- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

RED LODGE, Mont. — Red Lodge doesn’t advertise itself as the happiest town in Montana, or possibly the entire Rocky Mountain west, but evidence points that way.

The community of just 1,500 residents — 2,500 including the outlying area — near the Montana-Wyoming border has an upbeat attitude that goes beyond the fabled live-and-let-live quality associated with the region. Celebrations are its lifeblood, whether for rare-bird sightings, charity runs or Mexican fiestas held thousands of miles north of the Rio Grande.

Parades occur at the drop of a hat or a snowplow — a snowplow parade being a perfectly reasonable event to hold in a place that is a winter sports center.

This year’s winter carnival had a Mexican theme for its traditional Cardboard Classic, a competition that invites residents to create racing crafts out of little more than cardboard, duct tape and glue. The spring calendar included the Cabin Fever Luau with snow-golf games; summer brought a rodeo and a statewide Old-Time Fiddlers Contest as well as the 45-year-old Festival of Nations, an annual nine-day celebration that features international food, music — and parades.

“We have parades here all the time,” says convivial innkeeper Kathy Bastian, who runs the spacious Rocky Fork Bed & Breakfast in downtown Red Lodge.

The inn has well-appointed rooms with whirlpools and family-style breakfasts that would be suitable for lumberjacks.

“I sleep with the grocer,” Mrs. Bastian says with a laugh when explaining fresh raspberries on the menu along with all-you-can-eat egg casseroles and fresh biscuits. Her husband, Milt, runs the local supermarket. A brother makes the casserole, and a girlfriend helps tend the rooms.

“Red Lodge people like to have fun,” says a smiling clerk in the hardware store making change for a tourist who has just asked where she might locate a fitness club to use during her stay.

Fun is taking life as it comes and having good times on a small amount of money.

Big money is around — log homes in the area are advertised for $1 million — but for the most part, this is a farming and mining community making do as a tourist town. Exercise is done outside, on the job or for sport. A health-food-store-cum-restaurant opens at 6 a.m. daily for early risers.

Public transportation is nonexistent, so a car is needed to reach hiking trails, golf courses and ski areas. Nearby Red Lodge Mountain offers 25 miles of downhill trails at 9,000 feet, one of them called Miami Beach.

Cross-country fans have more modest and soothing terrain at lower levels donated by a local property owner and kept groomed by good-hearted volunteers. A daily downhill ticket costs $40; nordic skiers simply drop $5 into a box by the warming hut to help with maintenance.

Happiness is being a town for all seasons. When the snows melt, the town’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park brings visitors traveling over the unbeatably scenic Beartooth Highway, which is closed the rest of the year because of weather conditions — or at least it does in normal times.

A late-May mud and rock slide closed the fabled road, which wasn’t expected to be reopened until late this year at the earliest — just in time to be closed again for winter.

Opinions are divided on how drastically the calamity affected the summer tourist season. As usual, the Bastians, like many other innkeepers who take reservations in January for August visitors, can count on a certain amount of business from bustling Billings, 60 miles away. Red Lodge does well throughout the year as a weekend getaway for city folk.

The town’s rural character is its charm. Drivers in these parts look out for cows and horses, not just deer, crossing the road. A stray bison or moose would be unusual, although hardly a surprise. There is an enduring fondness for these large animals, and not only in hunting season.

A bison head hangs prominently, if incongruously, on one wall of the vast Montana Candy Emporium, an old movie theater where sweets are made daily on the premises. A moose affectionately named Pierre is the signature pet hanging in effigy on a sign outside the Pollard Hotel, the town’s largest and possibly most historic building.

The town was founded in 1884 and named for the red tepees of the Crow Indians, who used it for a summer camp. The opening of a mine in 1887 drew hundreds of immigrants —and enough Old World rivalries to make separate ethnic settlements necessary.

Main street — Broadway Avenue — is full of historical signs and picturesque storefronts. They include at one end of town an old granary lovingly restored and made into offices. The Pollard, in the center, boasts of having had such legendary guests as Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and artist Frederic Remington.

Plentiful liquid pick-me-ups can be had at any number of bars and restaurants, and cosmetic indulgence is offered at two beauty parlors. Appearance Plus won a contest that identified the salon and day spa as the best spot for pampering. The prize, a gold-painted cowboy boot, is on display in the window.

Get lucky, and you might find yourself inside the Bull ‘N Bear saloon — formerly the Dusty Rose and the Rusty Barrel — on a night when Norrine Linderman the Outlaw Queen comes over from Billings to entertain with her special country music style.

The owner is a former Presbyterian minister, so in theory some counseling is available on request in the casino, where poker games are held nightly.

Should a layover in any of the plentiful local saloons temporarily handicap one’s mental and physical compass, no reason to fear. The rules of the road in a town that has no traffic lights or stop signs give pedestrians right of way wherever they may stand or fall — and a $50 fine for any vehicle breaking the law.

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