Big Sky State’s on her mind

Town Crier/Ginny Prior

Editor’s Note: Ginny Prior is on vacation this week. The following is a Town Crier column from Aug. 2003.

I’M FEELING a little strange this week. You might say I’m shell-shocked, after returning from a trip to Montana. Landing at the airport in Oakland on Saturday night, I walked into a mob scene with long lines of people pushing carts of oversized luggage. Overworked and understaffed, the security folks could barely handle the rush of travelers.

The scene at the other end of my trip was almost surreal. Helena, the capitol of Montana, has an airport so sweet — you can walk through security and onto the plane 15 minutes before takeoff. You can leave your unlocked rental car in the parking lot next door with the key under the mat. This is post-Sept. 11, Montana style.

So it’s not surprising that all over the Big Sky State, there are California transplants. Helena is such a hip, artistic community now. There’s even a California flag flying next to the Montana flag in one shopping district. And Helena’s baseball stadium has our old bleacher seats, brought over from the Oakland Coliseum after it was remodeled.

At the 320 Guest Ranch outside Yellowstone National Park, Fred Kiemel likes to tell the story of how he moved to Montana.

“I was on the Hollywood Freeway, Friday afternoon, six lanes of traffic — bumper to bumper and about 94 degrees, when Willie Nelson came on the radio with the song ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.'” That was all it took. Fred says he sold everything and bought a place on the Gallatin River.The Gallatin is where Robert Redford filmed “A River Runs Through It.” It’s a gorgeous river that runs so clear, you can see the trout skimming the surface, looking for hoppers.

Fly fishing is a religion here, and it takes just one try to see why. Standing in waders in a rush of tumbling mountain water is a powerful lure. So is shooting the rapids in a raft or kayak, or a good old fashioned inner tube. At 320 Ranch, we even rode horses along the rugged riverbank, much the way wranglers did over a century ago.

It was the promise of adventure that brought me to Montana State University for college some 30 years ago. I formed a band that played at a supper club outside Bozeman, where famed broadcaster Chet Huntley liked to dance with his wife, Tippy.

The couple opened Big Sky Resort in 1974, and we were invited to stay and play. Chet died not long after that, but his dream of a world class retreat outside Yellowstone National Park lives on.

With 400 inches of annual snowfall and 80 miles of runs, Big Sky’s skiing and snow-boarding are legendary. But this resort holds its own in the summertime, too, with hiking and mountain biking and horseback riding and rafting. Arnold Palmer designed the golf course here, and I played every inch of it as I tacked like a sailboat back and forth across the fairway. But that’s a story for another column.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Montana’s a great place to visit, but you’d be bored to tears living here. Not enough excitement. Not enough culture.

Well, Montana’s changing. The whole state may have fewer people than San Francisco, but there’s no shortage of things to do. And the only airport stress is deciding whether to have free beer or wine on your Horizon airline flight over the those big, blue skies.


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