Charlie Totten leans across the table with a glint in his eye and tells me that he spent his last birthday clinging to a tree branch with a buddy, trapped by an aggressive bull moose. It sounds like the quintessential Montana hunting story until Totten explains, "I hunt wild morels in the woods in May."
Beyond gathering gourmet mushrooms in the forests, the 38-year-old head chef at the Sweet Pea Café also plucks succulent watercress from rivers. He then incorporates these fresh ingredients into a sophisticated, French-inspired menu dotted with terms such as demi-glace and confit.
Welcome to Bozeman, Mont., where the mountain men cook like Wolfgang Puck and a lemon zester is as essential as a Buck knife. Once a rugged mix of ranchers and cattlemen, Bozeman’s population of 32,000 has shifted in recent years toward artists, academics, high-tech entrepreneurs, and outdoor enthusiasts—a cultural mood swing that has created a crossroads of traditional and trendy, cowboy and cosmo, Old West and New Age. Old-timers may grumble about art galleries outnumbering feed stores, but for visitors, the new Bozeman offers the best of both worlds, with chic boutiques, modern museums, and stylish eateries just a hop, skip, and a paddle from world-class fly-fishing, exhilarating skiing, and the jaw-dropping scenery of southwestern Montana.
Anyone wondering how to dive into this hip little home on the range should stroll down Main Street. Once part of the infamous Bozeman Trail, blazed in 1864 as a sort of fast lane to Montana’s goldfields, this thriving thoroughfare still feels like yesteryear. Main Street is the address of some stately brick buildings, the landmark Baxter Hotel, the excellent Pioneer Museum—formerly the county jail—and the high school where Gary Cooper caught the acting bug. In summer the sidewalks are thronged with tourists, many en route to Yellowstone National Park 90 miles to the south. But on early spring afternoons, the boulevard belongs to lunching locals and Montana State University students sipping cappuccinos between classes.
Shopping, of course, is always in season, with boutiques such as Miss Zula’s and the Root tempting visitors to slip into rhinestone chokers, Balinese beaded skirts, and distressed-denim jackets. Music lovers can discover local bands at Cactus Records, and the independently owned Country Bookshelf is where you’ll find tomes on Yellowstone, women in the West, and cowboy poetry.
Now that you’re laden with shopping bags, you can empathize with the heavily burdened settlers who climbed Bozeman Pass and started a new community here in the fertile Gallatin Valley. If only they’d been able to recuperate in a place like Plonk, a two-year-old wine bar decorated like a sleek SoHo bachelor’s loft, with a turntable and a vinyl collection that get a serious workout on Friday DJ nights. In black-framed glasses and paint-splattered dungarees, owner Earle Langeland is just the cheeky sort of fellow to name his establishment after the British slang for "cheap wine"—then promptly offer everything from Argentine malbec and South African pinotage to the dreamily named Japanese sakes Wandering Poet and Hawk in the Heavens.
Those able to escape the velvety entropy of Plonk’s couches can enjoy Main Street’s numerous Western-themed art galleries. Visions West Gallery and Chaparral Fine Art entice with such finds as the Technicolor palette of Montana artist Carol Hagan and Beth Loftin’s nostalgic oils of early American life. For something more unusual, Indian Uprising Gallery offers only artwork by Native American artists, many from Montana’s Blackfeet and Crow tribes. Many pieces here—hand-beaded buckskin dresses, ceremonial macaw-feather fans, the pictograph-style depictions known as ledger drawings—seem museumworthy.
One block south of Main, art has also transformed a onetime elementary school into what is now the Emerson Center. Former classrooms house everything from gallery spaces to yoga studios to the Alliance Française. The old gymnasium has been reinvented as an elegant ballroom; the auditorium is a venue for concerts, films, and dramatic productions. The center’s Emerson Grill is its own work of art, with original maple floors, exposed brick, and warm butternut walls that complement such earthy creations as flatbread pizzette with prosciutto, caramelized onion, and chèvre.
South of the Emerson Center, downtown gives way to the Bon Ton Historic District, a tree-lined neighborhood of craftsman bungalows and colonial revival mansions. Here Frankee and Bruce Muller run the Voss Inn B&B in a Victorian filled with artifacts from their years spent operating a photo safari camp in Botswana. In the revived industrial district northeast of downtown, the Lehrkind Mansion Bed and Breakfast boasts its own wonders, including a few Victrolas and a seven-foot-tall Regina music box that produces a sound as magical and nostalgic as the distant wail of trains rolling east to Billings.
On the southern fringe of town, the landscape opens up to reveal haystack-dotted farmland and the athletic fields of Montana State University. The school’s mascot is the bobcat, but it could just as easily be the Maiasaura, a plant-eating dinosaur named by paleontology professor and Jurassic Park adviser Jack Horner. A local celebrity, Horner is the curator of the new Hall of Horns and Teeth at the Museum of the Rockies, which displays such finds as the Volkswagen-size skull of the horned Torosaurus and a Triceratops pelvis showing Tyrannosaurus rex bite marks. Museum fans can also explore exhibits on local geology and history or head across town to the American Computer Museum. Here, discover a technological time line that stretches from Babylonian alphabet tablets to IBM punch card machines to modern DNA decoding devices.
But there’s no excuse for staying inside when the blue light atop the Baxter Hotel flares: That means fresh powder is falling on Bridger Bowl Ski Area, only 16 miles away, and every ski hound in town is racing to take advantage of the resort’s Rocky Mountain terrain and bargain $39 lift tickets. Most sleep-loving locals won’t ski anywhere else, but snow junkies looking to carve up what may be the biggest ski area in North America can head an hour south to the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Peak. From there, skiers can drop into two behemoth resorts—the iconic Big Sky Resort and the new Moonlight Basin—which have teamed up to offer an unprec-edented 5,300 acres, 23 lifts, and some 220 runs on one joint lift ticket.
While these mountains are covered in dry snow through March, the creeks around Bozeman are already shaking off winter’s spell, making spring a prime time for fly-fishing. By summer, a swarm of trout anglers as thick as a caddis hatch have descended upon the area’s three world-famous rivers—the Gallatin, the Madison, and the Yellowstone—to match wits with native cutthroats, spunky rainbows, and big browns. Visiting anglers will find a number of local outfitters offering walk-wade, float, and specialty trips on all three blue-ribbon rivers as well as classes, equipment rental, and plenty of friendly advice about whether to tie on a brown woolly bugger or a parachute madam.
Unable to resist what many consider to be the best fly-fishing in the Lower 48, I soon find myself knee-deep in a winding creek. My guide, Jordan Gage, leads us forward with the stealth and intensity of a crocodile hunter. "Oh, that is so fishy," he whispers excitedly, indicating a deep hole ahead. "Zing it in there! Yes! Kerpow!" As luck would have it, my cast finds its mark just in time to attract a passing rainbow. "Oh, sugar!" whoops Jordan as the trout takes the fly and I strain to reel it in, all flashing scales and splashing creek water. My smile widens. Finally, a Montana hunting story of my own.
Photography by Bob Allen
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may
have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Idaho/Montana map and TourBook. For more information, contact the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce, (406) 586-5421, www.bozemanchamber.com. Area code is 406 unless noted.
TO DO AND SEE
American Computer Museum 2304 N. Seventh Ave., 582-1288, www.compustory.com. Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture 111 S. Grand Ave., 587-9797, www.theemerson.org. Museum of the Rockies 600 W. Kagy Blvd., 994-2251, www.museumoftherockies.org. Pioneer Museum 317 W. Main St., 522-8122, www.pioneermuseum.org.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Big Sky Resort 995-5000, www.bigskyresort.com. Bridger Bowl Ski Area 587-2111, www.bridgerbowl.com. Montana Troutfitters Bozeman's oldest fly-fishing outfitter. 1716 W. Main St., 587-4707, www.troutfitters.com. Moonlight Basin (877) 822-0430, www.moonlightbasin.com. Next Cast Outfitters Guided trips with Jordan Gage. 580-3350, www.nextcastoutfitters.com.
Emerson Grill 207 W. Olive St., 586-5247. Leaf & Bean Coffee and Tea 35 W. Main St., 587-1580. Plonk 29 E. Main St., 587-2170. Sweet Pea Café & Bakery 19 S. Willson Ave., 586-8200, www.sweetpeacafe.com.