When I was a teenager I visited Butte, Montana to spend my August birthday with my nephew who shares the same birth date. I remember thinking after that visit that Butte must be the ugliest place in the world. I couldn’t imagine anyone living there by choice. (Sorry, Butte fans, but that is how my teenaged self felt about it.) Through the years, as I would meet people who loved Montana and spoke longingly of going back to Big Sky country, I just didn’t get it. I thought they must be a little nuts.
Fast forward a few (ahem, 45) years and I have newly discovered Montana. My son and his wife moved to Kalispell, in the northwest region of the state. During my visit in September, I was amazed by the crystal teal-colored waters of Flathead Lake. Then I noticed that the rocks around the lake were teal and purple. Their color was reflecting through the clear water of the lake.
As if to welcome me to my new state of appreciation, an eagle flew along side our car and then disappeared over the trees. The sky, clouds and air were brighter and fresher than any I had ever experienced.
Thanksgiving brought with it some extra time off from our normal obligations, so Russ and I took advantage and headed back up to spend the holiday with our son and his family. Kalispell didn’t disappoint. Even though the weather was a bit chilly and foliage was heading into winter, we still saw plenty that was scenic and paintable.
I was so excited to show Russ this beautiful place! It turns out he had been here before as a teenager. His father held a painting vacation workshop at Flathead Lake, so Russ was quite familiar with its exquisite scenery.
We took a day to wander the galleries of Whitefish, just 15 minutes away from Kalispell. We met some great gallery people and saw some incredible art. We were planning a trip to Glacier National Park for the next Monday. When we walked in to the Walking Man Frame Shop & Gallery, they were just in the process of framing up some old prints of Glacier Park. The best conversation about Glacier, hiking, and plein air painting then ensued.
Peter, the owner of Walking Man, is a photographer. Daniel, his assistant, is a painter and digital artist. Both are in love with Glacier National Park. Daniel knew all the ins and outs and closures and habits of the park. He even enthusiastically offered to go paint with Russ anytime. The conversation ended with Peter telling us, “The sun is shining right now! You need to get your butts up there to paint!” Said like a true artist.
We made it to Glacier on Monday. It was pretty chilly, fluctuating between 21° and 34° fahrenheit. The Thermos of hot chocolate that our daughter-in-law sent with us, and Russ’ ingenious setup for keeping his paint supple allowed him to paint as long as the battery held out.
The sun and cloud cover played hide-and-seek creating some stunning play of light through the low hanging clouds. When we started out, there was just enough of a breeze to create little rippled waves across the lake, but not enough to make it unpleasant. Geese flew overhead and called from the opposite shore. Little nuthatches foraged and played in the trees, keeping me entertained while Russ painted.
By the time Russ was ready to pack it in, the wind had picked up and the temperature dropped dramatically. The waves across the lake became more brisk. It was beautiful. And cold.
Tuesday came and it was time to head back home to Utah. We had decided to make it a material-gathering drive home, so we had planned to stop whenever we saw something worthy. We were like cartoon characters, driving a short distance then pulling off, jumping out, and running around taking pictures. Drive a few more yards, pull off, jump out, run around. It literally took us two days to make a 12-hour trip.
There was one good stretch where the snow was coming down pretty heavy. The snow falling from the sky even looked different, more fluffy, more lovely than any I had ever seen before.
Pine forests stood guard, keeping their treasure secret, until we snuck past them and discovered the lake hidden behind them. We saw lakes so still and clear that they gave a perfect reflection of the mountains and trees surrounding them. The snow created an almost dream-like effect. Fog clung to the surface of one lake, disguising where the lake ended and the fog bank began.
Never again will I wonder how anyone could love Montana. As John Steinbeck said, “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”