Friday, July 3, 2020


Two weeks ago I and my family spent a few days in Montana. The state has an overwhelmingly popular reputation compared to, say, Arkansas, Delaware, North Dakota or West Virginia. I absolutely love the place even though I don't think I would want to live there permanently (because I hate snow), but what a perfect place to summer visit! My Japanese wife commented that the Montana people seem more friendly and sincere and down-to-earth than the wanna-be kooks and kreeps from the Portland, Oregon area. Indeed, I shook hands – with trust – with a few Montanans, the first time I touched skin with strangers in over three months, and I guess I really do miss that social contact.

I had zoomed through Montana once before, about 20 years ago, on a fast road trip to elsewhere, so in a sense this recent trip was my first “real” visit to the state. The primary purpose was to pick up and return to home my 17-year-old daughter who was staying for a few weeks in Helena with her best friend, a sweet, good-looking but vulnerable black girl who certainly became a fish out of water when her parents dragged her from Oregon to live in all-white Montana. I won't comment on that further, however. Since I was going to be in Montana anyway, my wife and I developed an itinerary that would mark it as a “business trip,” i.e. a tax write-off.

Montana – Spanish for “mountains” or “mountainous lands” – is known as the “Treasure state,” maybe because its motto is Oro y Plata, Spanish for “gold and silver.” Just over one million souls live within its confines, the fourth largest state in size (145,392 square miles) behind only Alaska, Texas and California. I like that the state animal is the Grizzly Bear, the bird is the Western Meadowlark, the fish is the Blackspotted Cutthroat Trout, the tree is Ponderosa Pine and fantastically, the state fossil is Maiasaura, the Duck-Billed Dinosaur. Also, rather quirkily, certain areas or towns are known for other facts, characteristics or endeavors: as in caverns for the south-central Bighorns, artists for the Blackfoot Valley, pray for Yellowstone Big Ranch etc. But what's the connection with bike rides for Whitefish, or a Week of Hope or Buzzing Honey for the Flathead Valley? Arlee too has Buzzing Honey, as well as Drum Circles. Bozeman is similarly Abuzz with Honey, but additionally Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls are famous for Roller Derby. I don't get the Neon Signs, though, for what has that electricity got to do with hillbilly Sheldon, Chinook, Butte, Big Timber, Miles City or Great Falls? Plus, a number of places promote Bouldering where one apparently scrambles atop rocks (either inside or outside) as a form of exercise, recreation or as some research for stone spirituality. me dull, but I don't really want to buzz or hum or drum, as I am adverse to most types of formal spirituality. Anyway, if you are into any of this type of information you can learn more at

Bibler Gardens

Our first stop in Montana was in Kalispell, a town of 24,000 people in the northwest corner of the state. Bibler Gardens was our destination, a private arboretum built on a hillside above the town, and the late “Sam” Bibler left it well-endowed and thriving since his death in 2002. The garden is open to the public from time to time, but not in June, so I was especially honored that Director Tyler Hawk and Curator Jeanie Teausant allowed us in and showed us around. Old Bibler made his fortune with gas and oil and he loved gardening and the outdoors. Plants and lots of money make a perfect combination, and I'm sorry that I could never have met him.

Acer palmatum 'Ukigumo'

Jeanie, Tyler and I chatted about plants as we walked around, about what grows well in Kalispell and what struggles. They had four Acer palmatum cultivars which have survived because they are planted next to a building and given extra winter protection, while all others planted elsewhere have since perished. However, sometimes a harsh environment leads to more brilliance in foliage color, and I was amazed that Acer palmatum 'Ukigumo' was more white than I have ever seen. One of the hybrids of Acer palmatum x Acer pseudosieboldianum ('Northern Glow' maybe?) was thriving, however, and indeed two different cultivars of the cross were available at a Kalispell garden center (Hoopers).

Tyler mentioned that winter temperatures at Bibler had not (negatively) exceeded -10 F in quite a few years, whereas Jeanie lives 20 miles away where it has. But it's not so much how cold it gets – for most palmatum cultivars are listed as hardy to -20 F – but rather how it gets cold. Kalispell's temperature fluctuations can be the death knell for many ornamentals and the Rocky Mountain states are infamous as a gardener's nightmare.

Abies koreana 'Ice Breaker'

Abies koreana 'Ice Breaker'

Picea abies 'Pendula'

One design scheme that caught my attention was a backdrop of about five Picea abies 'Pendula', the “Weeping Norway spruce,” which diligently attended to more dwarf conifers in the foreground. Another time I walked past an Abies koreana cultivar, but no label identified it. It was an irregular upright with very short recurved needles. They had an A.k. 'Silberlocke' displayed in the garden, but this little specimen was something else, a cultivar I couldn't identify. I was shocked when Jeanie eventually referred to it as 'Kohout's Ice Breaker', for the needles were only ¼ the size of mine in Oregon. It didn't glitter as spectacularly as those grown at the Flora Wonder Arboretum, but still theirs looked completely healthy. As you can see in the photo the Bibler tree had produced cones, and I reflected that I had never seen cones before on any of the Abies koreana witch's broom cultivars, and I'll certainly plead with them to receive some seed this fall.

Hooper's Garden Center

Conrad Mansion

We bade farewell to the kind folks at Bibler Gardens, and after a quick stop at Hooper's Garden Center (remember: “business trip”) I toured the grounds at Kalispell's Conrad Estate, where apparently some of my plants were waiting to be planted this fall thanks to the Bibler connection. We couldn't enter the mansion as it was past closing time, but I was able to walk around the landscape because it is now city property. Alicia Conrad Campbell donated the estate to Kalispell in 1974, and though that was a kind gesture, she was probably relieved that someone else was then responsible to tend to the bushes and mow the lawn. In fact, the property had gone into disrepair and it was the good Sam B. who helped to recue it, becoming the first president of the Board of Directors. Alicia and her husband moved into a trailer on a corner of the property, and after much financial hardship the city accepted her gift...with the condition that no taxpayer money be used to support it.

Bitterroot Salish

Kalispell is a spread-out city, as if land is easy to come by and no one needs to feel crowded. I reflected that if the same-size area was in India there would be a few million people atop of each other. The name Kalispell is a Bitterroot Salish (Native American) word meaning “flat land above the lake.” The lake in question – the Flathead Lake – is huge, and it is the largest natural freshwater lake in the western USA. K. is only 31 miles from Glacier National Park which we hoped to explore the following day, but as it was cold and raining I had my doubts if the roads would be open. In hindsight I felt pretty dumb because on the 19th of June in any year the park is probably still piled with snow.

Helena Capitol Building

We abandoned all Glacier plans and instead headed southeast to the capital city of Helena. Besides picking up my daughter I felt compelled to see the capitol building which would be fairly easy to find in relatively small Helena (population 32,315). One denizen pointed east and said, “I think it's over that way.” He was right and I spotted it from a few blocks away...glowering upon an incline, smudged under a layer of depressing soot. One can imagine a multitude of dirty deals going down within its walls, but I had no interest to enter. Helena was inadvertently founded by four men from Georgia. They had been all over western Montana looking for gold with no success, but on July 14, 1864 they decided to take one last chance in mining the nearby creek. They lucked out, found gold and named the stream, appropriately, Last Chance Gulch. When word got out Helena became a boomtown and soon housed over 3,000 souls. The “Gulch” name didn't stick and the young town was renamed “Crabtown” after one of the four Georgians. No one really liked that name either, and Pumpkinville and Squashtown were also used. Since many of the miners were from Minnesota they preferred to name it after Minnesota's Saint Helena, and the shortened version remains in use today. My daughter concedes that Montana is a beautiful state and that Helena is attractive enough, but she reports that there's absolutely nothing to do and she would become a drug addict if she was forced to live there. She worked with her friend in a crepe shop making and serving the cheap, sugary confectionery, and her take-home pay for three full days was $137, with quite a few other dollars going back into the state's economy.

The Gallatin River

We didn't stay even an hour in Helena, instead zooming at a fast speed southwest to Big Sky, a tourist boom town, poised an hour away from the western entrance into Yellowstone National Park. The Big Sky developers boast that the new town is an R-Destination: “come Recreate, Relax, Rejuvenate and Return home Refreshed.” A van loaded with noisy brats arrived as we were checking into our hotel and they overran the lobby with no pretense of sobriety or social distancing. After driving so much I was anxious to leave the hotel and an easy hike to Ousel Falls was just a mile away. Haruko and I took our time on the trail while our daughters chose the hotel's heated outdoor sauna and pool. My youngest (14) reported later that a 45-year-old pervert was in the pool with his wife, yet he kept staring at her sister. I said that I would too, but that I'm more subtle and careful to not get caught. That disgusted my daughter so I changed the topic back to our hike. The southern Montana forest was lush and beautiful and the snow was completely gone. Ousel Falls is named for the Ousel bird (Cinclus mexicanus), commonly known as the American Dipper, and the river forming the falls is the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River. The Gallatin River, along with the Jefferson and the Madison, converge near Three Forks, Montana to form the Missouri. The Gallatin was named by Meriwether Lewis for Albert Gallatin, U.S. Treasure Secretary from 1801-1814, and parts of the movie A River Runs Through It were filmed on the Gallatin. These days I don't observe the fly-fishing religion although I used to fish as a kid. When my daughter asked me about my fishing history I replied that I used to fish for beautiful women...until I caught my wife. “Ha to that,” said my 17-year-old, “now all you fish for is compliments.”

I wanted to leave early the next morning for Yellowstone but nothing is more problematic than waking two teenage girls who stay up too late with their telephones and distant boyfriends. They were crabby at the get-go but soon enough fell into peaceful slumber. They were still sleeping in the car while Haruko and I were waiting with half of America for Old Faithful to erupt. H. called them to hurry up or they would miss it and they finally arrived with just seconds to spare, but Miss 17 declared it a “non-event” anyway. Later I had them trapped in the car and I felt it incumbent to explain a little thermal geology, but they groaned as if I was the family dentist. The English word geyser is derived from the Icelandic Geysir, for one specific hot spring, and it means “The gusher” from Old Norse geysa “to gush,” and that from the PIE root gheu “to pour.” Even Haruko grew weary of my lecture so I became a silent old man, alone with his thoughts. At one point a half dozen cars were parked randomly along the road and everyone was looking down into a meadow. I detected a solo large gray canine, and a mangy coyote it was not, so it must have been a wolf, which were recently reintroduced into Yellowstone; my first wolf encounter ever. With no good place to park I slowly drove off. But...a wolf, how about that!

Old Faithful

While we waited at Old Faithful for the erection...err, the eruption, I imagined that every married couple snickered about the reliability of Mr. Geyser. Haruko wandered off and chatted up a middle-aged park ranger who forlornly mentioned that – in Haruko's interpretation – in five years the entire Park would explode and that “nothing here today would then remain, it would all be gone.” H. was appalled at the horrific prognosis, “Honey, the park man said that we will melt into oblivion in just five more years. Honeeeey... the world is gunna end in just five years! – and I just barely got to know you.” “Ok, dear, he really didn't say that we're all goners in five years, but that the cataclysm could occur in the next five minutes, or in five years, or in the next five thousand years...from now. We just don't know, and he certainly doesn't either, so don't worry about it.” Nevertheless Haruko fretted about her children, the cat and dog, and that she might never become a grandmother. I don't know, but I'm not even certain that our world will be around in five years anyway.

National Parks are incredible places and each one has its own unique identity. Yellowstone is a veritable Disneyland of flora, fauna and geology, plus you get pristine rivers and a huge sky. The park had lots of tourists but was fortunately devoid of Chinese and Europeans during our visit. I guess that was one small Covid 19 blessing, but sadly the magnificent lodge at the Old Faithful village was locked up. I felt great the minute I entered the park because the pleasant attendant greeted me with a smile and waved me on when she saw my senior pass. After all I have contributed millions of tax dollars and I feel that I certainly deserve a red carpet as well as free admission.

We spent only one day at Yellowstone and left in the evening of a most memorable day. The final encounter was a solo bison standing next to the road, and was it possible that he winked goodbye at me?

Old Buchholz with Miss 17

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