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Holes in the Sky

Although there are reasonable restaurants around town, I hang out at a steak-and-seafood house called the Depot. Good drinks and food, amiable service and friends wandering through (Miller Barber, who once owned the Streamside Anglers fly-fishing shop in Missoula, can often be found chatting at the bar). North from Missoula, Highway 93 enters the Flathead Indian Reservation. Alongside the National Bison Range (itself worth a visit), as the road crests, the Mission Range opens out to the east as if unveiled. Aside from the Tetons, it is the most striking range in the American West, snowfields on stone peaks, tumbling streams. In St. Ignatius, at the base, there are vivid religious murals in the nineteenth-century Catholic mission. The great church juxtaposed to wilderness (so-called, although native people lived there for millennia) feeds a traveler's sense of moving through resonant histories.

But thoughts of history fly away at the Mission Mountain Country Club, three miles northwest of Ronan. It's a course people in western Montana love--one sweet round of country golf, greens that hold, some easy pars and challenges that are often extremely difficult, as at the 562-yard fifteenth, split diagonally by a twisting stream with huge cottonwoods (ask the pro how to play it). An afternoon at Mission Mountain usually calms any frantic beast.

On the south shore of Flathead Lake (the largest freshwater lake in the American West), there are three nines at the open-to-the-public Polson Country Club, each with brilliant views of Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains. There's a newish inland nine (trees about as high as your shoulder) and nine holes seeded in the summer of 1998, but I'd play the old nine--a short, tricky 3,219 yards turning through mature deciduous trees and giant evergreens --and let it go at that. The timbered shoreline across the shimmering lake, in both its complexity and serenity, resembles those on oriental scrolls.

On to the north. The forested slopes on the west side of Flathead Lake, sheltered from frost, are strung with orchards of cherry trees. There will be stands along the highway selling sweet cherries. Buy a pound. Spit the pits out the window.

The place to stay in the vicinity of Bigfork, at the north end of Flathead Lake--with reservations made well in advance--is Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge, a lakeside boating and beach club and first-class dude ranch combined. There are varnished log cabin accommodations and extravagant meals. You can water-ski, sail, ride a horse along the timbered ridges overlooking the lake or sit out on the lawn in the afternoon sun in a recliner, dozing off over a big book. Averill's asks for a minimum stay of one week, but that's no hardship. It's easy to think of Averill's as home, and the manager may have to drive you off with a stick.

Up the road a couple of miles, where the big waters of the Flathead River run into the lake, there's Eagle Bend Golf Club, a resort community with sumptuous homes. (Call a local realtor for a condo at Eagle Bend if Averill's is booked, and if that doesn't work, try Marina Cay, on the harbor in Bigfork, an artsy town with a good summer theater. The place to have dinner in Bigfork is Show Thyme.)

Eagle Bend, with twenty-seven holes and a marina, borders a federally protected bird refuge (ducks, geese, osprey, eagles). The combination course of the Ridge and Lake nines, built in the 1980s, was once designated one of America's top fifty resort courses and was the site of the 1994 USGA Public Links Championship. Another nine, designed by Jack Nicklaus Jr., opened in 1995.

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