs dotted around an small hillside. The “Pots” have really vivid colours, which a dramatically contrasted against the drab, grey surrounding. A little way up the hillside, a bunch of hot mud pits bubble away like saucepans full of porridge. I gt adventurous and threw a chunk of solidified mud into the eye of one of the bubbling bits, only to have it thrown back at me in the form of hot mud. And thanks to it being off-season, we only saw about a dozen people the whole time we were there. We skipped a few things to catch Old Faithful before it got dark, and found a small group of people huddling around one another to keep warm. According to them, the last time it went off was about an hour prior to us arriving and it was due to go off any minute. There were a few fizzes and farts and for about 15 minutes, Erin, myself and the other people standing around watching it were convinced that that was all we were going to get. As we walked around to get a different view, we passed a couple (who had been there for over an hour in the snow and cold), who were about to give up and walk back to their car. As they did, the show started and sure enough Old Faithful remained true to form and spewed steam and boiling hot water about 20 metres into the air. Spectacular stuff. I would like to come back someday and explore the geyser field which dots the surrounds of Old Faithful, but I’m guessing that’s off limits.

The next day, I helped Erin move house with her mum, uncle and aunt. Really friendly people with refreshing views from a Montanan perspective. Later that night, drinking and pool were all the go with Erin and her mates. We all had a good laugh when I met Jess, the owner of the vest. The next day, we ventured out to Virginia and Nevada City, two tiny ghost towns which played a big role in the gold rush and wild west era of the US. Again, being before Memorial Day, the place was totally empty, thus adding to the ghost town feeling. A dog followed us around for the better part of the day, whose insatiable appetite for stick fetching and rabbit chasing led to some close encounters with death.

Thanks to the Montana Massive - Erin, Charlie, Lorie and all their friends – for showing me a great time in their beautiful little city of Bozeman for the last few days.

Now, after 10 hours of planes, trains and automobiles, I'm in Gotham.

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