I Think We Missed It   Leave a comment

Two things were certain as Paul and I departed Butte that Friday morning for points west.  Reaching Blaine, Washington (in the far northwest corner of Washington’s mainland) by 3:30 p.m. that afternoon to beat the closure of the U.S. Vehicle Export office was impossible.  We could forget about filing the export/import paperwork on Donovan until Monday.  The rush averted, we set our sights for that day only as far as Spokane.

After waking up to find several fresh inches of snow on the ground, our other certainty was that this day would be another tough slog behind the wheel.

Happily, the certainty of bad weather was off target.  Not long after leaving Butte, the snow stopped and clouds opened up, revealing the best weather day of our trip to date.

Maybe that was only because we were heading to Missoula, Montana’s Garden City – renowned for its relatively mild climate.  By Montana standards, Missoula is like Palm Springs.

Missoula, home to the University of Montana,  is gorgeous – really gorgeous.  Nestled on an ancient lake bed surrounded by mountain ranges (the Bitterroot Mountains, Sapphire Range, Garnet Range, Rattlesnake Mountains and the Reservation Divide) forming five valleys, Missoula shines like a brilliant gemstone.

The city claims to be Montana’s culture capital, as well as its outdoor recreation capital.  From Missoula, fly fishing, rafting and hiking are within a short drive away for its roughly 65,000 inhabitants (another roughly 45,000 live in metro Missoula).  Tourism information stresses nearby recreational opportunities, which is kind of unfortunate; the city is home to seven museums, 10 historic districts and two film festivals.  For a city its size, it offers a boatload of cultural opportunities.

Having a trailer behind us forced us to miss going into Missoula.  Instead, we settled for lunch at the MacKenzie River Pizza Company, a small chain of eateries with locations primarily in Montana, Spokane and Indianapolis.

Pizza?  In Montana?  I lived in Texas for over a decade.  That state has many fine cooks whipping up some of the best Tex Mex, regional Southern and barbecue on the planet.  Pizza, however, is the Achilles heel of Texan culinary expertise.  Unless I knew the chef was transplanted from a pizza capital of the USA, I just didn’t go there.  I didn’t hold out much hope for a better pizza experience in Montana.

The pizzaria was housed in a rustic timber-frame structure resembling a Rocky Mountain hideaway on steroids parked across the street from an upscale log lodge hilariously named C’mon Inn.

MacKenzie River diners need not confine themselves to pizza.  The small chain also offers appetizers, salads, soups, pastas and “Montana-sized” sandwiches (they mean it).

As a server passed carrying a pizza, Paul and I caught a whiff of its aroma.  It sure didn’t look or smell like those Texas pizzas.  The pizza menu didn’t read like any seen in Texas outside of a California Pizza Kitchen.

Good thing for Paul and I that MacKenzie River offers personal-sized pizzas.  Choosing one pizza at a place offering three varieties of crust (original sourdough, natural grain and thin) and 20 pizza entrees (excluding ‘create your own’) is impossible.

Some of MacKenzie Rivers pizza entrees are old school Italian; some are new school creations incorporating ingredients like jerk chicken and Thai peanut sauce.  Paul and I favor our pizzas old school.  That made the task only moderately easier.  We agonized while munching on garlic bread made from scratch on-site.

Being a true traditionalist, Paul opted for the Beartooth Sausage, a combination of Italian sausage, red onion, red pepper and chopped tomato topped with Mozzarella on a natural-grain thin crust.  I opted for the Sequoyah, featuring the odd combination of fresh pesto, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and Mozzarella on thin-crust sourdough.

Paul thought the Sequoyah a concoction worthy of Euell Gibbons (Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible).  I thought it rather rustic Tuscan.

MacKenzie River brags its crusts are made fresh on-site, a boast we found tough to argue.  No sogginess; both stood up well to the toppings.

The Beartooth Sausage pizza was slightly disappointing, its Italian sausage lacking the snappy sharpness we love.  A dose of dried red pepper flakes worked wonders.  Substituting a hotter Italian sausage or adding capacollo or pepperoncini would suit us better.

Both of us found the Sequoyah an outstanding and uniquely delicious pizza, woodsy without the twigs and berries.  We couldn’t help but wonder how good it could be if mushrooms such as morels, criminis or portobellas came included.

We snapped up every morsel before taking off for Idaho’s northern panhandle.

During our previous car trip to Vancouver the previous summer, we traveled through northern Idaho.  Driving the U.S. Highway 2 stretch through Sandpoint (north of Coeur d’Alene) was our least favorite part of the whole trip.  That area of Idaho is pretty, but the few locals we encountered weren’t very friendly.

This route would be different.

Our introduction to Idaho took us over the tiny historic burg of Wallace, Idaho, renowned for rich silver deposits, its stunning collection of period architecture, scenic surroundings, local eccentricities and former houses of ill repute (put out of business for good only in 1988).  Visitors passing through Wallace along I-90 must drive over a viaduct perched along the edge of downtown, looking down upon a living piece of history.

Wallace is a treat for lovers of Victorian and Edwardian-era architecture.  Founded in the mid-1880s, a fire originating in the Central Hotel soon burned many original wooden structures in the downtown business district.  They were replaced by Victorian brick buildings after the 1890 disaster.  Roughly a third of Wallace’s business district was destroyed 20 years later by the Big Burn, the largest forest fire in U.S. history, and later rebuilt.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration planned to expand I-90 at grade, requiring the destruction of most of downtown Wallace.  City leaders and concerned citizens created the Wallace Historic District, encompassing the entire downtown.  The entire district was soon successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places, guaranteeing its preservation.  The district’s inclusion required the Feds to redesign the freeway, elevating I-90 above Wallace.

Before the viaduct, a detour spilled I-90 traffic onto U.S. Highway 10 down primary streets of downtown. Wallace claimed the distinction of having the last stoplight on a coast-to-coast U.S. Interstate highway.  The “Last Stoplight”, stuffed into a coffin and given a funeral service, was relocated to a new spot in 1991, where it remains in its coffin.

Two films, Dante’s Peak and Heaven’s Gate, were shot on location in Wallace.

Located within the Coeur d’Alene Mining District, Wallace is at the center of a  mining region tapping one of the richest lodes of silver ever mined in American history.  It remains an active silver mining center today.

Like many rough-and-tumble mining towns, Wallace has a bawdy past.  Idaho banned prostitution in the late 1800s.  Somebody forgot to tell Wallace, where several bordellos openly operated into the 1970s.  Legend has it the Oasis, Wallace’s last bordello, closed when its madam and “working girls” abruptly fled ahead of a 1988 FBI raid.  The Oasis is now a museum exploring the history of bordellos and prostitution in the West, preserved in the same state as found after its staff deserted it.

Canadians living in the so-called “RoC” (Rest of Canada) derisively refer to Toronto as COTU (Center of the Universe).  In 2004, Wallace’s mayor officially proclaimed his town the “Center of the Universe”.  Wallace, unlike Toronto, has the street cred – a specially designed manhole cover decorating the intersection of 6th and Bank Street as the town’s COTU.  (Take that, Toronto!)

Sadly, we missed the fun of Wallace, which unfortunately for us isn’t all that far from Missoula.  Instead, we opted for an exercise break in Coeur d’Alene.

We should have turned around and gone back to Wallace.  Nestled in Idaho’s Kootenai range, Coeur d’Alene is cute as a button but no friendlier to outsiders than nearby Sandpoint.

Idaho’s northern panhandle takes less than an hour to cross before hitting Washington.  From Coeur d’Alene, we headed straight for Spokane, found our hotel and settled in for the night.

We saw a lot on this leg of the drive, yet didn’t see very much at all.  I think we missed it.

Were I to go back to Montana, I would definitely consider exploring Bozeman and Missoula in greater detail.  Seeing Wallace close-up is definitely worth a trip back to northern Idaho.

We had places to go and people to meet.  Perhaps another time.


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