I recently returned from a writers conference in Bozeman, Montana, a lively high tech outpost of the upscale New West. The river that runs through it is the Gallatin, named after Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury while the region was first explored by Lewis and Clark. Today, Gallatin's then post at the Treasury Department seems an unironic happy coincidence for Bozeman, for it one those scenic mountain towns that is less a city and more of a municipal lifestyle choice.
The city of 35,000 is home to Montana State University (MSU) with its motto "Mountains and Minds," and its 12,000 backpack-burdened students flying around town on mountain bikes (one young man nearly slammed into me at an intersection). Bicycling in Bozeman is so prevalent that the city has installed dozens of H-shaped black wrought iron sidewalk racks along Main Street to chain bikes to. In New West towns this is the 21st century equivalent of the old horse hitching post. A half dozen were piled onto the rack in front of "The Country Bookshelf," Bozeman's wonderfully spacious bookstore, where I spent a delightful hour browsing, and stoically resisted the temptation to spend money.
This is a town where how you "recreate" tells others a lot about you. Nearby Bridger Bowl ski area is locally famous for its "cold smoke" powder skiing. Extreme (X-treme?) sports are popular, and the rock and ice climbing jocks hang out at Barrel Mountaineering on Main. For the more sedate personality there is fly fishing, with a wealth of tackle shops around town. And for those who really live that life, there is The Bozeman Angler, which advertises "Fly Fishing Fashion, Finery, Furnishings." Along with elk antler chandeliers, many a Bozeman living room sport hard glass coffee tables that look like aquariums and give the impression that you are looking at shiny, multi-hued trout swimming in a three-dimensional clear, stony stream.
Some of those living rooms are in restored elegant Victorian homes on cottonwood-lined streets. They have gables and cupolas and spacious wrap-around porches. Many have expensive blue or green steel roofs designed to shed sumptuous ski town snowfalls. No redneck tin roofs for Bozemanites.
The porches of these homes are used for warm weather lounging, of course, but also for the storage of the accoutrements of the recreational life. Nineteenth century grainy photos of Victorian porches lack mountain bikes secured to columns, skis leaning on a wall, and canoes and kayaks dangling from ceiling chains. In Bozeman, the kayak is de rigeur proof of one's arrival in recreationland, and must be properly displayed, unless it's the weekend, when one joins the L.A. freeway-like stern-to-bow traffic on the Gallatin River. Another porch accessory is wind chimes. A breezy day in Bozeman sounds like hundreds of deranged Milt Jacksons in town.
Food and drink are status symbols in Bozeman, as is where one eats and imbibes. The Mackenzie River Pizza Co.'s stenciled glass door invites patrons to "Enjoy Our Tobacco Free Environment." The Leaf and Bean is where you get your $5 lattes. The Montana Ale Works is housed in the defunct -- now renovated -- Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad station, with part of the dining room built on a flatcar.
The Montana Ale Works is indicative of the microbrewery craze that has swept the country in the last decade. The Spanish Peaks Brewery, just off Main, has the look of a tidy corporate office complex, rather than a noisy suds factory. This example of modern Bozeman entrepreneurship has given the world Black Dog Ale and Yellowstone Pale Ale. The nearby Bozeman Brewery Co. makes Bozone Select Amber Ale, promoted as not only a beer, but a state of mind. Moose Drool -- another local favorite -- is "imported" from Missoula, Bozeman's sister city in liberal politics, recreation culture, and taste in beer.
Bozeman is primarily known for its setting, of course, and while the Gallatin Valley is suffering the growing pains of continuous subdivision and "ranchette" development, it's still surrounded by literally millions of acres of public land (the Gallatin and Beaverhead National Forests; Yellowstone National Park is 90 minutes to the south). Four mountain ranges (the Gallatins, Madisons, Bridgers, and Tobacco Roots) guard it, and some of Montana's noteworthy trout rivers (the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson, and the main stem of the Missouri) flow nearby.
A favorite pastime for locals is hiking the trails in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness south of town. From the east side of the wilderness area some of the trailheads are got to by driving through Ted Turner's "Flying D Ranch." A U.S. Forest Service easement permits the public to travel seven miles on a gravel road across the Flying D. You may exit your car, but you must stay on the road, as wandering on the ranch is forbidden, and is a rule strictly enforced by Turner's security people who patrol the road. His 129,000 acre spread (one of over a dozen he owns in the West) runs east to west from the Gallatin River to the crest of the Madison Range. On its southern border with the Lee Metcalf Wilderness are the spectacularly jagged Spanish Peaks of the Gallatin Range, snowcapped most of the year. For good or ill, it "takes a mogul" (as a popular Clintonian Bozeman saying goes) to preserve large tracts of private land in the West.
On the day I was on the ranch the last leaves of a golden autumn were fluttering off the cottonwoods along Spanish Creek in pale sunshine. I saw a herd of a couple of hundred head of Turner's buffalo grazing near the road (he has approximately 2,000 on the Flying D). Through binoculars I saw that they all wore numbered green plastic ear tags like domestic cattle, which means that these bison are a harvestable commodity as much as living furniture on the media legend's ranch. And like any politically incorrect cattle rancher, the ear tags signify that Ted Turner has a computerized biographical profile of every bison he owns. Buffalo spread sheets, if you will.
This is somehow appropriate in Bozeman, Montana, where the wide open spaces meet cyberspace, and where the deer and the antelope and the pixels and the gigabytes play.