#217, East Missoula, Montana
Rambling thousands of miles cross-country in a massive Ford van for the past month, I had a lot of time to look at maps. The trusty Rand McNally atlas played second fiddle to the iPhones when it came to navigation, but for me, there's no map like a paper map, complete with its crumpled pages, obscure town names, and state mottos at the top of each page. (Memo to Maryland: it may be time to update your old Manly deeds, womanly words motto. And no, it doesn't sound any better in Latin.)
Although it's not the official catch phrase, Big Sky Country is the default motto assigned to the state of Montana. It's what appears on the quarter next to the cow skull and on Montana license plates, and you can't help but think of it as you coast along the state's open roads, gawking at the huge blue skies.
Along with big skies come big rivers, and five days or so into Balthrop, Alabama tour, we were ready to give the waters of this country of ours a test run. We had the combined good fortune of an hour or so to spare before setting out for Spokane and the misguided gusto to go swimming in one of these frigid watering holes in East Missoula near the intersection of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot River -- the river, incidentally, that was the inspiration behind Norman Maclean's novel A River Runs Through It. A landlubber at heart, I've gingerly dipped my toes in some cold waters in my lifetime, but this was glacial. Apart from a few folks frolicking above water in inner tubes with feet in the air and hands firmly tightened around beer cans, there weren't many souls brave enough to commit to full immersion. But there was that fabulous big sky to look at, so I tiptoed in, bracing myself against the rocky floor and fast current, fixing my gaze firmly on the horizon.
It turns out dipping into the freezing water isn't the stupidest thing ever done in the waters of East Missoula. Turns out they have hosted at least one underwater pumpkin carving contest, just in case you're into diving and are looking to make some late October travel plans. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I have to say the thought of a novel about underwater pumpkin carvers (water temperature: 41 degrees) is a wee bit tempting. Anyone have a suggestion for a title? Or worse, a sequel?