A Family Returns to Montana ‘Ruts’ and a Million-Dollar View

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Frugal Family

We drove out a zigzagging peninsula to Finley Point Unit, a state park with a boat launch, a small public marina and a row of campsites along the lakeshore. The beach was nothing but water-weathered rock. But the rounded stones of Flathead Lake, Mont., aren’t mere pebbles. Beneath the crisp, transparent water, their straight-from-the-1970s hues — dusty mauve, adobe and pale avocado — are magnified, becoming deep purples, oranges and greens. They are so spectacular that when I left, a week later, I brought with me a Ziploc bag-size collection that I have since arranged in a glass jar — submerged in unworthy urban tap water — and placed in my kitchen window. The multicolored mosaic is an unmarked memorial to my grandmother Frances Evans, who was raised among the yellow pine, lowland fir, red cedar and cherry orchard banks of the Flathead.

The largest natural freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes, the Flathead is a striking body of water — clear and green and fed by snowmelt from Glacier National Park, just 40 miles north. I hadn’t been there since I was 3, when my entire extended family — called the “California Evanses” — traveled to my grandmother’s hometown, Bigfork, on the lake’s northern tip, for a reunion. My memories of tubing in a chilly river and camping along the shore are almost certainly lifted from family lore. Still, I feel bound to this place, which has always been central to my family’s story. After becoming a mother, I was moved to take my 13-month-old daughter, Roxie, there.

What I didn’t know was that in recent decades, Bigfork has become an affluent lakeside resort town. Its streets are lined with galleries selling paintings of landscapes and wildlife, bronze sculptures of grizzly bears and $500 cookie jars made of ornately carved wood. The lakefront is now home to an exclusive beach club and huge summer homes. And on a nearby island, the largest and most expensive residence in Montana was for sale for a deeply discounted $39 million.

When I began searching online for affordable hotels for our family of three, I was stunned to find almost nothing for less than $200 a night. Not even chain motels in the larger neighboring city of Kalispell. Not even campgrounds, which were booked solid. Eventually, though, I pieced together an itinerary: an Airbnb here, a few midweek days at a midrange motel there, and one night at the home of a relative.

We arrived in Big Arm, a community on the lake’s southwest side, after traveling through five Western states with Roxie and too much stuff in a tiny Toyota hatchback. The final leg of the trip — Northeast Oregon to Montana — ended up being our longest single day of driving. And by the time we checked into our Airbnb, we had been on the road from breakfast to dinner. Even with stops, those are a lot of hours in the car for a toddler who seems to live for crawling and climbing. But Roxie handled her car-bound captivity like a stoic champion, with only the occasional outburst of understandable frustration.

For $112, our Big Arm Airbnb was a surprisingly large, two-bedroom apartment with a wraparound deck, a narrow view of the lake and a washer and dryer — a bargain in this pricey terrain. But even with a well-equipped kitchen, we decided to eat out. Normally, we would save our splurge for the tail end of a trip, but after so many hours (and days) on the road, a steak dinner had become our finish line reward.

In Polson (the nearest town, 15 minutes south) a local recommended 101 Main St., a steak and seafood restaurant that dry-ages its own beef. For the price of a mediocre plate of pasta in Manhattan, my husband, Tim, and I shared a large, tasty rib-eye — praised by our waitress for its “flavorful fat” — and spoon-fed Roxie our mashed potatoes. But it was our server, Leslie, who was the highlight of the meal. She wore a pink head scarf over dark braids and doted on Roxie, bringing her a rattle and entertaining her as we ate. As we handed back our check at the end of dinner, Leslie lifted Roxie into her arms and walked off with a casual, “Do you mind?” She knew we didn’t. It was the kind of thing that would never happen in most places. This unaffected warmth made as much of an impression on me as Montana’s dramatic vistas.

Throughout our week in Flathead, I heard my grandmother’s voice everywhere. Over dinner at 101 Main St., we made small talk with the next table over, where a woman from San Diego who had grown up in the area told us she was revisiting her “ruts,” a pronunciation of roots that reminded me of my grandmother. I heard it in the cafe at Echo Lake, when a child was admonished, for giving his mother “guff.” And I heard it two days later, when we ordered a lunch at Saddlehorn Bar and Grille, where we had kayaked from across the bay, only to realize that neither of us had brought our wallets on our watery outing. “We trust you,” our server said. “Come back later, there’s no hurry.”

Our motel, the Islander Inn, was one of the few I could find that came close to my $150 nightly budget. From the outside, it looks like a classic midcentury motor lodge, but each room is named for an island — Bali, Zanzibar, Crete — and decorated in the spirit of that place. Our room, “Jamaica,” had deep blue-accent walls, white wicker furniture and evocative watercolor paintings of Caribbean palms. Just east of Bigfork in the enclave of Woods Bay, the Islander was across the street from the Raven, a turquoise-painted waterfront restaurant with a shaded patio and a dock where motorboaters tie up and go in for a drink.

Though Flathead Lake Brewing Company recently opened a huge new location in Bigfork, the original taproom, next door to the Islander, is the kind of local bar where customers greet one another by name and discuss livestock futures over a pint of craft beer, their personal mugs hanging overhead.

The next evening, our first night in Woods Bay, Tim was struck by what felt like a vicious case of food poisoning. Roxie and I went exploring by car on our own, eventually finding our way to the Echo Lake Cafe, an out-of-the-way roadside restaurant that has been serving local specialties like Flathead cherry cobbler and huckleberry ice cream since 1960. Our plan had been to go kayaking, but with Tim sick I wasn’t comfortable taking Roxie out on a tiny boat on such a large, unpredictable lake without a second set of hands. It would have been largely a lost day. But that afternoon, while Tim and Roxie napped, my dad’s cousin, LouAnn, whom I hadn’t seen since my grandmother’s funeral, offered to give me a tour. An elegant woman with short blond hair, she swept me up in her silver S.U.V.

We passed a large pond choked with tall reeds, and LouAnn said with a mischievous smile that her grandfather, my great-grandfather, “lost more than one car in there.” We went to meet Dorothy, the last of my grandmother’s seven siblings, who had turned 90 the previous month. She didn’t say much, but she shared Roxie’s birthday and my grandmother’s smile. On our way back to the Islander, LouAnn took a sharp turn down a narrow road through scraggly pines to the property where my grandmother was raised. She pointed to two tall trees in a clearing beside a sprawling ranch house. “There used to be a house — a shack,” she said, correcting herself, “right there.”

When Tim recovered the next day, we rented a tandem kayak ($20 an hour) at a rental shop down the road, across from a small, private beach. The sturdy red vessel was stable enough for me to sit in the back, with Roxie between my legs, while Tim paddled in front. Wearing a wide straw hat, he navigated us through the placid water. Often, the wind ramps up in the afternoons and the Flathead can quickly get rough. But after our bad luck the previous day, we were treated to what LouAnn said was one of the warmest, calmest days of the year. We paddled past enormous summer cottages with immaculate gardens, gazebos, private docks and boat garages. It was hard to jibe this place with the Flathead I had heard about throughout my childhood, the humble place where my grandmother, her seven siblings, parents and grandparents all lived in a shack with a million-dollar view.

But once we passed the cluster of houses in the protected bay, the lakefront became less developed and more wild. Propped up by an infant life vest, Roxie stared out from beneath her purple sun hat, content to do nothing but chirp at the birds and point at the speedboats racing past, causing us to bob gently in their wake. Later, we would sit on the beach and eat cherries, which were sold on the roadside in two-pound bags ($5) and constituted a good portion of our daily diet. Tim and I took turns picking up colorful stones and handing them to Roxie, who held them like sacred objects. I tried to show her how to skip them. But she looked at me as if to say, “Why would we toss such treasures?”

The Flathead might not have been the place I had imagined, but it was worth every hour in the car and every dollar of our modest budget. I don’t know what my grandmother, who died while I was in college, would have thought of Bigfork as it is now. But I suspect the area’s changes would not matter as much as knowing it still beckoned to us. And I know she would have loved to see Roxie there, giggling as dark red juice ran down her chin, staining her belly and leaving ruby-hued splashes on Flathead’s shore.