The ZooHow a marathon brought roadies and trail runners together to create a thriving running community in Missoula, Montana.
Professional triathlete Lindsey Corbin running just north of downtown Missoula with Lolo Peak in the background. Photo by Tom Robertson.
MISSOULA AS A PERSON
If Missoula was a person he would ride a bike in the winter, vote blue, have a freezer full of ungulates, pile paperback books written by the Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry beside his bed, and own more bikes than ties. She would not get manicures but might paint her toenails, would spend money on organic cotton and plant her own garlic. He would drink beer from growlers and pigs. She would own a chainsaw, wear sunscreen even on overcast days and be able to start a fire in the rain.
If Missoula was a person, he would be a he, at least that’s what you’d think if you listened to the single guys talk about the gender ratio. They say things like, “You don’t date; you take your turn.” He would have lines beside his eyes, behind his Smith sun- glasses. His feet would be zebra-striped from Tevas worn on the river.
Missoula is wiry, with no flab and little flash. Missoula hangs back—doesn’t jump into the conversation unbidden. Missoula doesn’t want your stamp of approval, or your tax dollars.
Missoula suffers from the “insight” of tourists, those who come for a quick stop and think it’s full of scrappy cool people and scruffy trustafarians. These sages, most of whom have never visited, many of whom live in, let’s say, the not-so-desirable places, these mostly stay-at-homes who are not, perhaps, so happy with their own life choices, make condescending claims: “Missoula is the kind of place where everyone has moved because they visited it and loved it and gave up a lucrative corporate gig to bus tables and plop foam on a cappuccino and spend their days running in the mountains.” The locals nod and smile and say, “Hope you had a good visit.”
Fact is, if Missoula was a person, he would be too smart to make such reductive statements. The people who visit and see a postcard of progressive eco-drunk natural beauty and Patagonia-wearing Ivy Leaguers don’t see the tweakers and the business suits and the graduate students who moved from Manhattan and wear all black and complain that you can’t go out to dinner at 10 p.m. They don’t see all the writers who stay in to write, the academics who flee to Paris once the semester is over, the farmers who chair the boards of the symphony and the conservation trusts. They don’t see the Fox News watchers. They don’t see the Indians, and they don’t know that the Indians call themselves Indians, not Native Americans. They don’t know about the kid who was beaten up and cursed as a “fag” and the guys who race down the main drag in pickups at 2 a.m.
Tourists don’t believe anyone grew up in Missoula. Except for Norman McLean. They know he fished the rivers in these parts, but they don’t know that when he was skimming his flies into the gelid water of the river that runs through it, just upstream was the Milltown Dam, which became the largest Superfund site in his- tory. Fifteen years ago, the Blackfoot River, a tributary to the Clark Fork, was declared one of the top 10 threatened rivers in America. Because the people of Missoula fought and lobbied and acted, they were able to get the dam removed and the water cleaned. George Orwell said that one of the dangers of clichés is that they “think your thoughts for you.” To those who say that Missoula is just another mountain town, a playground for the young and fit, I say: Grow up. Life—people and places—is so much more complicated and interesting than that. Life is both/and, not either/or. Life is a network of trails under ponderosa pine and Doug fir and drunken assaults on young girls and unemployment. The imperfect is our paradise, said poet Wallace Stevens. Let us be sophisticated enough to understand that.
But as imperfect as a town like Missoula may be, when so many people are content to live there, the air smells different. I have never run to one of the peaks in this area of five valleys and not stopped—not had someone in the group stop—to thank whatever it is you believe in for this place.
Looking down Higgins Adventure in downtown Missoula toward the Bitterroot Mountains. Photo by Tom Robertson.