Missoula is not somewhere I imagined myself.
Montana? That cowboy waving his hat around while riding a bucking bronco?
Wait, that's Wyoming.
Well, let's just say that Montana was about as foreign an idea to me as Wyoming is.
I had no idea what to expect.
Turns out, it's lovely, and yellow and vast.
Just outside of town the streets and buildings give way to the rolling ambers hills that wrap the landscape out into the valleys and up into the mountains.
There are bike coops, little quirky boutiques, and a grocery store to rival your Whole Foods dreams.
While I wasn't getting the pick-up-and-move-here feeling I was surprised by just how livable it felt.
We spent our first night in Missoula in the tidy apartment of a friend of a friend's. We walked into town for dinner to a place that served vegan pizza and then strolled a bit. The next morning, we strolled.
There are few things I enjoy more than not having a car and not having time constraints.
In my everyday life, while I could get around without owning a car, my time constraints would have me using buses and metros and other crowded, noisy and stressful modes of transportations.
When really all I want, all I ever want, is just to walk.
One of the top things to do in Missoula, ask anyone who knows Missoula and this is what they will recommend, is to hike the M.
Mount Sentinel overlooks Missoula and three quarters of a mile up there is a monumental M first formed in white stones by members of the Forestry Club and university students in 1908. Today the concrete M that has replaced the stones, and then wood, and then again stones, before now, is a popular hike for tourists as well as a fitness trail for locals.
Three quarters of a mile. After the Grand Canyon? Piece of cake, right?
Well, eh, so we made it up two switchbacks before the old (newly aggravated) knee kicked the hike to the grassy sidelines. An elderly couple who started a few minutes after us looked perplexed when they passed us sitting just off the trail in the tall grass.
"Most people go all the way up for the view you know," the man laughed as he continued to hike with gusto.
"Jerk," I mumbled.
I got a notification after the first night in Missoula from Zach inviting Phil and I to stay with him.
"So how does this couch surfing thing work?"
"Well Zach wants to meet us at Kettlehouse and he'll take us to his place from there."
This would be Phil's first time Couchsurfing, and while he was no stranger to crashing on couches, in tents, and on kitchen floors, he wasn't accustomed to crashing on online stranger's couches and floors.
The Brewery happened to be right across the street from the apartment we had stayed in a few days before so we pulled our car over and got out. Several people stood loitering outside and a guy parked his car in front of ours. The dance began.
"Oh maybe that's him?" I whispered.
I jumped out of the car and walked up next to the car in front of us and casually looked down at my phone. I stood close enough to be noticed but not so close as to press my face to the window and mouth the words "Are you my host mommy?!"
No reaction from man in car in front of us. Ok, move on. This has happened before. Just weed through the lookalikes until you find the right stranger.
Phil and I went into the brewery and looked around. Most everyone enjoying happy hour was paired up or in small groups. Maybe we were early? We'd been driving all day so Phil headed for the bathroom while I stealthily stalked the bar looking for Zach.
Walking aimlessly around a bar and staring at strange men expectantly, even if for a brief moment before moving on to the next, is a guaranteed way to stir up unwanted attention so I gave up and headed for the bathroom as well.
When I walked out there he was. Perhaps he had been there all along. I wasn't quite sure his face matched the pictures I had tried to memorize, but a guy sitting alone in a brewery without a beer in his hand was what tipped me off.
"Yeah, hey I'm Zach," he replied holding out his hand. His mouth moved imperceptibly into a reserved smile. After filling up a growler it was back to the cars to follow Zach to his house a few blocks away.
"Oh you live above the cool antique store!" I squealed as we approached the door.
"Yeah actually my landlord owns the whole building, has for years, it's his antique store."
We climbed the squeaky stairs up to the second level. Doors lined a long corridor and an open room off to our right. Bright paintings, murals, dioramas and puppets hung everywhere. Clusters of little objects clung dustily to shelves. A board above the staircase read: Zach hosting two couch surfers.
"It's actually one more floor up. Oh hey, here's the landlord, he lives here too I'll introduce you."
The squat, beaming landlord graciously welcomed us as we followed Zach to the second floor.
"So….how many of you live here?" I asked.
Zach laughed under his breath.
"I know, I know. It looks like a commune but really it's just like having lots of roommates. We've all got our own things going on but we all live together. I intentionally don't talk about it on my profile on couchsurfing because I don't want people to be put off by it yah know?"
"No way, I'm into it, I think it's great," I reassured him.
"Hah, I kinda figured that since you're one of those weird vegans," he chuckled.
Now keep in mind we had just met. Normally when a stranger attacks my crazy veganess I cringe and assume bitch face for the rest of said interaction.
But he said it so…good naturedly. His almost imperceptible smiles seemed so genuine.
"Let me show you to your room. So this is what we call the TV room, but I mean, everyone know's your here and you'll have your privacy at night for sure. So yeah, right up that ladder." Zach lead us into a side room with a couch and two couch sitters, stacks of VHS piled around and a TV. Behind the door a ladder slanted up to the loft above. We maneuvered around the door and hoisted our packs up, chucking them up the hole.
We crawled on hands and knees over to the mattress flanked by low crouching lamps waiting for us. We settled in and leaned back to survey our digs for the night. Posters draped the walls and we took stock: velvet tigers - check, glow in the dark planets - check
wait, what's that one?
Mother Jones ABC?!
"So we're spending the night in Hippy Castle," Phil laughed
We joined Zach in the kitchen for a beer and got a tour of the rest of the house and the double decker porch and talked numbers. What's the rent here? What's the average salary? How many students go to school here? How many become locals?
It was quickly becoming cold as the sun set so we headed back into the warmth of the kitchen. Zach's roommate was poking around in the kitchen and she gave us a big smile and waves as we came in and then proceeded to play the numbers game with us as well.
How long are you in Missoula for? How many night are you staying? How long was THAT flight?
How many rolls of toilet paper did you bring?
Wait what? I glanced at Zach as his roommate started in on the "Couchsurfing isn't a free hotel" speech that she had obviously practiced before.
"So, you know, it's always good to bring toilet paper or shampoo or something to contribute to the house you're staying at because, you know, we aren't a hotel."
Phil and I smiled and nodded and snuck looks at Zach who looked amused.
We scurried back to our loft to "settle in" at Zach's kind suggestion.
Zach poked his head up into the loft after a bit.
"Knock, knock. You guys hungry? We've got tons of quinoa and vegetables. That's what you guys eat right? I mean unless you want to go out."
We left our cozy nook to get a rice bowl loaded with jicama, beets, and sweet potatoes at with spicy coconut oil at Five on Black. I had to hand it to Missoula, the eats were good. The line moved like a chipotle, our bowls getting passed from smiling scooper to smiling drizzler to smiling cashier with speed and jazz-finger enthusiasm.
"The small bowl is 5 bucks and it's seriously all you need. I'll get you guys dinner."
"No way, we can't stay at your place AND not bring toilet paper AND accept free dinner. WE will pay for YOUR rice bowl."
It's the couchsurfing way!
We talked about places we had lived, places we had visited, and all of the weird places we had ever slept (it's a common topic among C-surfers) and then headed to the Rhino with Zach to try a local beer and he told us about how he used to sneak in for shows when he was underaged.
When you order a beer the bartender gives you a card with all 50 plus taps printed on it. Each beer from a different tap gets you a stamp.
"Collect them all and you get a new liver," Zach joked.
Like so many towns, Missoula kinda reminded me of my own college town. You've got the college students who just stay and become locals, you've got the old time locals who come out to the bar for darts, families, some bedazzled tourists and then just drifters who show up and hang out for a while because there is an undeniable charm to the little town.
"Missoula is the best kept secret out here," Zach confided, "don't tell your friends."
Missoula would have charmed us either way but there is no better way to experience a town than to stay with a local who endearingly keeps teasing you about your life choices and morals.
Zach was the perfect host to have in Missoula.
But Montana is wide and weird and full of taxidermied animals and we were determined to see more of it so we left the town and headed for the wilderness.