Sunday, 20 September 2009

Same Same But Montana

I’m in the USA for the first time, travelling with a media group through the lesser-known states of Montana and North Dakota... lesser-known to Australian tourists, in any case.

What’s fascinating about finally visiting the States after all these years is my uncanny feeling of familiarity with everything around me; I suppose all those American movies and TV shows have preconditioned me to US environs.

But in Montana there’s another kind of familiarity. In this low-population state with cattle farming, wide open spaces and small country towns, there’s a lot of congruence with country Australia.

A few minutes ago we passed through Chester, a small town in a flat dry landscape with big wheat silos by a railyard; it could pass for any wheatbelt town east of Perth in rural Western Australia, where I grew up.

But there are also, of course, differences. After a few days in the Big Sky state, here are some Australian impressions of Montana’s similarities and differences with Oz...

Open Roads. We’re currently heading along the Highline, Montanans’ nickname for Highway 2 as it passes through the northern part of their state, parallelling the Canadian border. It’s a straight, long, two-lane highway framed on one side by power poles, that could be a highway in any Australian state.

Different: On our first day, driving from Missoula to Whitefish along Highway 93, we passed through the reservation of the Flathead Native American people. Aside from catching a glimpse of a couple of bison in a wildlife reserve, the roadside signs tantalisingly bore two languages - English and the original local tongue.

Hearty Meals. Last night we ate at the Dixie Inn in the farming town of Shelby. Its dining room reminded me of every Australian country pub dining room I’ve ever eaten in - slightly gloomy lighting, plain old furniture, rustic architecture and enormous portions. The steak was huge and particularly good, obviously the product of a cattle state.

Different: Though the dishes on the menu were mostly familiar, the various ordering complexities were not. Mains came with a dizzying choice of carbs: baked potato, rice pilaf, mashed garlic, French fries and hash browns. And a pass at the salad bar, and a bowl of thick soup (clam chowder or chicken). Conveniently, those intimidated by the huge portions could split a single main over two plates, and both still get soup and salad, for a mere $10 for the second person.

Roadkill. Just like in Australia, the highways of Montana are dotted with dead animals.

Different: A couple of days ago we passed a dead skunk on the side of the highway. It must have released its scent before it expired, for our van was briefly filled with a pungent and unpleasant odour, even though the windows were up and the AC on.

National Parks. As does Australia, Montana has vast and magnificent national parks with imposing features. Yesterday we spent the day at Glacier National Park, named for its (currently fast-melting) glaciers. It’s also full of stunning mountain scenery.

Different: We toured the park in the iconic Red Bus, an open-topped red car which has taken visitors on tours through Glacier in place of the usual bland coaches for 75 years. Tons more style. The park’s features are often connected to intriguing Native American legends and, as a bonus, Glacier is also part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a US-Canadian joint initiative with an international border running right through the middle.

Hotel Breakfasts. I went down to the breakfast room of Shelby’s Comfort Inn this morning, and the spread was pretty familiar. Cereal, juice, and bread items to toast.

Different: But... was that a waffle machine? Yep, a big pair of heavy circular plates with handles which opened to reveal a teflon grid, with plastic cups of waffle mix nearby. All you had to do was fill the grid with the mixture, close it and rotate the plates so a timer would start counting down while the waffle cooked. Could I achieve the rotation? Not to save my life. Happily I was rescued by American breakfasters, one of whom said “Don’t you have waffle machines in Australia?”, then told me he’d travelled from Sydney to Cairns a few years ago.

Which is a step up in nationality recognition compared to most of his countrymen, who usually start with “What accent is that?!”, then follow it with a friendly chat. That’s another distinctive thing about Montana - it’s very easy to talk to the locals, especially when you have an Australian accent.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism, zuji.com.au and V Australia.