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Archive for the ‘Montana’ Category

I arrived in Big Timber, MT, during early evening hours, ready to be tucked away for the night. I’d called ahead and booked a small room with shared bath, always a bargain way to stow away in historic hotels. It is a financial luxury, traveling alone, in that I can almost always take the smallest, least expensive room.

The Grand Hotel Bed and Breakfast, as it is called nowadays, was built in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current hotel owner will say that restoration is an ongoing process, but it was clear from the moment I stepped inside that extensive work had already been done. Woodwork, tin ceilings and natural brick all showed evidence of tender care.

I was given a key to Room 1, located conveniently on the second floor, not far from the stairs. Decorated in rich peach tones, it had a brass bed, antique dresser and old-fashioned children’s prints hanging against the walls. The room was cozy but large enough to be comfortable and just a short walk to the restrooms, which were plentiful in proportion to the guest rooms.

I’d driven without stopping for lunch, relying on snacks in the car, so I was ready for a good meal. The hotel was serving dinner in both a formal dining room and a more casual saloon. My inclination was to slump over something easy to consume quickly and casually, so a booth in the saloon was perfect. A plate of pasta and veggies solved the hunger.

Big Timber is the type of town that closes up completely at night, falling into an empty silence that is not broken until the sun rises. The peace of the empty streets created the ideal atmosphere for a good night’s sleep.

Morning led me to the dining room, where the breakfast that is included with lodging is served. The meal was described as “Chef’s Choice,” which might sound scary in a school cafeteria. But it wasn’t a problem there at the hotel. Strawberry pancakes, accompanied by eggs, juice and coffee soon landed on the table.

I lingered before checking out, enjoying the ambiance of my peach-toned room, as well as the overall historic feeling of the hotel’s interior spaces. Even after turning in my key, I reclaimed the corner booth in the saloon and jotted down notes over a soda.

A bonus for stalling before leaving was the chance to meet with owner Larry Edwards, who took over the business in 1990. His hands-on involvement in keeping the business running smoothly was apparent as I watched him make the rounds in the restaurant area, greeting guests and making sure details were covered. Even the “critters” get regular baths, he told me, referring to the various trophy heads mounted on the walls.

Downstairs, however, in the basement of the hotel, was where the most intriguing discovery of my morning waited. Beyond the smooth surfaces of the refinished banisters and the swanky interiors of the hotel’s common areas was a steep stairwell, leading to a dusty chamber filled with antique washing tubs, tables and mangles – the remnants of an early Chinese laundry. A short cascade of steps led into the room from a back door, where customers would have brought their clothing for cleaning and pressing by Chinese immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The town of Big Timber is small, without much in the way of tourist attractions. But it sits in a scenic paradise, alongside the Yellowstone River and up against the Crazy Mountains. And its location – 80 miles west of Billings and 60 miles east of Bozeman – makes it an easy place to pause when crossing Montana.

Though private landholders make access to the mountain terrain somewhat difficult, there are public roads from both the west (Cottonwood Rd.) and east (Big Timber Canyon Rd.) that allow mountain enthusiasts a way into the spectacular surroundings. The 40 alpine lakes and 66 miles of trails make “The Crazies” a desirable destination for both hikers and anglers.

It’s not difficult to find standard chain lodging when traveling along Interstate highways. Sometimes it’s even what a road-weary traveler is looking for. But it’s nice to know there are other options. The Grand Hotel in Big Timber is one of those hidden finds – easy, convenient and economical, yet full of ambiance, comfort and history – definitely a good stop along the highway.

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It’s no mystery that the area a few dozen miles south of Bozeman, MT is called Big Sky. Gazing up from the scenic Gallatin landscape, the sky seems larger than the mind can comprehend, stretching across the heavens like an endless, overhead sea.

I could feel the tension and stress begin to evaporate immediately as I followed the Gallatin River north along Hwy 191. Thirty-five miles north of West Yellowstone, I stepped out of my car and my feet hit the dry Montana dust. I knew I’d found a little slice of Western paradise.

The 320 Guest Ranch had been on my radar for some time, but timing and logistics had kept it as no more than a bookmark and a wish. Finally, the pieces had come together for an overnight stay.

I asked for a cabin that would be some distance from the center of activity. My yearning for the life of a cowgirl recluse was handed to me in the form of a key to Cabin #40, at the very end of a long row of similar structures. Though technically one half of a duplex, there would be no one in the other side that night, giving me exactly the peace and quiet I wanted. Even better, I had a wood-burning fireplace and a generous stack of firewood just outside the door.

I decided to do some wandering before settling into my log hideaway. I would pass on the numerous recreational options – horseback riding, rafting, hiking and more. I was content to wander the grounds, visit the horses and simply breathe in the fresh air. One stop I had no intention of missing, however, was the restaurant, housed in an impressive log building that had been developed around one of the ranch’s original log cabins.

The interior of the dining hall had none of the trappings of touristy western décor. This was the real deal – a true guest ranch for those desiring an authentic experience. I took in the bear rug above the saloon’s bar, the old harnesses hanging on the rafters and the original oil paintings on the restaurant’s walls. Under wagon wheel chandeliers and to the soft strains of cowboy music, I easily fell into the ranch spirit.

Not surprisingly, the menu was focused on local fare, with creatively prepared selections of elk, bison and fresh fish. There were plenty of choices. Even my now-vegetarian appetite had no trouble being satisfied, as the chef whipped up a delicious pasta dish with fresh pesto and generous portions of sautéed mushrooms, zucchini and fresh peppers, topped with pine nuts and fresh grated parmesan cheese. I resisted the dessert options, which included mixed berry cobbler and crème brulee.

The 320 Guest Ranch is hardly a newcomer to the Montana hospitality scene. It dates back to the late 1800’s when father and son Sam and Clinton Wilson had properties next to each other, later combined to form what was then called the Buffalo Horn Resort.

In 1936 Montana’s first female doctor, Dr. Caroline McGill, purchased the property and ran it as a healthy retreat for patients and friends. The historic McGill cabin still remains, available to guests as a rental unit.

Ownership was subsequently inherited by friends of Dr, McGill, the Goodwin family, who ran the ranch until selling it to current owner Dave Brask in 1987. Since then the ranch has flourished, developing return customers, hosting conferences and providing guests with a welcome escape from the stress of daily life.

I spent a peaceful evening in the cabin, interrupted only by a brief altercation with the fireplace flue, which resulted in a very non-peaceful piercing screech from the smoke detector. I was grateful I didn’t have a neighbor in the next cabin. But the episode faded away into a quiet evening with a glowing fire. It was a relaxing night and I slept well, waking up to a day of pristine weather and a hearty breakfast buffet, included with lodging.

I love finding places that I can recommend without the slightest hesitation. The 320 Ranch falls right into that category. Whether as a lodging guest, a conference attendee or a customer stopping by for a good meal or trail ride, it’s a great destination. I’d save a little room for the berry cobbler. And make sure the flue is open before kicking the fireplace into gear.

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I sit next to the levee in Fort Benton,MT, known as “The Birthplace of Montana,” because it was the northernmost point that steamships could dock in the 1800’s. Spent the night at the Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882 and restored in 1999.

The fur, buffalo and gold trading activity of the early years along the Missouri River has been replaced here by a beautiful stretch of walkway – The Levee Walk. Benches, tables, historical markers and exhibits. Very well done.

It’s so peaceful that it’s hard to pull myself away – soft breeze off the river, quiet clattering of leaves in the trees. But I have a lot of driving to do today, so I have to move on. Southbound.

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Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, I pulled out my scattered travel notes and found the phone number to an inn I’d had bookmarked for many years. Luck was on my side. There was a vacancy that evening, so I secured a reservation over the phone, put away my notes and hopped back on the highway.

Sixty-three miles later, I exited I-90 at Jackson Creek Road and headed north, wondering what kind of adventure I’d gotten myself into this time. Just over three miles from the Interstate, I saw the B&B’s rustic sign on my right. I pulled off the road, pausing to enjoy a telltale hint within the lettering – a paw print, substituted for the “o” in the inn’s name. I looked up the driveway to the house in the distance, smiled and proceeded the rest of the way.

By lodging standards, it’s a small bed and breakfast, with three guest rooms tucked upstairs in a family home, plus a guest suite over the garage. The rooms are comfortable, with nice linens, convenient amenities and many other niceties associated with well-run B&B’s. Guests receive a full breakfast and have use of an indoor hot tub, Finnish sauna, pool table, entertainment center and more. But what makes this inn so dramatically different from others is not what can be found on the inside of the spacious log and stone building, but what awaits on the rest of the property.

Howler’s Inn is not only a bed and breakfast, but also a wolf sanctuary, a safe haven for wolves who have been bred in captivity, abused or unwanted. The wolves who find refuge at Howlers’s would not be able to survive if released into the wild. Though federally licensed and supervised by the USDA, the sanctuary does not receive any federal funding. It relies on donations from friends and guests, income from the bed and breakfast business and the hard work and love provided by the owners, Chris and Mary-Martha Bahn.

The wolves who live at Howler’s Inn arrive as pups and remain there for the duration of their lives. Because the sanctuary does not breed or sell any wolves, they are spayed or neutered when they arrive. Surrounded by trees, boulders and meandering streams, they live in one of two large, fenced enclosures and have free run of their natural setting.

I was fortunate to arrive in the late afternoon and have some time alone on the property before other guests arrived. The sky was overcast and rain was threatening, so I dropped my belongings off quickly in my room, grabbed my camera and headed down to see the residents. Mary-Martha cautioned me to stand at least five feet away from the fences. I was happy to follow any words of warning and grateful to be allowed to wander on my own.

Wolves are nocturnal, so most were still sleeping, but as the sun moved lower in the horizon, one by one they began to stir. In observing, and later speaking with both Chris and Mary-Martha, I came to recognize each wolf as having an individual story and personality.

Mohawk and Grizzly are the Alpha male and female, respectively. Both timber wolves, Alpha was born in 1997 and shows territorial and protective behavior. Grizzly was born in 1996 and was the runt of five pups, the only one of the five to survive an attack of Parvo. Chief is the largest, weighing approx. 100 pounds. Sundance is the Omega, the lowest wolf on the totem pole, and is very skittish. Cheyenne is an Arctic tundra wolf who was the alpha female until she was ousted by the pack. She was allowed back in when the newer alpha female, Ninja, was ousted herself. Ninja is the oldest of all the wolves, born in 1994. She remains distanced from the pack and lives on a deck outside the house, though still within the fenced enclosure.

I spent some time observing the main pack, keeping the recommended distance from the fence that surrounds their three acre space. I then moved on to the smaller, one acre enclosure, where the two younger wolves live. Kiowa and Comanche came to Howler’s Inn in 2007 as pups and the intention was to integrate them into the main pack. When they were not accepted by the other wolves, Chris and Mary Martha built them their own, one acre enclosure.

I found Mary-Martha at the edge of the enclosure, with both Kiowa and Comanche just on the other side of the fence. She motioned for me to come a little closer and told me there was a chance Comanche might allow me to approach the fence. Of all the wolves in the sanctuary, he was the most “dog-like,” she informed me. I watched as she stretched her fingers through the twists of metal, scratching Comanche’s soft, gray and white fur. He raised his head towards her in appreciation.

Cautiously, I stepped a little closer, watching for Mary-Martha’s cues. The wolf watched me approach, but did not move away. Once I stood directly next to Mary-Martha, she felt the wolf had accepted me and told me I could slowly reach through the fence, as well. To my amazement, she was right. I let my fingers brush the fur behind Comanche’s ears. It was surreal. I was actually petting a wolf.

Kiowa, the other young wolf, was more hesitant. Not as distant as the older wolves, but clearly not open to a pat on the head. Comanche was an exception, a behavioral rarity, Chris and Mary Martha explained. Wolves are wild by nature and cannot be trusted to react as anything else. Since the wolves at Howler’s Inn know and trust their owners, Chris and Mary-Martha are able to enter the enclosure to feed them or visit.

I had the good fortune to see Chris feed Kiowa and Comanche that evening, decked out in safety garb – a special jumpsuit and gloves to avoid scratches. The wolves at Howlers are fed a high-protein dog food mix daily, plus a twice-weekly mixture of red meat used for sled dogs and racing greyhounds. I had arrived on a dog food night. After taking all of fifteen seconds to consume their huge bowls of food, both Kiowa and Comanche took turns sitting in Chris’ lap to be petted and played with. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But, then, I would never have believed I’d pet a wolf.

Evening fell and I scrounged up my own dinner of crackers, fruit and other misc. edible items I had in the car. I didn’t want to miss any time at the inn by making a run into town for a meal. I retired to my room, cracked open a window facing the wolf enclosures and settled in for the night.

Maybe it was midnight, maybe before, when I heard the first howl. It sounded like a distant cry of an owl, only lower in pitch. Soon it was joined by another. And then another. Before long I was audience to a midnight concert, some voices coming from the other side of the sanctuary, others starting up below my window. The sounds echoed across the open fields and wove themselves into my dreams. I kept the window open all night, just to hear the music.

Morning brought more drizzle and I knew I had to start preparing for a rainy day of driving, But I was determined to visit the wolves once more before leaving. I was served a breakfast of Orange French Toast with fresh fruit and juice, which I enjoyed while visiting with other guests B&B style. I picked up a T-shirt in the gift store – a hutch with assorted items that help support the sanctuary – and made my way back down to the enclosures.

I know I did not imagine that Comanche saw me coming. We eyed each other from many yards away. I moved closer to the fence and so did he. I stood against the fence and he moved right up to meet me. I was able to run my fingers through his fur just a few times before I had to leave. I gave him my thanks for letting me know him. In return, he gave me a forever memory of his gentle spirit.

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I drove into Boulder, MT and arrived at Boulder Hot Springs Inn and Spa completely unannounced. I’d had no idea where I was going to stay that particular night, not even any certainty that I’d be in that area. But when I found myself meandering between Butte and Helena, I landed in a serene Montana area aptly known as Peace Valley.

The inn itself dates back to 1863, when the first building was constructed. It has a long history of additions, changes of ownership, restorations, declines, improvements and varied uses. In 1990 it fell into the ownership of Anne Wilson Schaef, well-known lecturer and author of numerous books, including the popular, “Meditations for Women Who do Too Much.” Under her guidance and through a current limited partnership, the historic inn has been given new life. Today it stands as a majestic structure against the scenic backdrop of the Deerlodge National Forest. It is a remarkable building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rising tall in the midst of 300 acres of wetlands, it can easily cause approaching visitors to catch their breath.

There are downsides to traveling without reservations and, even more so, in sliding in without so much as calling ahead the same day. In this case, I arrived to find the inn had suffered an episode of water damage the night before that necessitated closing down a good portion of the main building. As a result, it had been decided not to take on overnight guests that evening. I sat down in the lobby and was trying to figure out another plan when they offered to give me a tour of the building. I readily accepted. After all, I was there. I figured I might as well see what I could.

The building was impressive, with restoration completed in the west wing and plans for other remaining areas. Staircases, hallways and archways were beautifully restored. Guest rooms were furnished with a soothing blend of simplicity and artistic flavor. Common areas included a warm, inviting lounge, as well as a quiet, outdoor porch with rocking chairs. By the time we finished the tour, I was thoroughly enchanted. Shamelessly, I managed to talk them into letting me stay for the night.

Given a choice of several remodeled bed and breakfast rooms, I chose The Homestead Room, which looked out over the front property. As with each bed and breakfast room in the inn, the theme and decor were unique to that particular room. It was furnished in antiques, with personal touches added throughout. Every inch of the room was immaculate and inviting. A quilt in soft green, blue and rose tones covered an antique brass bed. Crocheted doilies accompanied a ceramic pitcher on the dresser. Framed prints on the walls and a detailed wooden model of a covered wagon added to the room’s pioneer ambiance. I felt right at home. With a private bath and writing desk, I was set for the evening.

A major draw to Boulder Hot Springs has always been the healing water that bubbles up from local mineral springs. Piped in at temperatures ranging from 140 to 175 degrees, it is cooled with natural well water and offered to visitors for soaking. Guests can relax in two indoor plunges and steam rooms or opt for a larger pool outside. There’s no need to worry about the water quality, as harmful chemicals are not added to the pure water and the indoor plunges are emptied, cleaned and refilled every evening. Being the only guest on the property that evening, I had the luxury of slipping into the outdoor pool to enjoy a little serenity under the stars.

I slept soundly – so soundly, in fact, that it took a knock on my door the next morning to bring me to the embarrassing revelation that I had overslept breakfast. I opened the door to find Connie, the cook, smiling and forgiving. She encouraged me to come down to the dining area so that she could prepare something to help start my day.

Food is treated with reverence in the inn’s kitchen and my morning breakfast was prepared with fresh, wholesome ingredients. I was greeted with the welcoming aroma of hot coffee and seated in a sunny room, surrounded by walls of artwork, part of a program to provide artists an outlet to showcase their work. Soft music played and sunlight flowed through the windows.

The inn takes care to attend to special culinary needs, with an emphasis on using fresh ingredients for nutritional benefit. My vegetarian status fell right in line with the available optiions. I was given a half grapefruit topped with sliced apples and cherries, which was followed by a mushroom, cheese and onion omelette. Potatoes and cauliflower accompanied the egg dish, with silver dollar blueberry pancakes for extra measure, served with both plum and maple syrups. Needless to say, I knew I wasn’t going to leave the inn hungry.

Before leaving, I hiked up a trail leading to artist and author Dr. Frederick Franck‘s “Seven Generations” sculpture. One of fifteen such sculptures in the world, this work of art pays tribute to the Iroquois philosophy that decisions should be made based on how they affect the seven generations that follow. Set high above the inn and overlooking Peace Valley, the surrounding vista offers yet another opportunity for meditation and reflection.

With the extensive buildings and grounds available, the inn is able to offer pool use to daily visitors, overnight accommodations to travelers, spa services by arrangement and a wide variety of classes, conferences and retreats. Upcoming programs at this time include yoga, journaling sessions and drumming workshops. Recycling and conservation are priorities; pride is taken in functioning in harmony with the earth, rather than using unnecessary resources.

If guests can manage to pry themselves away from such a nourishing atmosphere, nearby areas offer everything from antiquing to fishing to exploring Native American stomping grounds. Ghost town exploration is also a short jaunt away, though there’s always the possibility of seeing the resident ghost, Simone, without even leaving the property.

Boulder Hot Springs Inn and Spa is a fascinating work in progress, continually being restored to new life through the dreams of Anne Wilson Schaef and the caring efforts of a dedicated staff. Its magic flourishes in an atmosphere of personal commitment and love. Fortunately, this means many moments of peaceful relaxation and self-renewal await future guests.

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Searching for a dose of the old gold rush days, I headed up through Yellowstone National Park and out the west gate, where I picked up Hwy 191 North towards Bozeman, MT. I turned west onto Hwy 287 and aimed my car towards Ennis, a well-known hot spot for fly-fishermen. Beyond Ennis, I continued another fourteen miles, arriving finally at my destination: Virginia City and Nevada City, MT, two richly preserved towns that stand in honor of the old mining days of the west. It was here, along the edge of Alder Gulch, that early prospectors mined nearly thirty million dollars worth of gold during the 1860’s.

I had planned an overnight trip and had several options for lodging, but had not made a reservation in advance. The Fairweather Inn, nestled into the main street of Virginia City, had nicely restored rooms and several vacancies. I made a mental note of approval and then headed just over a mile down the road to Nevada City to check out my other possibility, the Nevada City Hotel. There I found another batch of restored rooms, furnished in period Victorian pieces and ready for overnight guests.

Either of these lodging establishments would have made a fine choice, but I had one more option that intrigued me. The Nevada City Hotel is also home to a set of pioneer cabins, restored to nostalgic perfection and equipped with comfortable furnishings, old-fashioned quilts and modern plumbing. I couldn’t resist. I picked up a key to an authentic, sod-roofed cabin and settled in.

My cabin was one of several behind the hotel, off the main road. It was spacious, with two double beds, a dresser, desk and chair. I was disappointed to find the walls whitewashed, rather than showing the natural logs underneath. But it was immaculately clean, peacefully quiet and the quilts gave it a homey feel. No phone, cell phone coverage or wireless access. It would be a night of quiet reading and writing.

Across the street from the hotel, I found a cluster of old boxcars, soaking up the last of the afternoon sun. I wandered between the cars, balancing on train tracks and peering in windows. I crept up the stairs of several trains to peek inside at tattered seats and rusty metalwork.

Just beyond the railyard, a mining museum offered additional rusty photographic subjects. It was a bonanza for a camera buff and I took enough shots to fill the evening with some trusty Photoshop companionship. First, however, was the prospect of finding something for dinner. I left the boxcars and mining equipment behind and looked up and down the empty street, contemplating my rumbling stomach.

It was a good thing I hadn’t planned on gourmet dining, not that I would have on this type of excursion. As I stepped out of the cabin, darkness was quickly falling and Nevada City greeted me as the ghost town it had been many years before. I drove into Virginia City, only to find I’d just missed the last hours at the two restaurants in town. Directed from one of them to the Bale of Hay Saloon, I found only frozen pizza and nachos on the menu. I took a suggestion from the bartender and drove over to Alder, where I was told I could find a decent dinner.

Nine miles down a dusty, bumpy road, I finally arrived at the Alder Steak House, one of very few buildings in town with lights on. It was still open, as the bartender had promised, but the scene was less than encouraging. I found my way through the deserted dining room to a small corner table, after calling out to the kitchen to let them know they had a customer.

Over a checkered, vinyl tablecloth, I glanced around and took note of the red carpeted walls and eclectic room decor, A full-sized American flag covered most of one wall, but left enough room for some assorted farm tools. Plastic flowers adorned the tables, Christmas lights surrounded the windows and a “Karaoke Every Night” sign hung near an empty stage. It was 9PM, but there were no drinkers at the bar. Apparently I was the entire clientele, at least for that portion of the evening.

Now, I’m the first to admit that a steak house is not a perfect dining choice for a vegetarian. But I thought surely I could find something. I called again to the kitchen to see if they had a menu. Bypassing steaks and seafood dishes, I decided on a plate of assorted fried veggies. No luck, not in stock that evening, so I settled on a grilled cheese sandwich, which soon landed on the table with a thud – white bread with a sliver of American cheese, slathered in grease. I took a bite or two to be polite and left the rest with enough money to cover the bill and tip. It was hardly a fine dining experience, but it was still an episode of life on the road, which in itself is rewarding, in an odd way.

I drove back to the cabin in the pitch dark. Nine miles is an interminable distance on a bumpy back road, alone, late at night, without a single light other than headlights and nothing but the sound of gravel under the car tires. Once I was settled in for the night, I pulled out my emergency stash of honey-roasted nuts and set up my travel coffee maker for the morning, finally drifting off to sleep with a little late night reading.

Morning arrived with crisp, cool air and ethereal, early light filtering through the windows. I clicked on the coffee maker, showered, slurped down a little French Roast and headed over to the Star Bakery, an easy walk from the cabin. Here I found enough ambiance and culinary delight to more than make up for my previous evening’s Twilight Zone dining episode.

The Star Bakery was bustling with activity, clearly a favorite with both locals and visitors, but I managed to find a table near the back of an enclosed patio. No red carpeted walls here, only flour, salt and sugar sacks intermixed with dried flower arrangements – a huge improvement. Placemats offered historical information about Hwy 287, the Vigilante Trail. The sole road through town, it was formerly a primitive dirt road which served as the route between Glacier National Park to the north and Yellowstone National Park to the south.

A delicious veggie omelette, home fries and sourdough toast erased my memories of the night before. I left the Star Bakery with the satisfying feeling that comes from good old home cooking. I checked out of my pioneer cabin and spent a little more time exploring the area.

Nevada City is now a Historical Museum, filled with authentic log buildings and historical exhibits varying from antique calliopes to old boxcars. There’s no need to search for the entrance to the museum; it encompasses the entire town, all within easy walking distance. And between Memorial Day and Labor Day, visitors can hop a restored 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive to travel between the two towns.

Virginia City is larger than Nevada City and offers visitors a full assortment of town fare. A National Historic Landmark since 1961, it was originally founded by gold rush fortune seekers in 1863. During its heyday, it served as the capitol of the Montana Territory, until dwindling gold resources resulted in nearby Helena acquiring that status. It followed the frequently seen rise and fall of mining towns before being rescued in the 1940’s by Charles and Sue Bovey, who saw the valuable heritage both towns could offer to future visitors. Through their restoration efforts, the area is now a lively center of activity, offering living history presentations, as well as all the usual western tourist experiences: gold panning, stage coach rides, ghost tours and old west theatre productions.

I was fortunate to slide in late enough in the season to avoid the crunch of out-of-town visitors. But there were still shops and restaurants open for browsing. Rank’s Mercantile offered western and Victorian clothing, just as it did when it first opened in 1964. Candy shops, ice creameries and gift emporiums occupied other historical structures along the main street. Up the street from the Bale of Hay Saloon I found the Metropolitan Market, which offered old-fashioned atmosphere, a cozy, antique couch and a mouth-watering assortment of baked goods. There I was able to enjoy a vanilla latte and pick up wireless Internet access, something I was not able to do back in Nevada City.

I couldn’t leave without taking a little jaunt up to Boot Hill, which looks out over the town. Here I found the graves of five lawless “road agents,” sent to their final resting places by the Montana Vigilantes. Surrounded by plain, wooden grave markers, I took a few minutes to admire the view of Virginia City and the rolling hills of the Alder Gulch area. Wind whipped through my hair and the distant sounds of town activity mixed with the soft rustling of nearby grasses. Alone on that hill, in the ghostly company of the road agents, I knew once again I had found a truly unique road experience.

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I sat in a wooden glider on the pool deck at the Bar N Ranch in West Yellowstone, MT. I had arrived later than intended and was frazzled from a long day of driving, but the cool evening breeze soon settled my nerves.

I’d taken The Colter Room, the smallest of all the rooms in the lodge – something I do on purpose when I travel alone – and it was perfect, from the mountain decor to the ready-to-light wood-burning fireplace. A jetted tub, refrig, microwave, coffeemaker, plush robes and luxurious sheets were all part of the deal. A back door led to a quiet deck with table and chairs, offering a view of the expansive property. Just the right spot for a morning cup of coffee. Or a little late night writing.

Stepping into the great room of the lodge, it felt immediately warm and inviting. Native American woven rugs surrounded leather couches and chairs. Soft jazz flowed from hidden speakers. The stairway’s twisted railings were spectacular. The river rock fireplace would be striking on a cold winter night. The overall feeling was luxurious and down to earth at the same time, the best of both worlds.

I spent a little time meandering around the property. Several guest cabins sat across from the main lodge, flanked by a pond and a lifelike sculpture of a moose. Employee housing was artfully hidden behind the false front of a western fort. With two hundred acres of open land stretching out in all directions, the location felt utterly remote in spite of its proximity to the main route into nearby West Yellowstone approximately six miles away.

Back inside the lodge, I readied myself for dinner. One of the best features of the Bar N Ranch is its top-notch restaurant and I was not about to miss out. I’d heard great things about the cuisine and it didn’t take long to find out that it lived up to its reputation.

My lemon-pepper linguini with artichokes, tomato and asparagus was delicious, as was the salad that preceeded it, decked out with feta cheese, olives and carrots. A fresh baguette accompanied the meal. Lulled into comfort by the soothing atmosphere of the dining area and excellent service, I fell to temptation and ordered peach-blueberry cobbler – a la mode, of course – and decaf coffee. It was a perfect meail.

It came as no surprise to me that I slept soundly. Morning found me up with the sunrise, coffee in hand, fireplace glowing and my spirit gliding slowly into the new day. I indulged in several hours of relaxing, reading and writing before heading downstairs for breakfast, included in overnight accommodations.

Again in the dining room, the morning atmosphere was fresh and invigorating, a contrast to the upscale dining ambiance of the evening before. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, lighting up the room with new energy. I was served a Firehole Omelette – cheese, onions, salsa – with a huckleberry pancake, fresh fruit and a cold glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. The presentation was beautiful and every bite was delicious. Needless to say, the meal left me well-fueled for an active day of area exploration.

Where to head next? Northeast into Yellowstone National Park? South to Mesa Falls? There were many options. I would see where the day took me.

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