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The best towns and small cities in the US: Missoula, Montana

The best towns and small cities in the US: Missoula, Montana

Ten years ago, if you wanted to live in a town on the edge of a mountainous wilderness, surrounded by people prepared to let you be whoever you wanted, you moved to Boulder, Colorado. Everyone did, and property prices became unaffordable. Now you raise your eyes a little further north, and keep your wagon rolling on up to Missoula, Montana, a town about as isolated as the most voracious reader of Henry David Thoreau could hope for. Missoula is an oasis of civilisation deep in the Rockies, surrounded by Native American reservations, national forests and five different mountain ranges. Deer pass through people's front yards; moose can be seen from the road and bears sometimes venture downtown to Greenough Park. While Missoulians have many of the same outdoorsy preoccupations as the rest of cowboy country - huntin', shootin' and fishin' - they're also stubbornly different in other ways. Suspicious of Missoula's artsy inclinations (the University of Montana has a renowned creative writing programme) and the wild parties said to go on there, Montanans dubbed it "Zootown". The townsfolk certainly know how to have a good time - the population of 72,000 sustains a live music scene that would be the envy of somewhere five times as big. Kiah Abbey works at Forward Montana, an advocacy group mobilising young people to participate in the political process. "Missoula is really fun," she says. "A lot of people here love to hike, and in the summer the river is a big focus - everyone is on it." Development, however, gets a mixed response: a hotel is being built on the site of the demolished Mercantile building, despite some protest, while across the river the "Hip Strip" and the Old Saw Mill district are revitalising their neighbourhoods. But Missoulians are generally stubborn - they don't want to see too much change. CULTURE Missoula Children's Theater In 1970, an aspiring actor called Jim Caron broke down in Missoula on his way to a friend's wedding in Oregon and ended up staying on to play Sancho in a local production of Man of La Mancha. The resultant friendship with his Don Quixote, Don Collins, sparked one of the most innovative children's companies in America. The pair would drive into small communities in a big red bus (complete with scenery, props and costumes), audition local children, and teach them a show in a week. The theatre now employs more than 100 staff, operates in 50 states as well as 15 other countries, and has established Missoula's Center for the Performing Arts. o 200 North Adams Street, mctinc.org Missoula Art Museum "I go once a month at least," says Kiah Abbey. "It's free, and they highlight indigenous artists, which is really cool." Contemporary Native American works are at the heart of the collection, which is in a 1903 library built by Andrew Carnegie, updated and expanded with a modern gallery in 2006. As well as national travelling exhibitions, the museum hosts regular lectures and activities. "They've got community events, they bring in artists to talk about their work, so it's a fun cultural spot and it attracts a lot of young people," says Abbey." o 335 North Pattee Street, missoulaartmuseum.org OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES Montana is an outdoorsy place year-round. In summer, along with traditional outdoor pursuits there's also mountain biking, ziplining and chairlift rides, on top of the river fun mentioned earlier. In winter, there's 2,600 vertical feet of skiing and snowboarding at Snowbowl, just 20 minutes from downtown (and plenty more at Discovery, Blacktail and Lost Trail Powder Mountain). "There's lots of action sports going on around," says Samantha Veysey at Board of Missoula. "There are cross-country trails, mountain biking, and people ride fat bikes, too. We have hockey rinks all around so it's a great place for skating, and visitors can come and use our indoor skateboarding ramp at the back of the shop." o montanasnowbowl.com FOOD Caffe Dolce Half coffee shop, half upmarket canteen, Caffe Dolce is a local favourite thanks to its high-ceilinged, light-filled building and its excellent brunches. "It started as a cafe in the mall," says Erin White at Missoula Wine Merchants. "But the owner wanted to create a standalone restaurant and he found this spot over on Brook Street, a nice quiet neighbourhood. He took great pains when creating the place - the building looks Italian with its tall windows and frescos - and it's a lovely balance of traditional Italian food with a Californian twist." It's also only a short walk from Rockin' Rudy's, Missoula's beloved record store. (To be continued)

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