Happy Wanderer: Montana Goes Cowboy Chic

HILLS NEWSPAPERS: April 15, 2011

Everything I’ve ever known about Montana can be summed up in three words — college, cowboys and the Crystal Bar.

The Crystal, mind you, is not just any old watering hole. In my days at Montana State University, it was a beer-chugging, chaw-spittin,’ country dive bar where the jukebox blasted from sunup till last call.

I was the “Queen of the Crystalizers,” a title immortalized on a brass plaque bolted to the brick wall near the pool cues. That plaque was my birthday present back in 1976, when my friends thought I needed something to show my children some day.

“Look,” they imagined I’d tell the ‘young ‘uns,’ “Mom has a plaque at the Crystal, right next to the pool cues and spitoon.” Thirty-five years later, my kids are all but grown. They’ve seen that plaque at the Crystal, and, quite frankly, they aren’t impressed. They know Montana is changing, and it probably won’t be long before that name plate comes down and the Crystal turns into a wine bar.

For research purposes only, I took a trip to Montana, recently, with five of my girlfriends. We started in Bozeman and ended in Missoula. What I learned can be summed up quite nicely in the words of an old rancher I met at the newly restored Sacajawea Hotel in Three Forks. He was there to buy a bull at the cattle sale, but he didn’t want to pay too much.

Historic Sacajawea Inn in Three Forks

“My spread might not be around much longer,” he said. “The kids have their own jobs and don’t wantto run the place.” The jobs kids are taking tell a lot about Montana today. They’re working in the service industry, in a state where tourism is spreading as fast as a wildfire in a stand of lodgepole pines.

Take guest ranches, for instance. Montana has three of the top nine luxury dude ranches in the world, including The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Triple Creek Ranch in Darby and the one where we stayed — The Ranch at Rock Creek, outside the colorful town of Philipsburg.

Luxury tent cabins at the Ranch at Rock Creek

Never mind the fact that the wranglers all looked liked they’d stepped out of GQ for Cowboys. The Ranch at Rock Creek (which we later renamed Ranch at “Hottie” Creek) was 6,000-plus acres of rolling foothills framed by snow-covered peaks and a world-class trout stream cutting through miles of meadow laced with Dogtooth violets and Shooting Stars. Everything you could want in a dream vacation was included in the price of our stay — horseback riding, fly fishing, five-star dining and karaoke.

Yes, I said it. We sang karaoke in our own private saloon with saddle-seat stools and a doting bartender who could pour a top-shelf drink and sing “I’ve got you, Babe” at the same time.

Bowling alley and movie theater at Ranch at Rock Creek

The Ranch at Rock Creek represents the Montana of today “… the romance of the Old West with the luxury of the world’s finest resorts. It’s country flavor with VIP comfort, and nobody blends it better than folks in Montana.

Even the bartender at the Crystal can see the changes. Standing under a sign announcing the auction of bar memorabilia, including the buffalo head and the cattle horns, he tells me where to get a good meal in town. It’s the cafe around the corner with the Tofu Reuben on the menu.

What are your favorite adventures? Drop me a line, and I’ll share them with readers. You can reach me at ginnyprior@hotmail.com or online at www.ginnyprior.com.


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