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Full Throttle: Montana

Adventure
posted: 07/25/2005

Starting Point: Missoula
Total Miles: 560
Resorts: Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Discovery Ski Area, Montana Snowbowl
Min. # of Days: 6
Road info: 800-226-7623; mdt.state.mt.us/travinfo

At some point in his childhood, every native-born Montanan shoots a gopher—usually more than one. This—and the fact that Montanans actually like Pabst Blue Ribbon—is what separates them from the rest of us. Invite any resident of the Treasure State along on a skiing road trip and you're sure to pass an uncle's ranch where some fondly remembered bit of 22-caliber carnage went down. I'm not sure why I mention this. But it's vaguely reassuring to know that Montanans are people who can handle themselves should a varmint colony rise up in revolt.

More to the point, people with gopher blood on their hands aren't terribly pretentious, and neither are Montana's cheap, steep, and deep ski areas. Which is why there's no better place to drive a fast American car from one deserted mom-and-pop resort to the next. Think Dukes-of-Hazzard—friendly—but with fat skis, double chairs that run on diesel engines, and five-dollar burger-and-fries lunches.

The only tough call is which ski areas to hit. From Red Lodge on the Wyoming border to Turner Mountain in the far northwest, there are 15 resorts, 10 of which are worth a visit. To maximize your fresh-snow chances, it's best to take the hub-and-spoke approach and base yourself out of Missoula—a college town with 100 bars. If storms track south, you can be at Bridger Bowl or Big Sky in three and a half hours. If they go north, you can reach Big Mountain and Fernie, B.C., in the same amount of time. If the entire state gets nailed, you get to pick and choose.

Or, when a high-pressure system is lollygagging across Montana—like it was when I was on the road with some friends last March—you can cut down on the driving and day-trip to three often overlooked gems: Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Discovery Ski Area, and Montana Snowbowl. They may not be Squaw-steep, but there's plenty of pitch for powder skiing, and the average price of a lift ticket is under $30. Better yet, show up on a Thursday at Lost Trail, for instance, and nine times out of ten you'll get a powder day—the place isn't even open Monday through Wednesday.

Whatever you do, though, make sure the tank is full, or expect to share the fate of two friends of mine who once ran out of gas on the way home from a freestyle contest. Hitching a ride back to their abandoned vehicle, they arrived in time to see a car speeding off—just after its occupants had broken a window and stolen their gear. Luckily—or not—they'd hitched a ride in a Camaro, the driver of which turned his mulleted head their way yelling, "Let's get those guys! before punching it into hot pursuit on a lonely Montana highway. Yeeeehaaaaw! I'll get that Luke Duke!

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