Montana on my mind

words and photos by Jules Older

 

When I teach skiing, I suggest to my students that, to establish and hold a rhythm, they find their ski song.

Truth is, my ski songs find me. My usual one is Sweet Georgia Brown. When I skied West Virginia, it morphed into Miner’s Lifeguard. When I crossed from Switzerland’s French side to the German, my song suddenly switched to Springtime for Hitler and Germany.

See? My song finds me.

So, I shouldn't have been surprised when, about a week before a trip to Whitefish, Montana, a new song came pounding into my head… and out of my mouth enough times to drive my wife crazy.

It has a couple of names: Leaving Cheyenne and Goodbye Old Paint. Here's how it goes…

I ride an old Paint

A leadin' old Dan

I'm goin' to Montana

For to throw the Hoolahan

 

Woody Guthrie sang it. Roy Rogers sang it. And now that I'm skiing Montana once again, I'm singing it, too. My wife can't wait for the big yellow taxi to take me away.

And I can't wait to get back to Montana. For a devotee of the beautiful and the peculiar like me, the state’s a double treat.

Montana is known for forested mountains, wide-open spaces, abundance of wildlife and absence of people. All true. It’s gorgeous.

It also has one of the most polluted cities in America; a history of bitter, sometimes deadly, labor disputes, and an over-abundance of weird villains including the Unabomber. It’s insane.

Northern Exposure

As a major bonus, Montana skiing is pretty damned wonderful. And because it’s seriously underrated, overshadowed by its southern neighbors Colorado and Utah, it’s also seriously uncrowded. There are probably more people skiing Vail on any given weekend than on all the mountains in Montana combined.

The only resorty ski resort in the state is Big Sky, but Montana is blessed with strong-skiing mountains: cowboy-cultured Red Lodge, gentle front/steep back Discovery Basin, powder-rich Showdown, scarily steep Bridger Bowl. And Whitefish.

Never heard of Whitefish? Until 2007, it was Big Mountain. Changed its name when it turned 60. The hotel on the mountain is the Kandahar. After 9/11 it nearly changed its name, too. Fortunately, it didn’t become the American Eagle or Freedom Resort; it’s still small, still homey and still Kandahar.

And Whitefish, née Big, still skis big. Though its 3,000 acres makes it significantly smaller than Heavenly (4,800) and Squaw (4,000), it’s a four-sided ski mountain, so you can make your way around the slopes as the sun makes its way across the sky. It’s a hill that runs the full range from decent beginners’ slopes through plenty of intermediate terrain to huckable cliffs, tight forests and sphincter-clenching steeps.

Aside from its name change, Whitefish is best known for ghosts — snow ghosts. They're real ghosts, not the fevered imaginings of frightened children or clever P.R. people. Snow ghosts are mountain conifers coated with successive layers of rime.

I thought I saw another kind of ghost on the mountain, but it turned out to be a statue of Jesus. A statue of Jesus on public land. Welcome to Montana. Expect the unlikely.

Eating Montana

One of the unexpected pleasures of Whitefish is the cornucopia of good-to-great restaurants in this remote corner of Montana. Wasabi’s sushi is not only fresh; it’s playfully creative. The Boat Club serves big, beefy and lakeside. Sunrise Café mixes Montana bold with Asian inspiration. Montana Coffee Traders makes a great breakfast and packs a fine picnic lunch. For vegetarians with a spiritual bent, Green Tea House is your cup of tea.

The number-one restaurant in Whitefish is the on-mountain Kandahar Restaurant in the Kandahar Hotel. The menu includes another Montana surprise — alligator.

Alligator in Montana? Chef-owner Andy Blanton did much of his Army-brat growing up in Louisiana where alligator is a dietary staple.

Other pleasures

One of the pleasures of skiing Whitefish is what's available on non-ski days. My favorite is nearby Glacier National Park, one of America’s scenic wonders. I've walked it, snow-hiked it and cross-country skied it, always and all ways astonished by its beauty. Snowy mountains don’t just rise out of Lake McDonald, they're perfectly reflected in it.

For nights, there are bars, restaurants, gaming and — unexpectedly —theater. At the beautifully designed O’Shaugnessy Center, my friends Jean, Ross and I took in a skillfully acted performance of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl.

The New York Times described it as “one of the finest and funniest new plays.” I thought it was about female bonding. Jean said it was about apple picking. Ross maintained it was actually about a white couch. I dunno.

Stand tall

One thing I do know, when I ski Whitefish, I take a ski lesson. The ski school seems to specialize in brilliant women instructors. Last time I spent an afternoon with Ridie Armstrong; this time, a morning with Lori Rust.

“To get the most fun out of a ski trip, you should take a lesson,” she said. And in the course of an hour or two, she increased my fun by improving my skiing. Here's her best tip: “Once you're into a turn, most people don’t know the easiest way to start the next one. Stand up tall, and your skis will automatically seek the fall-line. It feels like magic.”

Indeed, it did. (For another Lori tip plus my visual take on Montana, check out www.youtube.com/user/julesolder#p/u/8/ziCT5FKktjU )

Montana skiers can afford lessons since lift tickets are a lot cheaper than in Colorado or Utah. Whitefish charges about $64 for a day pass. A day at Aspen or Vail will set you back around $100.

That’s one reason I'm singing,

I ride an old Paint

A leadin' old Dan

I'm goin' to Montana

For to throw the Hoolahan

 

Come a ti-yi yippie-yi-yay, yippy-yay

Come a ti-yi yippie-yi-yay

 

 

Jules Older lurks at julesolder.com. He opines about San Francisco restaurants on the iPhone app, San Francisco Restaurants, http://sutromedia.com/apps/SF_Restaurants  

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