The View From My Window

Growing up and returning to Bozeman.

Fritz Shallah

Sunrise on the Bridgers is as glorious this morning as any I remember. Slowly hues of blue and purple dissolve into lavender and pinks, dancing joyfully on the snow shoulders of Mount Baldy and Sacajawea Peak. This is the view from my window. I have risen to see it, squinting and yawning, as I hold tight to my mug of coffee. This is not what I saw in 1971 when I left here. I am a man with feet planted forty years apart as I survey my surroundings.

Aah! “Montana; The Last Best Place.” I left here before it was “discovered”, when a resort at Big Sky was still Chet Huntley’s “folly” and MSU was a small, aggie college. I remember the sign on the hill at the end of East Main Street that read “Welcome to Bozeman. 5000 Friendly People. And A Couple of Old Soreheads”. Thousands more people fill the Valley now, and a few soreheads remain. I like the evolution though. The difference between then and now is a dynamic before and after picture. Both Bozeman and I have matured.

I sit in apartmented comfort where only pasture land spread along the highway that is now Frontage Road. Traffic streams back and forth from the international airport that was a small travel hub several miles from town. I irrigated hay for our cattle where dormitories rise above the MSU campus. My morning’s view of the Bridgers is partly obstructed by rooftops. Signs of change are everywhere.

Growing up here I walked two miles from our place to school at LaMotte. Sometimes I rode, stabling my mare in a shed at the back of the school yard. In high school I rose before dawn each day for chores and breakfast before catching the school bus at 6:15. A jarring, graveled road took us from Bear Canyon. Now that road is paved through to Kagy Ave, and lined with homes.

The highway at Portal Creek in Gallatin Canyon, where once I could easily cross below my family’s cabin to get to the river, is its own river of cars. An hour before supper was plenty of time to fill my creel with a mess of Rainbows to quick fry in cornmeal and bacon grease. Now fishermen speak proudly of catching several trout in a day. So much has changed since I moved away from, then back to, home.

Montanans were serious about border control before Texas! “Welcome to Montana. Now Go Home!”, the bumper stickers read. Talk was about building a fence around the state to keep out the Californians. Now I sport a sticker with a subtler, more ironic message; “Get Lost! (in Montana).” Some core values never change, though the players do.    

I miss the days when a gallon of gas to cruise Main on Saturday night was thirty five cents, and supper was nickel burgers at John’s Hamburgers. I’d drive through town, country music on the radio, with few lights to impede my progress. Once the sidewalks rolled up for the night, I’d go “parkin’ and sparkin’’ with my girl near the MSU campus. If my parents asked what I’d been up to that night, I’d reply, “Oh, I was just watching the Fieldhouse turn.”, a reference to it’s odd, flying saucer-like design. I can barely tell where that spot is now.

Manny’s Burger Inn is but a memory of  Formica counters and plates stacked high with toast, though I never experienced the dishwater coffee and greasy fries Manny advertised. The Western Cafe thrives and their hamburger steak tribute to Manny is as fine an homage as ever was. When The Topper on 7th was Bozeman’s only choice for fine dining, I dressed for dinner when I went. Now great places to eat are abundant, though people stare when I show up wearing a tie, and removing my cowboy hat as I walk in the door. I still find good homemade pie, Montana style steaks and Wilcoxson’s ice cream, but no longer have to travel to Billings to eat “fancy food.” A former chef, I love being able to choose between a global array of cuisines, theme restaurants, and good home cooking. So much great food has discovered Bozeman. This kind of change I like!

Once, exotic beer was Coors because we traveled to Wyoming to buy it. I’d tuck cans of it under the windshield wipers of my truck to cool it while driving to compete at small town rodeos in places like Three Forks, Ennis and Twin Bridges. Now great craft beers abound. Names like Moose Drool, Salmon Fly and Bozone evoke Montana’s sense of humor. I enjoy a world of brews without leaving the county, and the quality is every bit as fine as anything I’ve quaffed in Washington, Oregon or California.

I remember the pavement on 7th Avenue ending just past Carl’s IGA at Durston. There’s a furniture store there now. A traffic jam was the crowd exiting the drive-in theater. Shopping choices were limited. Mom would call in her grocery list in to Heeb’s before heading to town and they’d have it boxed and ready when she was done at Buttreys on West Main. Now I can shop at least eight major locations for groceries alone, and self service reigns supreme. Shops, stops and strip malls cater to my every desire.

Bozeman’s tree lined streets remain and Main Street shows community commitment to preserving its architectural flavor. Steve’s Country Store is gone, but the plastic Palomino still rears up over the corner of Main and Bozeman. The Roundhouse building is no longer round and Bozeman High now sports an aquatic center.  Imagine, winter swimming in Montana, and no hot spring involved! The log house of my Bridger Canyon childhood, is a bed and breakfast and to get there I pass a patchwork quilt of subdivisions; an array of “can’t get there from here” street layouts. The simpler Bozeman I remember has traded up to become a mini metropolis.

In the sixties and seventies I enjoyed Saturday matinees in the balcony of the Ellen Theater, 4-H square dances and band concerts in Bogert Park. Now, on summer Thursdays, I find an eclectic menu of great musicians playing Music on Main. I love dancing in the crowd and sipping a P.B.R. In public. I’ve seen Guys and Dolls and a world movie premiere at the Ellen (where a whisper on the stage can still be heard in the lobby) and listened to Philly style Funk and great blues in Livingston. In my travels I’ve been to Memphis and the House of Blues, every Honky Tonk on Nashville’s Music Row and New Orleans for jazz.   

I’ve been to “big city” symphonies and ballets. Bozeman’s ballet and symphony compare well. I love Bozeman’s own Music Row of clubs, pubs and bars offering everything from hip hop to country.  I’m glad to have so many choices now. Poetry and book readings abound, and the Museum of the Rockies is world class. Bozeman is a mini slice of anything a Seattle or San Francisco or any other big city can offer.

Growing up, we cowboys clashed with the hippies. Now my city friends and I dispute environmental issues and land use. We take sides over wolves and grizzlies. I remember when the only Grizzlies that concerned us were from Missoula! Recreational access is more limited, but I still cut a Christmas tree near Battle Ridge last year. It was a childhood revisitation for me and a new experience for my wife who moved here from Philadelphia. Perhaps that tells it best. Bozeman is a motley mix of people from all over, managing to get along. People still wave when their vehicles pass each other on rural roads, but the rig is as likely to be a Subaru as a pickup truck nowadays. Greetings are still genuinely friendly in local stores. Bozeman has become a larger place in a smaller world without losing small town niceties.

Home for me for many years was wherever I hung my hat. When asked though, I always proudly proclaimed I was from Montana, a native. Those things that draw others here are what brought me back home as well. We’re here for the quality of life. The trout are fewer and more elusive but still strike hard if you know where to cast. Wilderness places where I camped alone have turned into houses and ski runs. It’s still easy, however, to get away from town, and the beauty of Bozeman’s mountain surroundings remains to take my breath away. The view from my window looks darn good. I am glad to be home.    

Tom “Fritz” Shallah

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