When I was a kid, family vacations were a big deal. We’d head out of the boringness of suburban Illinois and go to San Francisco, Disneyland, Kauai. Puerto Vallarta sort of became Our Place and we spent several spring breaks there (before it was a mecca of college debauchery – I’m old). It was a time to relax, see interesting things and cultural sites, swim like crazy, eat amazing food, and read on the beach.
When my husband and I first married, we were broke as a joke. I was in law school and he was in the first years of his career. We had a house we couldn’t afford (didn’t everyone in 2006?) and a bad takeout habit. When I got my first “real job,” my paychecks were thrown at the credit card debt that had piled up the preceding three years. Vacations weren’t elaborate; just heading up to our friend’s cabin or a quick weekend trip somewhere relatively close.
We also traveled to Missoula, Montana, where my husband grew up. To me, these were trips to see his family. They weren’t really “vacations” since we weren’t going anywhere “big” or fancy or once-in-a-lifetime-cool like I did as a kid. We went to Montana to escape the summer heat and, since we stayed with my in-laws and usually drove, we’d bring our dog and stay for 10 days or more at a time without breaking the bank. It didn’t take long, though, for me to fall in love with Missoula and for it to become Our Place.
Missoula is a college town that reminds me of Flagstaff; historic buildings dot downtown, the big university sits at the base of Mount Sentinel, tree lined streets lead you across a big river (literally, the river that runs through it) that bisects town. Minor league baseball takes up residence from late June through July where the locals can see players who might, one day, take the field in Diamondback red (and many have – from Lyle Overbay to Paul Goldschmidt). There isn’t any high-end shopping (although there is a Target and a Starbucks which, in one of my friends’ books, makes it a legit city and not a truck stop) and you’ll find more quilt shops than movie theaters. When it’s sunny, people come out in droves and every Wednesday in the summer, there’s live music and a dozen local restaurant booths at “Out to Lunch” in the park. Kayakers show off in the river rapids next to the town carousel. You’ll find me most mornings playing with my kids in my in-laws’ backyard or flying a kite at the park down the street, and most afternoons reading a book under a tree.
On each trip, we discover something new. This past October, when we were there for a taste of real Fall, we discovered the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, a Buddhist spiritual site with, just as the name implies, a thousand or more statutes of Buddha beautifully and peacefully laid out for anyone to enjoy. On past trips, we found our favorite brewery which sits on a small creek the kids can splash in while we sip our beers and play Catan with my brother- and sister-in-law, a 20-table romantic restaurant where we can slip away for a date night, and the under-the-bridge farmer’s market with the famous local watermelons (I hear they’re delicious – I don’t eat the stuff).
My husband describes Missoula as “a great place to grow up.” It’s also an amazing place to visit and establish as a second “place to grow up” for my kids. They make cakes for their uncle’s Fourth of July birthday and eat fruit from Grandma’s apricot and cherry trees. We find tadpoles in the pond and go camping by the lake. We shut off the tablet and experience nature. There’s still so much for them to try: fishing with Grandpa, playing in Christmas snow, seeing the wild buffalo at the sanctuary nearby.
Missoula doesn’t have world renowned museums or other big attractions. It has warm summer days and leaves that change color in the Fall. It has fishing holes and rivers to float, grass hills to roll down and lakes to swim in. As they say there, it is the Last Best Place. Traveling there so often may have been born of a need to get away on the cheap, but Missoula has captured my heart and I am so grateful it is accessible to us. So, we will keep going back, over and over, in warm weather and cold. It’s Our Place. A place where our kids are creating memories.
To you, reader, I say: find Your Place. Find the place that you can explore over and over and let your kids run free in. A place where your heart is happy.