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Holes in the Sky

Montanans like to say they live in "the last best place." Sounds sort of self-satisfied, to be sure. But what we are mostly talking about is our great fortune to experience life in a wilderness paradise ridged with reefs of big mountains--from the Absaroka and Beartooth ranges crowning Yellowstone, north through the Mission and Swan ranges, on to the snowy cliffs mirrored in the tiny cirque lakes of Glacier National Park--and cut through by blue-ribbon trout-fishing rivers like the Flathead, the Bitterroot and Norman Maclean's Blackfoot. Each of these rivers flows into the Clark Fork of the Columbia, which flows through my hometown of Missoula on its way to the Pacific--a lot of flowing, someone might say, but that's the idea.

Time spent in such wilderness will not be deducted from the sum of your life. That's my idea of a proper vacation: to listen to the water rushing over the stones, the staccato hammering of woodpeckers, the lachrymal call of the loon. Better still, to experience all this near a fine golf course, of the sort abundantly found here. This is time that will not be deducted.

Let's imagine a tour. What would you do, if you came?

Start in the valley of the Yellowstone River, north of Gardner. I'm always happy staying at Chico Hot Springs. It's a secluded spot with natural hot pools adjacent to a creaking old beloved Montana hotel with a very good restaurant (where, in his cups, the actor Warren Oates once sent flaming orders of crêpes suzette to the children at our table. But that was long ago, in another dream).

Or you could go on downriver through Paradise Valley to Livingston, where you might stay in the Sam Peckinpah Suite in the Murray Hotel, where the film director lived toward the end of his life. If so, for supper go to Chatham's Livingston Bar & Grill, a chic movie star-cowhand establishment owned and micromanaged by the painter Russell Chatham, who jumps through hoops to ensure that the food is perfect. The last time I was there, I had a salad with chanterelles flown from France because those harvested in the local forests were in short supply. There are also affordable and way-better-than-good Italian and Spanish wines on the list there. After dinner it's often interesting in the Owl Lounge, where literary types of national reputation are known to congregate.

The next morning, head over the hill to Bozeman, a college town gone upscale behind a terrific ski area, to begin a week devoted to golf with a round at Bridger Creek Golf Course, a pleasant though somewhat raw track with a nice variety of tricky holes, particularly on the back nine. Bozeman shopping is first-rate western chic--there are some fine restaurants, a great bakery and a good bookstore--but that night I'd be staying out a dozen or so miles west at the elegant Gallatin Gateway Inn, a country hotel with Palladian windows, echoing reaches of gleaming, sunlit hardwood floors, a fine restaurant and a plenteous stock of eighteen-year-old scotch. Across the highway, there's a cowboy tavern called the Old Faithful Bar, where you could dive deeper into Montana ambience than you might wish.

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