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Northern Rockies "banana belt" enjoys cool summer evenings and ducks most Arctic cold fronts
IF MISSOULA WERE A WOMAN, she might show up for a first date in a battered pickup, grease on her overalls and fly rod in hand. She would look ravishing. And if you didn't fall for her, it wouldn't matter—the next guy would. With low wages and rising house prices, atrophied muscle cars and clear-cut blemishes, Missoula doesn't try hard to impress, or need to. The town sits at the junction of five valleys and at least as many currents of American life. Throngs of resident writers orbit around the University of Montana's graduate program, the trout streams, and the storied saloons. Nonprofits abound, many of them tinged with green: the Great Bear Foundation, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, Women's Voices for the Earth, and so on. People from hundreds of miles around pilgrimage here for groceries, ballet tickets, or open-heart surgery. Little of that would exist, though, if not for the trump card, the Huge Outdoors. Encircled by national forest, watered by swift rivers, flanked by rounded hills giving way to snow-capped peaks, Missoula serves up long summer days that cure workaholics; at 10 p.m. on a June night, twilight lingers. In town, you can still picture the prewar Missoula that Norman Maclean called home. People fish the Clark Fork downtown, stately old banks and hotels grace street corners, and pawnshops stock ancient camp lanterns and rusty timber saws. (Try to ignore the day spa and the feng-shui center.) Arguably Missoula is too alluring for its own good: In the 1990s, its population swelled by more than a third. "People move here because it's the last best place," says Tom Maclay, a fifth-generation rancher in the Bitterroot Valley. "But there's always somebody behind them."
PLAYGROUNDS: The surrounding Lolo National Forest alone has 1,800 miles of foot and bike trails; nearby wildernesses—the Rattlesnake just north, the Selway-Bitterroot just south, the Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and others within a few hours—exceed five million acres. Twenty miles east of town, Rock Creek is the most honored local trout stream. Rafters and kayakers try to do justice to 200-plus miles of floatable river close by: the Blackfoot, the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork, and, just 60 miles away in Idaho, the no-holds-barred Class IV-V Lochsa. Climbers and backcountry skiers choose from peaks in any direction, many topping 9,000 feet; and Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks are both close enough for weekend trips.
WORK: Since 1980, the percentage of jobs in retail, medical, and other service fields has tripled, while the wood and paper industries have shrunk by more than half. Major employers include the university and the U.S. Forest Service's northern headquarters, as well as two hospitals that together employ 2,000-plus people. In most cases, expect to pay the "mountain tax"—small wages in exchange for big scenery. Note to aspiring wildlife biologists: Take a number.
NEST: Sixty- to 70-year-old Tudors and bungalows near campus have high curb appeal and prices to match; you could spend $200,000 on a charmer that needs new wiring, pipes, and shingles. For $125,000, you can get a three-bedroom ranch with snowcapped Bitterroot views south of town in Florence, where zip code 59833 is the fastest-growing in Montana.
NEIGHBORS: Left-leaning Democrat with llamas and a loaded gun rack; transplanted Midwesterner who catches author readings at Fact & Fiction and Packers games at the Speakeasy; freelancer by day, sheepherder by night.
HOW TO GO NATIVE: Dress up as a critter for the WildWalk parade during April's International Wildlife Film Festival; smell like either bear oil or patchouli.
WATERING HOLES: The Missoula Club, Charlie B's, and the Union Club are all democratic melting pots and sights to behold. "The guy next to you could be a smoke jumper, a derelict, or a professor," says a frequenter of each, "or maybe all three."
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: In exchange for all those near-Arctic-length summer days, you must endure months of winter gloom.