I sent my friend Bart back to Belgium early Monday morning with the ever so subtle feeling that his fingers might fall off. It was a cold week in the Flathead. Fortunately, the sleep-deprived weekend left him disoriented enough to temporarily forget about his frostbitten fingers. He left for the airport at 5:30 a.m. saying, “I’m quite tired. Quite tired.”
His stay in the Flathead could have done without the frostbite. He snowboarded on each of the coldest days last week and perhaps didn’t have sufficient gloves. His fingers were red and blistered by the end, but he’s a good sport. Other than that, it’s fair to say he loved, or at least survived, his Montana experience. His country’s healthcare program will take care of his fingers when he’s home.
It rarely snows in Belgium. So when the sky opened up and buried Kalispell two weekends ago, Bart wondered if the apocalypse had visited Northwest Montana first. My dog ran into the yard to relieve herself and half of her body disappeared. Bart looked shocked.
But snow and frostbite were not the only magical things to spice up Bart’s trip. He ate good steak and was surprised to find that, coming from the land of good beer, Montana also knows how to brew. He learned that at a bar, if you say you’re from Belgium, it’s a good conversation starter that usually results in a couple of free drinks. Also, since public transportation is lacking but everybody drives here, if you’re willing to stand in the bitter cold and hitchhike, you can make it up to Whitefish Mountain Resort in less than three hours.
Basically, he learned that Montanans are generally hospitable, curious and friendly.
He drove on ice. He looked out across the Flathead Valley on the coldest, clearest day of the winter. He saw snow-covered mountains with clouds clinging to their peaks. He danced for hours at a Johnny Cash cover band concert in Missoula, flailing his gangly arms and learning that you don’t have to know how to dance to clear out a spot on the dance floor. He even got to visit a 24-hour Taco Bell, a singularly American moment no doubt – maybe a story for the grandkids.
Montana is nothing like the image Bart had of America in his head. He had been to the U.S. before, sightseeing with his parents, stopping at national parks and driving through the congested traffic of landmark cities. The pace in Montana is decidedly less frantic than he remembers from his previous experience in the U.S. and in Belgium, a country one-third the size of Montana but with 10 million people. He told me people take time to enjoy their lives here. He told me to appreciate it. I listened.
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