Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Driving to Tibet

My cousin Ron arrived from West Virginia one week ago today, just in time to attend the Missoula Gay Men's Chorus Christmas Cabaret on Saturday, December 10th. We had purchased eight tickets, and the tables seated ten, so there were a couple of extra seats at our table. A dear friend, Randy B., took one of those seats, and when he learned that Ron was a masseur, Randy asked if he could get a massage from Ron. One thing led to another, and we scheduled a trip to Moiese, to visit Randy in his own home. Tuesday morning, we hit the road, heading north and west onto the Flathead Indian Reservation north of Missoula. Little did we know that we were really driving to Tibet.

Clouds covered the sky in the Missoula valley, but as we climbed Evaro Hill, the clouds dissipated to be replaced by a pale blue sky above Montana's shining mountains. US highway 93 north of Missoula has to be one of the most scenic drives in the country, with the Mission Mountains rising on the east. Snow covered jagged peaks form the eastern horizon for a good seventy-five miles, and this is one of the drives I take when introducing out-of-area friends to western Montana.

Leaving Interstate 90 at exit 96 (96 miles east of the Montana/Idaho line), approximately ten miles west of Missoula, we drove north on US 93, climbing Evaro Hill and leaving the Missoula Valley behind. At the top of Evaro, we entered the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Covering much of Lake County, along with portions of Flathead, Missoula and Sanders Counties, the reservation extends over 1.317 million acres and includes much of Flathead Lake, the largest alpine lake in the US. Created by the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, the reservation became the home of the Bitteroot Salish (Flathead), the Pend d'Oreille, and the Kootenai tribes. In 1910, the reservation was opened to white settlement, and today the population is largely non-indigenous people. Just north of the reservation boundary, we drove under the Animals' Bridge, a conduit designed to keep the suicidal deer and elk from meeting their maker at the hands of a passing Hyundai or Ford. Just north of the "bridge," we passed a sign in English and Salish noting that we were now in the Schley Area.

Cabin in the Schley Area, Flathead Reservation, Montana

The Schley Area is one of my favorite spots to stop for photo-ops, and Ron and I took advantage of having some time in our schedule to stop and shoot the roses, as it were.

From Schley, the highway drops down off Evaro Hill to the first reservation town, Arlee, then just north of Arlee it crosses the Jocko River which it then follows north to the community of Ravalli. Just after crossing the river, we took a right turn onto White Coyote Road, heading toward the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. The Garden's web site explains the purpose of this bit of Tibetan Buddhism found in western Montana:

The purpose of the Garden is to bring about positive transformation within those who visit, in response to the negativity that abounds in the world today. One thousand hand-cast Buddha statues will be arrayed around the central figure of Yum Chenmo, or the Great Mother, the manifestation of the perfection of wisdom. One thousand stupas, representations of the enlightened mind, will line the outer circle. Each will enshrine an image of the female deity, Tara. Elegantly adorned with native trees and flowers, it is hoped that the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas will instill lasting impressions of peacefulness and compassion.

Yum Chenmo, The Great Mother

Back on the highway, we drove past the Bison Inn in Ravalli and climbed the hill that separates Ravalli from St. Ignatius and the Mission Valley. As you drive north, the National Bison Range is on your left, and the Mission Mountains come into view in an ever widening panorama of snow-capped, shining mountains. If the sky is blue and the sun is shining, as it was for us, new visitors almost invariably gasp as the view ahead becomes more and more filled with jagged peaks rising thousands of feet above. One of the native names for the land we now call Montana was "the land of shining mountains," and it was certainly an apt name in our opinion.

The Mission Mountains as seen from the top of the Ravalli Hill
or are they the Himalayas in Tibet?

After a U-turn to get us back to Ravalli, Ron and I stopped at the Bison Inn for lunch. Normally I would order their Indian Taco, as I feel they have the best in the area, but an Indian Taco is so filling, that I passed in favor of a mushroom-swiss burger made with bison meat. Ron had the same, and we joked with the host/waiter/owner? of the establishment while enjoying a delicious lunch.

Ravalli is where Montana highway 200 coming in from the west merges with 93. We headed west on 200 toward the town of Dixon and what, to my knowledge, is Montana's only herd of Tibetan Yaks. If you've never seen a yak, believe me, they look like giant ambulatory dust mops. I'm told that they are also rather angry beasts, not at all like the ones Hilaire Belloc wrote about in his Bad Child's Book of Beasts, and More Beasts for Worse Children. Belloc's poem "The Yak" has long been one of my favorites.

Montana's Yaks--not friends to the children

Montana secondary highway 212 runs north from Dixon, through the town of Charlo, and connects to US 93 just north of the Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge. We drove north as far as the entrance to the National Bison Range at Moiese, but alas, there were no bison to be seen. We had passed a herd a few miles back, so we turned around and headed back toward Dixon. Sure enough, our eyes hadn't deceived us, and we were finally able to assure ourselves that we were, indeed, in western Montana, and not on the "plains of Tibet." Having filled our memory cards with these iconic plains undulates, we continued on to Randy's home on the banks of the Flathead River, where we spent a very enjoyable afternoon and evening. Both of us are looking forward to another trip to "Tibet."

Isn't there a nickel around here somewhere?

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