Whitefish May be Headed for a Pileup

By Beacon Staff

All right folks, you got to read Bill Schneider’s bit praising “quaint, charming, progressive” Whitefish last week. I’ll get to that shortly, after a little introduction for our readers regarding the who, what and why.

I was born in midtown Manhattan, Noo Yawk City. It wasn’t my fault. My mom is from North Dakota, and my three dads hail from New York, Nebraska and Hawaii.

In 1972, Air Force Dad became commander of the 716th Radar Squadron at Lakeside, where my friends and I caught every fish in Stoner Creek at least 20 times. When Dad retired in 1975, we moved to town (Kalispell), where I went to Flathead High School (1978) and later Montana State (1983).

How you look at the world depends on where you grow up. Excepting annual summer visits to Noo Yawk, replete with doting spinster aunties, Broadway, the Yankees, a mugging, and lots of borscht and gefilte fish, I grew up in Montana.

I’d gone to college expecting a railroad career but wound up a ski bum. I started writing in the form of rants for Powder, the Skier’s Magazine. One of my favorite sections of Powder was “Dueling Banjos,” which featured twin essays on subjects such as short/long skis; fixed-grip/detachable lifts; helicopters/hiking; you know, Really Important Stuff.

I’ve always wondered since why more publications don’t present a similar topic-du-jour feature. When Flathead Beacon editor Kellyn Brown cooked up this scheme and dangled the bait, I bit. We hope you like it.

And now to the Really Important Stuff: Whitefish as Whitefish?

I once road-tripped the West looking for a good ski town to settle in. I visited Sun Valley, Vail, Aspen, Telluride, South Lake Tahoe, Squaw, Mammoth, Jackson, Winter Park, Breckenridge. All seemed cloned, packaged, all frills and no substance.

Only Steamboat Springs seemed real, with a life before and aside from skiing, about like what Whitefish was. Downtown was built for snow, not charm, with a comparatively low fur-salon quotient, no evidence of zoning or “themes,” a feed store on the main drag and coal mines nearby. The locals I met lived in town, not “down valley” as in Aspen or in squatter camps like Telluride. Best of all, the Denver and Rio Grande Western ran full throttle right through town, horns blaring all the way!

Steamboat was someplace a Westerner like me could fit. I tried for a few years, but some folks decided to “save” Steamboat from “becoming another Aspen,” and guess what? They didn’t.

When I left, my friends were heading down valley to live, or leaving completely. The latest news is the Steamboat Council put a moratorium on demolishing “historic” houses, and that council was then thrown out on its ear. Steamboat isn’t a real place anymore, but just another amenity.

Whitefish to me seems to be on the same path to perdition, all in the name of keeping Whitefish “Whitefish.” I mean, gee, if the city wants to avoid becoming Jackson Hole North, why hire a planner direct from Jackson?

I don’t oppose everything the Whitefish City Council has decided. Dark skies are important in Montana. Gated subdivisions aren’t neighborly at all, un-Montanan, if you will. I can further understand not wanting four lanes through downtown.

Still, with all the high-level visioning, what about the basics? Is it too much to ask for left-turn lanes and signals? Just the other day I got caught in Soccer Mom Minute at the middle school, with traffic backed up six blocks in three directions and no way out. If that’s quaint and charming, I’d prefer modern and practical with a little bit of, um, progress!

The main reason Whitefish is, or was, Whitefish is the railroaders, both ladies and gents. I remember when all those crusty old retired Great Northern heads kept watch on the council. Working for Jim Hill’s skinflint heirs taught them how to bleed pennies, keeping frills and lace to a minimum while getting trains over the road. They never let the council forget that bells and whistles don’t work too well without a capable crew in the cab keeping steam in the boiler.

They did a heck of a job. I sure miss them.

I miss Whitefish, too.