Polson, Montana

I have had a long-standing love affair with Montana. Among non-residents so enamored, I know that I am in good company. In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote: “Montana has a spell on me. It is grandeur and warmth. If Montana had a seacoast … I would instantly move there and petition for admission. Of all the states, it is my favorite.” I would settle here, too, were I not such a drifter. As a way around that, I tell myself that I can drift into Montana whenever I want to — so I do, and do so often. I recently spent a night in Missoula — a city of 60,000, where the uptight hustle, an attribute of most cities, just doesn’t exist. It’s as if the calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands there have been internalized. It’s a college town (as in the University of Montana) where people come from throughout the world to study forestry in a forest. And it’s where the Forest Service trains smokejumpers — the gutsy guys who parachute into forest fires.

Missoulans have a precious prize that they like to show off, and well they should. It’s down by the Clark Fork River in Caras Park, in a building with open sides. Traditionally, it would be called a merry-go-round. But more properly, “The Carousel for Missoula” is an art treasure, both in itself and in the manner and spirit in which it was created. A functioning carousel — but only during the summer months — it has 38 Basswood ponies and two chariots, all meticulously hand carved, finished and painted. It is one of a kind. More than 800 hours of labor were invested in each pony, for which no one was paid or wanted to be. Today I’m headed up U.S. Highway 93 toward Flathead Lake. Approaching Polson, a town on the south end of it, I sighted a dilapidated tugboat sticking half in and half out of a long, mostly windowless building.

The boat is named Paul Bunyan; the building is the Miracle of America Museum. If I didn’t stop, I would forever wonder what was inside. For starters, there was Gil Mangels and his wife, Joanne. It’s their museum — museum is an institutional name that works well on a sign, but this place is better described as a man’s life work and passion. With more than 100,000 items exhibited, it has no fine-tuned focus. Its name, however, describes precisely what it’s about and what’s within its walls. And it’s probably as close as Gil will ever get to putting a mission statement in writing. If you agree with Gil, as I do, that America is a miracle, then you choose your own focus. There is much to choose from. It’s been called “the Smithsonian of the West.” It seems an apt comparison, as its coverage is diverse and impartial — a Vietnam-era A-7 Corsair II, an 1873 harp, a sod-roofed log cabin or, if you like, a complete soda fountain from the 1930s.

“It started when I was three,” Gil said. “I picked up a little rock one time. I knew it was important. My mother said it was an Indian arrowhead. I saved it.” He’s been collecting things ever since, calling it a hobby — a hobby that today he says, “Went awry.” Gil makes his living as a machinist and welder. “Our ancestors came to this land, settled it and built this country at a tremendous risk. Thousands died doing it. The miracle is not just that they pulled it off, but that they created the greatest nation on Earth. Freedom comes at a huge price. We cannot forget that. If there is a message here,” Gil said, “that’s it.” He handed me a piece of the Berlin Wall. “It’s things like this that have influenced my life — freedom denied for decades, then recovered. What you are holding once represented mass fear and repression.

Now it’s just an innocent chunk of concrete.” In Polson — actually, on a scenic hillside overlooking it — I pulled into a KOA campground. Having been doing this for 17 years, I have developed a gut-based, park-rating system that kicks in before I even get out of my motorhome. Instantly, I knew that these owners were either RVers, or had sat around many a campfire listening carefully to what people said about RV parks. This is not a seen-one, seen-them-all park. An immediate clue was a rent-a-car sign. Since I don’t tow one, how many times have I wanted to rent a car at a campground, but found it not possible? Another was LP-gas barbecues at RV sites.

How handy is that? “In the summer, the hayride starts at 7:30. Music begins here on the deck at 8:00. That’s when we serve the huckleberry milkshakes and espresso. Then at 9:00, we run the movie.” Paul London was telling me this as he opened cabinet doors that hide a widescreen, 52-inch television and a surround-sound system. He and his wife, Carlisa, are the owners — and are RVers. We were on a broad, redwood deck, attached to the main building. From it is an unobstructed view of the lake and the mountains rising on both sides. “On weekends and holidays we have a pancake breakfast out here,” Paul said. In this evolving, recreational world of RVing, parks like Paul and Carlisa’s are standard setters in our universe. This is truly a destination. Paul said that 80 percent of guests come back. I can see why.

Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected].

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