Montana’s ‘Killer B’s’   Leave a comment


Anyone traveling across Montana in its entirety along Interstates 90 and 94 cannot miss the places I call Montana’s “Killer B’s”:  Billings, Bozeman and Butte.

Truth be told, Paul and I didn’t see much of Billings.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.  Gray skies met our arrival as clouds descended and sundown approached.  Given that Billings offers views of five nearby mountain ranges, that was unfortunate.

Billings is very much a city of commerce – a center for trade and headquarters for the oil and gas industry.  By Montana standards, it is a big city, home to slightly more than 100,000 people – roughly the size of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The morning’s weather was no better for catching a better glimpse of Billings, thanks to snow between it and Bozeman.  The snow was not a major storm by Montana standards.  It just was not something we wanted to deal with when tired.  Entering the Rockies on unfamiliar roads navigating potentially steep grades is hard enough.  Add a trailer, snow and fatigue and it could be a recipe for trouble.

Most of the drive was not too sloppy until we hit the Rockies.  We expected roads in worse condition.  Snow met rock salt on the pavement and melted.  More difficult to deal with was the mix of sloppy wet snow and salt pelting the windshield.   Approaching Livingston, snow fell harder, making the windshield even messier.  The only way around it were frequently timed spritzes of windshield washer fluid and vigorous wiper action.

Around Livingston, through the snowflakes, we saw signs indicating the way to Bridger Bowl.

Oh NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  Not Bridger Bowl!

Trekking to Bozeman would be most worthwhile if an outing to Bridger Bowl could be squeezed in.  (No offense to Bozeman.)

Bridger Bowl is a Rocky Mountain diamond:  a community-owned family oriented ski area featuring an unusually wide variety of terrain (20% beginner, 30% intermediate and 20% advanced and 30% expert) and cold smoke – ski lingo for light dry powder – a skier’s best friend.  There’s something for nearly everyone at Bridger, except perhaps for the odd Minnesotan more comfortable charging down ice chutes.  Skiers can choose to go steep.  Avoiding the prospect of deep isn’t as easy.  Bridger gets about 350 inches of snow during a typical winter, often falling in very large dumps.

Though Bridger increasingly attracts out-of-towners looking for a real Rocky Mountain ski experience, locals remain its base customers.  Why not?  Adults get all-day access to a 2,200 acre playground with 71 trails and a 2,700 foot vertical drop for the princely sum of $48.  Bridger’s adult season passes are a fraction the price of those at nearby Moonlight Basin without an hour-long car trip from Bozeman.  Bridger is only 16 miles north.

How great is this?  A day pass at Buck Hill in Burnsville, Minnesota and all of its 45 acres, 60 inches of annual snowfall, 15 runs and death-defying 310 foot vertical drop would be comparable in price.

Most scenery along Interstate routes is anything but scenic.  A rare exception is the stretch of I-90 running through Bozeman Pass, the eastern gateway into Bozeman from Livingston.  This pass between the Gallatin and Bridger Mountains was once used by Native peoples as a buffalo road.  The first Lewis and Clark expedition crossed through it on its return from the Pacific.  Today the pass is a major transportation artery and remains a vital corridor for migrating wildlife.  On clear days, wildlife sightings are common.  This day was anything but clear; falling snow obscured much of the view.  Still, it was beautiful.

Arriving in Bozeman with Donovan encrusted with salt and ice, the snow tailed off.  Overheard on the radio, little new snow was expected.  This would be a great place to stop for a bite.

But where?  If not for pulling a trailer, downtown would have been our choice.  Paul randomly chose to exit on 7th Avenue.  As we drove around, 7th Avenue didn’t appear to be our best choice.  Mostly, we spotted a variety of local business selling anything but food and a couple of motels and a handful of fast-food joints.  Glancing at the Bozeman Inn complex, I almost missed the entrance to its on-site restaurant, Santa Fe Red’s.

From its nondescript exterior (a small simple concrete brick edifice painted tan to resemble an adobe structure), we didn’t expect much.  It looked more like a cantina than restaurant.  Walking in, its interior was anything but nondescript.  Cheerfully painted and tiled in bright desert colors, it appeared welcoming and comfortable, featuring a central bar area and another for restaurant seating.  Off the dining room, a spacious patio complete with dining tables, benches, a pond and rustic limestone hardscape nestled beneath trees beckoned.  During summertime, the patio nearly doubled the restaurant’s seating capacity.

Established in 1994 by a family from Los Angeles , Santa Fe Red’s, offers 36 varieties of tequila, 22 varieties of beer and a bevy of tasty offerings inspired by and derived from the family’s recipes.  Plates of food rushed from the kitchen to waiting diners looked appetizing and smelled delicious.   Though only lunchtime, this place was bustling.  What started as Bozeman’s first full-service Mexican restaurant evolved into a favorite hot spot.

Plowing through Santa Fe Red’s menu was daunting.  Everything looked delicious.  Combination platters to the rescue!  Meanwhile, we munched on freshly fried tortilla chips served with a homemade-style chunky red salsa.  Delicious!

I opted for the combination platter featuring pork with verde (green) sauce and two enchiladas – one containing shredded beef, the other shredded chicken.  Never as adventuresome as I, Paul opted for a mixture of beef tacos and taquitos.  Both platters came with Mexican rice and refried beans.

Soon we learned the operative word to describe the cooking at Santa Fe Red’s:  fresh.  Nothing tastes like something out of a box.  All ingredients used are of very high quality.

The thick verde sauce, spicy but not overly abundant with chili heat, was the perfect accompaniment to the small medallions of pork baked to perfection, and the amount of sauce and texture was just right.  Two fat enchiladas covered with red sauce and topped with cheese were perfect too with juicy and flavorful meat.  The Mexican rice was tasty, lacking the unbearable saltiness of other recipes.  Refried beans proved the most surprising item on the plate.  They were tender and moist, lacking the usual heavy shortening and salt overtones.  Paul’s enchiladas and taquitos were excellent as well.

If we could, we’d head to Santa Fe Red’s again.  It was that good.

During our time inside the restaurant, the snow stopped.  Most of Donovan’s coat of salt and ice melted away.  Before leaving, we took a short drive around, though we didn’t head downtown.  Bozeman seemed a genuinely nice place to live, yet an odd contrast with outsiders’ perceptions of Montana.  This city surely is the Prius capital of the state.  In some ways, the city is a magnet for New Agers, college students and aged hippies (indeed it is home to Montana State University).

Back on I-90, we headed for the third ‘Killer B’, Butte.

Perhaps unfairly, Butte (when not being mispronounced as ‘butt’ by idiot outsiders) is synonymous with ‘hole’ – as in the Berkeley Pit, a mile long, half mile wide former open-pit copper mine (closed in 1982) and Superfund cleanup site on the edge of town.  Approximately 1,750 feet deep, it is filled to a depth of roughly 900 feet with water as acidic as cola or lemon juice.  The water’s acidity causes heavy metals – including arsenic, cadmium, zinc and sulphuric acid – to leach from the surrounding rock.  Containing dissolved oxygen, the water enables pyrite and other sulphuric minerals in the remaining ore and wall rocks to decay, producing acid.  Enough heavy metals are present in the water to allow the extraction of some types directly from it.

This stew sits within 150 feet from the area’s natural groundwater table, which it is expected to reach by 2020.  When it does, the water is sure to pollute nearby Silver Bow Creek, the headwaters of the Clark Fork River.  Experts agree the Berkeley Pit is a snoozing ecological disaster waiting to happen.

It’s a big hole.  Entering Butte from I-15, you’d have to be blind to miss it.

What do you do with a toxic white elephant?  Like Virginia, Minnesota, home of the still-operating Rouchleau Mine (the largest open-pit iron ore mine in the world), you turn lemons into lemonade by converting an ugly eyesore into an advantage.  If you’re Butte, you showcase the area’s closest, most famous and, yes, most toxic feature as a tourist attraction.  An observation platform was erected above it complete with a gift shop outside.  For $2, visitors can look into the hole from the platform.  (Can a location shoot for a movie be far behind?)

Pass!  It was yet another cold late winter day in Montana.

Not wanting to deal with dark mountain roads through scantily populated areas, we opted to stay in Butte that night.

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