It’s dawn at Chico Hot Springs, in Montana, it’s snowing, and I’m in a state of bliss. Mittens, kittens—I can’t get the damn Sound of Music out of my head, and you can hear me singing about “My Favorite Things” as the first light breaks and a trio of mule deer appears, looking for their breakfast. Barefoot, I walk outside. Unlike the timid East Coast deer that run when you approach, these animals stand their ground. I wave my iPod at them and their big ears prick up. The Sound of Music draws them closer.
Oh, it’s snowing! I love the winter best of any season, and especially the first snowfall—the world’s yearly trick of looking new, to paraphrase the poet Philip Larkin.
Maybe I get it from my mother, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where it snowed for eight months a year and the temperature dropped to well below zero, and everyone wore long johns until May; maybe from my peasant ancestors in Belarus. I don’t know, all I know is it’s the very best season for travel; when no one else is around, this is the most magic, private, mysterious time of year.
A 113-year-old hotel, the Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa is in the south-central part of the state, in the lush Paradise Valley; the Absaroka range of the northern Rockies rises above it, and the Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in the Lower 48, runs through it. The siren call of this river brings in fishermen from all over the world, and even now, with ice forming on parts of it, a few hardy anglers are out. In the winter, they own the river.
The nearest town, if you can call it that, is Emigrant, which has a gas station and a grocery store. Twenty miles up the valley, along the glorious East River Road, is Livingston; a boomtown during the early years of the Northern Pacific railroad in the 1880’s, it has casually retained its Old West flavor without any feel of a theme park. There are a few shops, some restaurants, bars, a movie theater, and the Murray Hotel. Livingston also has a fine collection of original neon signage. With snow on the town, it resembles a Christmas card out of the Wild West.
From here, it’s an easy and beautiful drive to Red Lodge, home to one of the oldest continuously operating ski clubs in America, and where at the Pollard hotel the food is good and the guest book contains Buffalo Bill Cody’s signature. My friend Bobby and I usually eat burgers at the Sport in Livingston, or drive over to Big Timber for chili under a moose head at the Grand Hotel & Restaurant. For a longer outing, we head to Lima for a slice of warm pie at Jan’s Café, across one of the emptiest and most thrilling frozen landscapes I’ve ever seen.
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Of course, the winter I love is a winter mostly seen through windows, from the lobby at Chico, with its roaring fire, or at the hotel’s Saloon, where E.R., the genial guy who runs the bar, is making drinks and shooting the breeze. Just next door, some guests are standing around in the pool fed by the old hot springs, sipping strawberry margaritas or cold Moose Drool, the local beer, as cowboys once did to soothe the aches and pains of a long day’s ride—though I’m not sure they drank margaritas.
For somebody as disengaged from nature as I am—New York City is my natural and favorite habitat, followed by London, Venice, Paris, and Mumbai—Montana is the other. This is why I come here. For me, Montana is the very meaning of getting away, of what the French call dépaysement. There is no real equivalent in English, this word that implies getting out of the country, your country—no safety net, only adventure, and dreams. All this crosses my mind as I climb into a worryingly fragile sled for a trip out with the dogs.
The clouds have lifted, and overhead is purest Montana big-sky blue. Even the black skeletons of the trees from last year’s fires are coated in snow, and as lovely as Victorian etchings. So, suited up in waterproof gear from Absaroka Dogsled Treks, which has its storefront at Chico, we climb into a bus and set off across the valley into the mountains.
The dogs in their bus kennels are howling. Also on board is what at first seems to be half man, half Chewbacca. He is wearing immense fake-fur pants and a camouflage jacket. Our driver points out a couple of bald eagles in the distance. “Can you get me close enough to shoot one?” Chewbacca inquires. He’s kidding, I think. The dogs howl louder.
We disembark. Carr Montgomery, our musher, unloads the sled, a cradle made of lightweight ash. He harnesses a dozen dogs, including Czar, our lead dog, an elegant Siberian husky with one brown and one piercing, ice-blue eye. The dogs are impatient to do the thing they live for: pull this improbably huge load up a snowy mountain track. “Pound for pound they have more pulling power than any other creature,” says Montgomery, who mounts the mushing platform behind us and calls out “Let’s go!”
Instantly all 12 dogs go silent, and we are away, powered by the sheer drive of these dogs, and there is only the crunch of paws on snow.
After a while, we stop to let the dogs rest, and then Montgomery yells, “Gi!” and the dogs execute a perfect U-turn and head back down the slope, an explosion of raw energy in an elemental place. This is the most ecstatic ride I’ve ever had—close to the snow, high in the mountains.
“Whoa,” Montgomery calls out, and soon we are heading back to Chico for a sleep and a swim, then dinner—roast duck, and a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot from the wine cellar. This is, by general agreement, some of the best food and wine in the state of Montana.
Over dessert, we discuss the fires of 2012, which destroyed the cabins and the trees of Pine Creek, just up the road. Like everywhere else, the climate here is changing. Up at Glacier National Park, on the Canadian border, the glaciers are shrinking fast, and winter is the best time to see what remains in all its icy glory (on a cross-country ski trip if you have the stamina).
But even if the glaciers are in trouble, Montana is still very much nature red in tooth and claw, and maybe I love it so much because this is big nature, the real thing, unlike the lovely but tame, verdant countryside of Connecticut or the Hudson Valley that I grew up with. I was told of a woman who, hiking near Chico, saw a seven-foot grizzly bear in front of her and managed to take a photograph with her phone even as she ran. When she looked at the picture later, she saw there was a second bear just behind the first one.
Thirty miles south of Chico is Yellowstone National Park. The summers are crowded with traffic jams (unless you go off-road and hike or camp) but winters are quiet. Only a few hotels remain open, and most of the roads are unplowed, so you travel in a snow coach on tractor treads, or by snowshoe. In winter, it’s easier to spot the animals—the contrast of dark fur with the endless, glistening white shows them at their best, and astonishing sightings of moose, bald eagle, bison, elk, pronghorn, and even grizzlies are commonplace, without the intrusive presence of those mammalian photographers known as tourists.
Big nature, big myth-making, my Montana includes the monument at Little Bighorn, the place where the Lakota and Cheyenne defeated General George Custer in 1876; the monument to all this death is moving and terrible, and much more so in the snow when there is nobody here except the ghosts.
Winter in the West is as raw and primeval as it ever was, except, that is, when you crave a good martini and some excellent prosciutto—in which case climb onto a barstool at Plonk Wine, in the university town of Bozeman, and watch the snow fall and the people in designer ski pants trundle by. There is big money in Bozeman these days, but there are no big-name ski resorts—no Vail, no Aspen or Park City. Still, there is plenty of good skiing here. Rainbow Ranch Lodge, just off Highway 191, faces a small meadow and the Gallatin River; the rooms have stone fireplaces. The Ranch at Rock Creek, farther to the northwest, is a high-end, down-home kind of inn, complete with a spa and cabins, glamorous in a Montana sort of way, with skiing close by, and every winter sport you can think of or, in my case, resist. I’d rather be in front of that fire.
But for now, it’s back to Paradise Valley, where as dusk pulls the night sky down, Orion rises higher than at any other time of year, almost unsettling in its brilliance. The air is icy, the lights come on in the windows, and the fields are bright white with snow here in my own private Montana.