My travel attitude is that there is no town too small or too remote not to have some worthwhile attraction to explore and learn from.
If you end up as a tagalong with someone else, a conference locale that seems uninspiring, or a faraway foreign port where unforeseen negative circumstances disrupted your intended itinerary, remember that mantra.
Missoula, Mont., 45 miles from the Idaho border, population 66,334; wasn’t my destination of choice, but my husband wanted me to accompany him on a 48-hour trip to lecture there. We had about 7 hours of free time for exploration.
Missoula turned out to be a delight. The populace, from fast-food workers to store clerks to academics at University of Montana are overwhelmingly, unperturbedly friendly.
And we got a fun runaround on one of the most charming, ambitious and extraordinary community projects I’ve ever learned of: A Carousel for Missoula.
By Googling, we discovered a list of 27 Things to Do in Missoula.
We drove first to the University of Montana red brick campus, awash in massive drifts of bright yellow leaves, to visit friends at Montana Center for the Book, basking in a record 7,000 attendance at a recent three-day literature festival.
About 1 p.m., we crept up creaky stairs at 1890 Montana Hotel, by the railroad tracks; repurposed as Montana Antique Mall, a four floor, 25,000 item treasury of collectibles, the largest in Montana.
Then nearby, we toured 1889 St. Francis Xavier Church, founded by Jesuits, to see famous paintings by Brother Joseph Carignano.
Missoula Art Museum is also housed in a repurposed building: the old public library. American folkart was featured, but standing exhibits emphasize “culture of the American West with a focus on contemporary Montana artists.” Devoted founders and supporters of this small, very impressive venue have created a delightful space. Sadly, days before our quick zoom through, someone stole a valuable work — a still unsolved theft.
It was too late in the day to visit Smoke Jumpers Base Aerial Fire Depot, Museum of Mountain Flying, Rocky Mountain Elk Center, Garnet Ghost Town, Fort Missoula and many outdoor hiking trails.
Minutes before it closed, we pulled into downtown Caras Park, lured by the unmistakable calliope music through the cover building, where carousel animals amid sparkling lights, whirled in the last ride of the day. Through the years, ending in 1995 when it opened, volunteers from every corner of Missoula, including 50 amateur carvers, contributed 100,000 hours fashioning authentic animals under the direction of head carver John Thompson and cabinet maker Chuck Keparich, who had the carousel idea to provide visitors good old-fashioned fun.
School children collected one million pennies to contribute. “A community came together to build a dream” is the epigraph.
Missoula boasts two Nobel Prize winners, Harold C. Urey and Steve Running; as well as Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman — in 1916 — elected to the U.S. Congress. Norman MacClean (1902-1990), based his 1976 book “A River Runs Through It” (1992 Robert Redford film) on Missoula.
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