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Mountain of the North

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My first Montana sunset in Whitefish, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

I love toponyms (place names), because they reveal so much—and yet so little—about the places they are meant to typify.

It was snowing in Minneapolis (Sioux Mni = “water”; Greek polis = “city”) when I boarded a flight for Kalispell, and briefly imagined that Kalispell was the name of some flaxen-haired, rose-lipped pioneer beauty in a blue gingham dress who had perished from consumption or mountain fever or heartbreak upon the great northern prairie. But I imagined it all wrong.

Kalispell is in fact the Salish, or Flathead Indian name for “Flat land by the lake” and I am relieved that such a piece of flat land exists by said lake, or else there would be absolutely no place to land our plane.

My face was glued to the window as we descended over the vast no man’s land of rippled mountains, heavy with midwinter snow, burying the hopeful treetops that poked through the sparkling frozen surface.

“They are endless,” I thought, “and uninhabited, too.” As far as I looked, I saw no roads, no electrical towers, or towns or farms. Just nature in all of its giant wintry splendor.

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Flying over Montana's endless mountains (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

I grew excited by the view below—I could almost taste the dry air and dry snow of the Rockies. The sky was incredibly clear and blue, painted with faint white streaks of the stratosphere from whence we descended.

“All that there is Glacier,” explained the man sitting next to me—a New Englander who had retired to Montana and was experiencing his first full northern winter (“So far, so good,” he said.) Covered in white ice, Glacier National Park looked nothing like any of the calendar photos I’d ever seen—it was simply huge and monumental, deeply grooved with steep valleys and crested ridges so sharp, I imagine that a falling snowflake could never stick there but be forced to pick a slope to slide down.

The splendid mountain scene raised my spirits—I maintain that those of us who grew up in the flattest part of the universe (i.e. western Ohio) have a deeper love for elevation variation. In this respect, for me, the great state of Montana was love at first sight.

“Mountains!” was all I could think—endless mountains! Seventy-seven (named) mountain ranges, to be exact. While I am constantly reminded that most of Montana is as flat and topographically uneventful as the cornfields of Ohio, my first airplane-window impression showed off the state’s nomenclature without apology.

According to that timeless classic of 1910, Contributions To The Historical Society Of Montana, Volume 7, early Spanish explorers in America referred to this entire region as Montaña del Norte, or “Mountain of the North.” I assume this name made it onto early maps, long before the states were ever united.

Apparently, over a century ago, our congressmen used to disagree with one another—and from what I’ve read, our past politicians had a tough time naming Montana “Montana”. Some disagreed with accepting the Spanish name, others preferred the name of an Indian tribe like “Shoshone” while others rallied for the more presidential “Jefferson”.

But Montana looks nothing like Thomas Jefferson. It looks like mountains—at least when landing at Glacier Park International Airport near Kalispell. As I drove north to Whitefish, all I could see were mountain walls rising up on every side.

My first few hours in the Treasure State were filled with little reminders that I had arrived in a foreign country. Given that I have spent the last three months in Scotland and sub-Saharan Africa, it was utterly bizarre to drive on the right side of the very wide roads—and so strange to see wild turkeys hanging out in the snowy yards, to watch icicles dripping from rooftops and to sip huckleberry soda in a log cabin adorned with massive moosehead trophies.

When traveling, we designate these first few hours of arrival as “getting situated” and for me, this is always a time of important first impressions—the kind from which toponyms are born. Montana is a fitting title for what I’ve seen so far, but based on my first night of getting situated in Whitefish (where I have yet to see a white fish), I could easily rename this place any of the following: Pink Clouds, Snowy Fields, Super Nice People Who Go Out Of Their Way To Help Strangers, Good Burgers, Smells Like Peanut Butter Cookies, Shy Turkeys, Emergency Break on Ice, or Taxidermy.

Whatever you want to call it, I am so glad to be here. Variation is the real gift of travel and I have landed somewhere so new and different, I know that I will enjoy each new day I spend exploring this Mountain of the North.


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