Google the word “paradise,” and you will find it described as “an ideal or idyllic place or state.” But what is ideal or idyllic to you may not be so for another. That is the beauty of perspective — it offers a multitude of lenses through which to understand the world.
To me, a paradise is a place that has an intriguing history, elicits both emotion and awe, and maintains a type of remoteness that is harder and harder to come by in this day and age. Paradise, as I see it, is shrinking. But fortunately, it isn’t gone yet. It remains something that we can protect and reclaim — a call to action that I am hopeful we will answer in the coming years.
For now, let me take you to a special, relatively unknown paradise. Let me take you to Montana.
From the Beginning
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been living in the region we now know as Montana for more than 12,000 years. In fact, one of the oldest human burials sites in North America was discovered near Wilsall, Montana, in 1968. Anzick-1, the name eventually given to the paleo-indigenous remains, dates back to 12,707 — 12,556 years B.C.E. — and, at the time of writing, is the only human to have been discovered from the Clovis Complex. Anzick-1 is also the first ancient indigenous person of the Americas to have had their genome fully sequenced (making it possible to trace their genetic ancestry).
Anzick-1 belonged to one of many distinct indigenous groups who thrived in the region for centuries. According to historical and anthropological research, the Crow people (or Apsaalooke as they call themselves in their own Siouan language) were one of the first native nations to have inhabited the area. The Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and Assiniboine peoples also inhabited the region, as did the Lakota, Arapaho, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Shoshone. To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list, but it illustrates the vast breadth of culture and variety of people that have seen and lived upon this land. And though not all indigenous groups who once resided in Montana have a reservation within the state today, they certainly contributed a great deal to Montana’s history.
Perhaps one of the more famous aspects of Montana’s fascinating past has to do with the Lewis and Clark expedition, an undertaking otherwise referred to as the Corps of Discovery. From 1804 to 1806, the members of this expedition traveled over 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) in search of an all-water route from Camp Dubois (near present-day Wood River, Illinois) to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they found a land of tremendous promise and unbelievable natural beauty, the likes of which they’d never seen before. Of all the places they ventured to on this two-year sojourn, no place caught their attention quite like Montana. In fact, they spent more time in the Montana territory than any other over the course of this expedition.
Becoming a State
On May 26, 1864, then-President Abraham Lincoln signed into legislature the Montana Organic Act. This document effectively made Montana a territory of the Union (which encompassed the geographical north of what would come to be the United States). The name for this territory — one known for its snow-capped mountains, expansive valleys, and winding rivers — came from the Spanish word montaña, meaning “mountain.” More broadly, the word is used to describe generally mountainous country. Montaña del Norte was the name early Spanish explorers gave to the peak-filled region that is now known as the western United States. For Lincoln, no term better embodied the wildness, the grandeur, and the rugged topography of this newly acquired territory.
Upon signing the Montana Organic Act, Lincoln remarked, “My favorite state has not yet been invented. It will be called Montana, and it will be perfect.” The territory of Montana remained so for twenty-five years: a territory. It wasn’t until the passing of the Enabling Act of 1889 and the ratification of a new nation-wide constitution that Montana was admitted into the Union on November 8, 1889 by President Benjamin Harrison. And while I am partial to my home state of neighboring Idaho (parts of which were once claimed as Montana territory), I have to admit that Lincoln was right. The state of Montana, for all intents and purposes, is perfect.
Ever since the Corps of Discovery made Montana’s rich landscapes famous, paving the way for western settlement the state has maintained a romanticism that is both overwhelming and profound. What I love most about visiting Montana, and what I believe makes it worthy of the “paradise” distinction, is that you can truly feel its history. While camping beneath the stars in Yellowstone National Park or walking along the dusty roads of Garnet Ghost Town, I have felt and heard the stories of ancient Montaña, a collective narrative that is steeped in the soil and whispered gently in the wind.
To witness some of Montana’s most significant historical places in the flesh, consider a trip to Pompeys Pillar National Monument, where you will find a single piece of physical evidence marking the Corps of Discovery’s expedition — an inscription left by William Clark himself, dating back to July 26, 1806. For history buffs looking to connect with early American culture, consider a visit to Bannack State Park. The town of Bannack, originally founded when John White discovered gold in Grasshopper Creek in 1862, was the first territorial capital of Montana. Today, it’s a ghost town, and visitors can explore more than sixty of its extant structures to get a glimpse of what the town looked like back in its hay-day. And if that leaves you craving more abandoned places, venture to Garnet Ghost Town near Missoula — it’s the best-preserved ghost town in the state. Each of these locales will transport you back to Montana’s pioneering days, nearly 200 years in the past.
The history of the state is only one element of its intrigue. The second contributing factor is its awe-inspiring landscape. As John Muir said: “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us…something greater than us.”
Spend a day in the Montana wilderness and you will feel his words in every fiber of your being. That can’t be said of many places, and yet, somehow, an entire state seems to exemplify this serenity and content. Home to two national parks — Yellowstone and Glacier National Park — countless rivers and streams, more than one hundred named mountain ranges, over 3,000 named lakes, countless glaciers, and more than 115 species of small and large mammals, Montana is heaven for those passionate about the outdoors.
While there, you can engage with the state’s varied ecosystems in a plethora of ways, whether that’s hiking, camping, biking, fishing, kayaking, boating, climbing, golfing, skiing, swimming, spelunking, or surfing. Hell, you can even scuba dive in the crystal-clear waters of Flathead Lake — one of the largest natural freshwater lakes in the country. You’ll be hard-pressed to find something you can’t do in Montana.
When given the opportunity to experience all of what makes Montana special — its history (both archaic and recent), its natural beauty, and the multitude of activities available there — you, too, will come to understand that it’s a paradise all its own.
Do you have a favorite place to visit in Montana? Tell us about it in the comments below!