Sunday, July 25, 2021

One man's last best place

Main Street and the Hotel Baxter


Ted as in Ted Turner's Montana Grill in the Baxter Hotel

If the measure of a town’s desirability is the number of breweries, coffee roasters, bakeries, ice creameries and bike shops Bozeman scores a 97. Halfway through our eight days there Bozeman’s status as a boomtown was clear. The place jumps. There’s new construction in every direction. But, it’s not all honey and roses as I described last week. Real locals are in a pinch and it’s not going to get better. Still, it’s a delight to stroll the two blocks from our house and find all manner of restaurants. Thai, Indian, Japanese, Italian, new American, it’s all there.

The fifteen minute queue at the wondrous Sweet Peaks Ice Cream. Did that twice. 

And speaking of breweries and brew pubs, there a dozen of those bad boys. I do crave a fresh brew from time to time. The same with the morning kind of brew; twelve of those, as well. Ice cream at Sweet Peaks caps your afternoon. A fresh baked boule or baguette at Wild Crumb will set you up for the day. Spread that baguette with sweet creamery butter and some Flathead Lake cherry jam and you’re close to heaven. We scarfed two of those beauties between Bozeman and Billings as we began our trip back to Taos. I've made the case in the past that if we move the town will have to have great bread. Durango’s Flour qualifies as does Bozeman’s Wild Crumb. A baguette from Taos’s Wild Leaven is so dry and hard it’s better used as a weapon.

As to bicycles and bike shops, Bozeman abounds with both. And folks use them for transportation. How European of them, qui? It sets my heart aflutter to see clutches of cyclists riding street cruisers through leafy middle-class neighborhoods that stretch from bustling Main Street to the Montana State University campus. Squint your eyes and it’s small town America in the forties when I was a kid.

Blackbird Kitchen

Bread from Blackbird's woodfired oven

So good and so good for you

As often happens Peggy and I adopt a restaurant. In Bozeman it was Blackbird Kitchen at the corner of Bozeman and Main. Blackbird identifies as Italian and to the extent that it has pizza, pasta, and extraordinary bread from a woodfire oven it was. The feeling was more New American. It was a cozy affair, so we found our way to the bar on two occasions and another to the counter where we could watch pizza being tossed by two young men competing for the highest twirl. The wood fired was being used for pasta dishes being baked in cast iron skillets. Pizza to our surprise was being baked in standard issue deck ovens at 900 degrees. The pies arrived pleasantly blistered and chewy. They vied for the best we’ve eaten. Stacks of impressive boules sat between the pizza bench and garde mangier. Peggy declared the bread which was served with olive oil for anointing to be the best she’s eaten. It was right up there.

Fresh baked at Wild Crumb

We tried to buy one but were told by Jonah, our able and engaging bartender, that we could come by at noon Saturday and ask the bread baker he could spare a loaf. However, he told us it was highly was unlikely. We were better off walking to the full boulangerie and patisserie, Wild Crumb, in the Brewery District. Yes, Bozeman has a Brewery District, hipsters. Jonah warned us that, “Get there early. It’s a scene.” It was. But the wait was worth it. We ate two baguettes between Bozeman and Billings Sunday morning.

Did I mention that we were two doors from Ghost Town Coffee where I could grab a cup before or after my morning run? Didn’t think so. I dream of living in a village where you can walk to everything that matters in life; coffee, a fresh baguette, the morning paper, garden fresh produce, fine wines and fresh draft beer. It’s been dream for eons.

The Hamill Building

The Bozeman Public Library

Bozeman’s architecture grabbed me in the late 90s. It feels important almost stately. It has the bones of a real city. It rose near the turn of the 20th century and is seasoned by a touch of Art Deco from the 20s and 30s. Bozeman’s architecturally designed 53,000 square foot library on a manicured 14.3 acre campus would befit Santa Monica or Palo Alto. 

The city has doubled in size since I fell for it in 2000.

And there’s the rub. After all the bouquets I’ve thrown at Bozeman we wouldn’t want to live there. We almost kissed the New Mexico tierra when we got back a week ago. The skies were clearer. We could actually see the mountains. The vistas are wider. We could see forever. The politics are bluer.

An acquaintance who once lived in Bozeman called it “the last best place” back in the 90s. It may well have been. The same might have been said of Sedona in the 80s before it choked with traffic and became Orange County. The list of places that once were last best places is long. But for our money Taos with all its blemishes is the last best place.

As seen from Casa Immel

As we had breakfast on our patio last Tuesday morning we gazed across our pasture to the clouds above the Sangre de Cristos. We were home.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

A tale of two stories

I visited Bozeman twenty years ago. I had hired a fly fishing guide in West Yellowstone, 85 miles away. And since I landed in Bozeman I stayed over, had a delightful meal at the bar in a restaurant whose name I don’t remember. But the barkeep was from Boston like me.

Strolling Main Street I was taken by the bones of Bozeman’s downtown. Notably there was a first-class local camera store, a dying breed even then. It had an array of vintage cameras in the window. Sadly, it’s gone.

It was obvious that Bozeman was going to explode. In fact, I was so smitten by the place that when we were contemplating our move back west it was a leading candidate. It checked all the boxes on my handy-dandy spreadsheet except two, weather and art scene. It was as cold as northern New Hampshire and its art offerings even today tilt toward “décor.” But it had a real university, Montana State, which has 16,0 00 students today. Their presence gives the town a buzz that only a bona-fide college town has. It boasted an honest to God Main Street replete turn of the 20th century architecture with dollop of Art Deco. It was an outdoor adventure mecca. Now it suffers too much Hollywood and new money.

The train has left the station. Bozeman has joined the pantheon of Little Hollywoods of the Rockies. The three aces are Aspen, Jackson Hole and Telluride. In contrast to the Big Three, however, Bozeman is still a real working town. It gets my nod.

As the 90s were saying adios and we were looking west I prepared a chart of attributes that I felt were essential for a place to live. First on the list was university town. Yeah, I know Taos doesn’t have one. How the hell did we make that decision? On the other hand, you can’t swing a cat in Taos without hitting a PhD. Maybe that compensates a little.

As much as I foresaw Bozeman’s ascent, I couldn’t have predicted the magnitude of its growth and the income disparity that plagues the city and Gallatin County. Long term residents of the everyday variety, merchants, teachers, fireman and plumbers are being priced out. The median home price is 75% higher than the national median and median household income is 25% lower. Not sure that’s a sustainable spread. The onslaught of ricos has affected farming and ranching, too, as big operators like Ted Turner have scooped up vast swathes of prairie and mountainside leaving the little guy on the outside looking in.

While photographing in the postcard village of Spring Hill a woman in a gray pick-up stopped. Phyliss Huang rolled down the window and asked, “You okay? Do you have water?” I must have looked more desperate than normal. I answered that my wife painting at Wright’s Farm and that it was an easy walk back.

Wright's Farm, Springhill Community. The house on the right was the family home in A River Ran Through It.

The barn at Wright's Farm.

Almost immediately the conversation turned to the rising income disparity in the Gallatin Valley. In fact, every local I met got to that subject in the first two minutes. Phyliss said, “We’re essentially tenant farmers. We’ve been doing it since 1985.” She told me that she and her husband had just herded 5,000 head of cattle on the mountain. She said it had been almost impossible since they were at the mercy of the landowner who dictates how long the cattle can graze a particular pasture. The cows are “stressed out” because they have to move too soon.

Springhill School, the one room school where Ann Webster attended first through eighth grades. She said there were eight students.

A graveyard of old barns between Wright's Farm and the mountains.

Later at an art opening Peggy introduced me to Ann Webster who coincidentally owns the land that Phyliss and her husband use for their cattle. When I repeated what Phyliss had told me, Ann responded that as the landowner she had the right to require her “tenants” to move their cows if they're overgrazing a particular pasture. That was the case with Ms. Huang, and they were at odds about it. Further, the situation had been worsened by the severe drought. Less rain. Less grass and less time to graze a given pasture.

What are the odds that would have met a total of two people from the Springhill Community and they’re the lead players in this drama? Each, it seems, has a legitimate position. Imagine how many of these tales are untold in this time of generational drought.

At the foot of the Bridger Mountains is a wide spot in the road, Springhill Community. Settled in the late 1800s, it began as a timbering village. Now it’s home to sprawling ranches that reach high into the Bridger Wilderness. Ann Webster represents the fifth generation of Websters who cherish this land and continue to honor its rich history, shepherd it through uncertain times and protect it for her children and theirs.

Phyliss Huang chose to marry and raise her children in Springhill. Doubtlessly she and her husband love and cherish the prairie and mountains as much as Ann. She and Ron chose the life of ranching 5,000 head of Corriente cattle on land that isn’t theirs.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Truchas means trout


Peaked roof and gathering storm

Long Adobe #1

In France Truchas would be called a ‘village perché which means what you think it means, perched village. That’s as close to a cognate as you’re going to get from me. While it doesn’t sit at the highest point of the village or belvedere the entire place spreads from north to south where it joins the High Road.

Long Adobe #2

Long Adobe #3

Long Adobe #4

Long Adobe #5

Like the time warp it is, Truchas could be in the mountains of rural Mexico. One imagines that Spanish was the only language spoken there a hundred years ago. And fifteen years ago, the welcome mat was definitely not out for painters and photographers. When Robert Redford directed the sappy film extracted from John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War in 1988, his team had to construct a Spanish Mission Church since there wasn’t one in Truchas. The locals were so angry with the interruption to their daily lives that when the cast and crew completed production and exited Truchas disenchanted townies burned the church down just for spite. Then, in some kind of divine retribution, when Redford had to reshoot scenes including the church he had to build it again. John Nichols, no fan of Redford in the first place, is still laughing.

As reported last week the eastern sky drew us to Truchas. It was sketchy in Dixon, more promising in Ojo Sarco, and downright stunning. Two of the vintage adobes grabbed our attention and one got most of the shots.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Two for one sale

Thankfully, we’re back to taking short photo jaunts. Last week’s sortie was to the epic San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado. And this week I’m sharing images from backroads nearer our Taos home.  We headed south to the town of Dixon, stopped for a few shots of the bell tower of San Antonio de Padua and proceeded toward the High Road to Taos via twisty state road 68. The partially dirt byway passes through red rock hoodoos that are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe country. We wound our way through Ojo Sarco and joined the High Road. We drove south to Truchas, a Hispano time capsule and budding art colony perched above a fertile valley with the Sangre de Cristos towering beyond.

We were searching for the moody skies of early evening. We made the 30-mile drive because a gathering storm above the mountains in the east looked promising. The farther east we drove the more brooding the sky became.

As I write this pedestrian text it occurs to me that this is a post about one swaybacked dwelling in Ojo Sarco. Then next week I'll showcase a long adobe with the corrugated roof in Truchas. That away I’ve killed two posts with one drive and one SD card.