Once Upon a Weekend Merry!

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Thirty years ago, I went to university at Missoula, Montana: home of the Grizzlies. As a fresh-from-the-country twenty something, Missoula proved educational in many ways. Downtown bars and restaurants in Missoula are just plain cool. Missoula Club, or locally, The Mo Club, provides THEE best pre-game/post party burger I’ve had anywhere. But there are lots of equally cool spots to consider.

Now there are new notable names downtown. For an authentic bowl of Jambalaya or Gumbo or anything Cajun, definitely try the Dinosaur Café inside Charlie B’s. There’s the Old Post for colossal, tasty, and nutritious lunches or The Iron Horse for a bushel of nachos. One can always find a good gluten-free kale, quinoa all-natural-with-sticks-and-berries kind of meal in Missoula, but I enjoyed a cooked-to-perfection bison burger at James Bar.

Plonk, a wine bar, was superb, but missed the Missoula vibe. They need some bead curtains and a fern or two to soften that slick west coast feel. There’s no need to mention the numerous breweries available to any beer officiannado, but a new kind of drink experience can be found at the Montgomery Distillery where they like to spank their rosemary in a Honeybee Highball including vodka, Wustner brothers honey shrub, lemon soda, and that naughty rosemary. An intriguing menu of unique ingredients provides such delicately flavored drinks as a Rosy Finch comprised of vodka, lime, kaffir lime-vanilla syrup, watermelon puree, and house aromatic bitters served over ice (below right). The other drink pictured is a Rocky Mountain Flip with gin, fir-tip/juniper syrup, egg white, cardamom bitters, lemon and nutmeg, shaken of course.

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Montgomery Distillery, Missoula, MT

When I attended the U of M, naïve young farm girls did not go into Reds unattended. I don’t know what it is like now. Conversely, the university bar used to be Stockman’s. Presently I’m told, not so much. Then, as now, if you desire live music The Top Hat is the place to go. With its recent complete renovation it feels current, hip, exhibits logical use of the space to accommodate a long bar, band stand and dance floor, as well as more intimate seating sections.

The Brothers Gow at The Top Hat

The Brothers Gow at The Top Hat

The Brothers Gow, based in San Diego, jazzed their rock with hints of reggae into a high energy blend. With no cover charge and exhilarating light show, they made The Top Hat my new favorite place in Missoula. They’ll be in Flagstaff, AZ next. Read more about them at http://www.brothersgow.com/the-band.html.

Yes, Missoula still has that wonderful hippy feel and it is still at its heart a college town where you’ll find countless twenty something males with their ball caps on backwards and their female counterparts with wide lace headbands pulled down to just above their eyebrows. People may come to Missoula for all manner of reasons. Perhaps they come to enjoy the numerous recreational opportunities, to enjoy the culture, the art, the scenery, the food and drink and music, or like me, they may just revisit a comfortable familiar mind set. The Garden City, snuggled in its picturesque valley, is still all about acceptance and open-mindedness, so they don’t look askance at an old weirdo like me when I join their ranks for a weekend.

Just When You Think You’ve Had Enough

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Sunday afternoon, Red Ants Pants Music Festival, White Sulphur Springs, Montana, and I am done! I’m hot and tired and if I were three, I’d rub grubby fists into my eyes and there would be dust smeared into the stickiness from my Italian Ice around my mouth. But I’m a full-grown woman and even though recalcitrant Ma Nature beat our pop-ups and canopies into mangled spiders with 40 mph winds Thursday night, increased prices and people tested my resolve to hear every band (I failed miserably), I resolutely attended, slumped in my chair, waiting for the next group.

Stamina is required. Without pacing yourself, you’ll never make it. It is also impossible to adequately review here every band so I’ll just hit the high points. My high came early on Friday night. True to Montana weather, Friday was beautiful after the storm. The Shook Twins, hailing now from Portland, Oregon, retro microphone and all, rocked their harmony with tempered folk-pop instrumentation. Followed by Lucero — a voice like Joe Cocker — a Memphis band that swings from moody blues to wild rock, there was little time to fill my wine cup. Next, with her melodic tones and song writing skills, Lee Ann Womack knows how to reach her audience. If you have never heard “I Hope You Dance”, crawl out of your cellar! She is just plain fabulous and a wonderful performer. Then a group about whom I knew nothing came on stage. Reminiscent of Boz Skaggs, Keb ‘Mo’, a three-time Grammy winner, lulled me with his guitar work and beguiling lyrics. Listening to the blues of Keb ‘Mo’ was like rolling the darkest richest wine around in my mouth. Like velvet, their four voices blended into smooth perfection. And yes, I bought the CD.

Keb 'Mo' Hat

Saturday brought another full day beginning with The Cattle Women’s breakfast, yoga, a book sale downtown, talent demonstrations, hay wagon rides and (pause for effect) The Music. Del Barber, it was remarked, is as good a story teller as musician. Holly Williams showed off her song writing chops with the poignant lyrics “Waitin’ on June”, a song which had us all weepy. Her frank comments about her Dad, Hank Williams, Jr., and the subsequent song about her Mom’s grace under such conditions proved her a remarkable talent. Red Molly, a return group from 2014, showcased their pure three-part harmony and (along with my grandmother) gave me added motivation to learn the slide guitar. The Turnpike Troubadours, hailing from Oklahoma, showered us with a gutsy roots-rock-folk-country sound. I’ll be downloading some of that to my phone! And last but not least, Ryan Bingham brought Saturday night to a thunderous climax as the dust from the mosh pit rose above the crowd and dissipated into the lavender twilight.

Red Ants Pants night stage

Then it was Sunday and I was pooped. Inspired Saturday night, we played our own instruments in our camp and, as I’ve said, you have to pace yourself. So at noon when The Easy Leaves came on, I was hunkered in the shade of a pop-up behind the crowded seating section. I loved their sound so much I jostled my way toward the stage to get a visual, but had returned to the shade, slurping my Italian Ice, when Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants founder, announced the next band. She said we might not have ever heard of them, but we would not forget them. Intrigued, I re-claimed my seat closer in. Parsonsfield is a five-piece Americana band from Connecticut whose music is more than bluegrass and folk. Their Appalachian sound (including a saw) broadens into a modern and edgy high-energy performance that will raise goose flesh! If you can sit in your chair while listening to Parsonsfield, you are, as my Dad used to say, “Dead from the ass both ways!” Thrilling and provocative and laugh out loud enjoyable, I forgot how tired I was, jumped up and down, sang along, and purchased their music! I wasn’t ready for their set to be over, but they primed my interest for the sweet lyrics and melodies of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis up next. Finally, this year’s Headliner was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As seasoned performers, they know how to engage an audience and through their music for a few minutes recall the feeling of the bygone decades of our lives. They, along with another light show from Nature, closed down 2015’s Red Ants Pants Music Festival in fine fashion.

I’m always dazed when I leave, inspired, motivated to delve into music further, to get it on me, to wallow in tempo, harmony, lyrics; wearing it into a familiar soft wrap around my heart. That’s what music should be. It should move you, touch you, and the diversity of talent at the Red Ants Pants Music festival will do just that. I’m already wondering who will perform next year.

Merle Haggard, Red Ants Pants 2013

Merle Haggard, Red Ants Pants 2013

Seven days ’til Music town!

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Every year in July, I put down my fencing pliers, stash the lawn mower and weed eater in the shed, turn my saddle horse up the creek, hook up my 1964 Honorbilt camper trailer, and journey to White Sulphur Springs to arguably the greatest music festival of all time.

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The first year I attended was six months after my Father’s death and I needed a different perspective. A casual reference from a friend led me online and I discovered the headliner was none other than Merle Haggard. The headliner comes on last, on Sunday evening, after the street dance and two days of impressively talented musicians from across the nation. I didn’t know any of that. I was going to see The Hag in person!

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Founded (2011) by Sarah Calhoun, the Red Ants Pants company is dedicated to making work wear for women. That’s cool. I remember a time when I cussed Carharts company pretty loudly because I bought the pants and had to sew darts in them so they wouldn’t gap open around my waist. Apparently at that time, women didn’t need heavy duty insulated work pants. So, good on ya’, Sarah Calhoun. The Red Ants Pants store is located in White Sulphur Springs hence the music festival in the nearby cow pasture. White Sulphur Springs IS small town Montana with a single main street which is really just the highway. It doesn’t look much different than a hundred other small towns in Montana centered between vistas of large round bales scattered like dice between mountain ranges or expanses of golden wheat fields shoved up against river bluffs or across wide open prairie.

Camping on The Jackson Ranch a smidge outside White Sulphur Springs is challenging because the rest of the year it’s a cow pasture with an impressive assortment of rocks and holes. I figure if you can’t make it from the festival grounds back to your camper, you’ve had too much to drink! Seriously, I don’t know if it was all the people, the heat, the wine, or the two full days of amazing musical stimulation, but by the time Mr. Haggard was up, I felt either I would burst into tears or wet my pants from excitement. Nobody sat down. Everybody sang along. It was full-on amazing, and I was honored to see a country music legend in an extraordinary venue. I vowed I would never miss another Red Ants Pants Music Festival.

I wasn’t such a rookie last year and when the camp site concerts began I was there holding a couple of flashlights on The Last Revel, three guys who said they drove seventeen hours so they could play fifteen minutes on the side stage. But they won the people’s choice vote and will be on the main stage this year along with returning talent like Red Molly or first timers to Red Ants like Keb ‘Mo’, Lee Ann Womack, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ryan Bingham, and Holly Williams to name a few.

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I am already giddy with anticipation, so don’t try to contact me next week. I’ve got my 150 dollar Fender tuned and I’m gearing up for my favorite Corkscrew Adventure of all time. Ciao!

BIGGEST BONEHEAD TRAVEL STUNT OF ALL TIME

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I love a good adventure. I love playing the travel odds. But even I got caught by the biggest bonehead travel stunt of all time. I was ready to embark on my three week excursion to Italy commencing on my birthday, Monday, March 23rd. They allow twenty-four hour advance check-in on line, so on Sunday, I attempted to do so. There was a request to check in with a ticket agent. Hmmm … *shrugs* oh well, it must be because it’s international. So with hours to spare and bags packed: lap top in carry-on (otherwise it’s considered an import) with slippers and change of clothing and shawl (aka blankie) and best damned travel pillow ever, I journey to Delta check-in. I tell the gal I think I need to talk to her because of the recommendation when I tried to check in early but I tell her I thought it was because it’s international. She is as confused as me until I point out that maybe it’s so close to my expiration date. At this point I’m still believing that I’m going on this trip. My passport is valid, I know so. I checked the date before I planned the trip. It was one of the deciding factors in when I was going. I wanted to get the trip in before my passport expired. I even got on the web site and perused “Renewal” to see if I had enough time to get that done before I left. Savvy traveller lesson #2: READ EVERYTHING. Not all web sites are the same. She asks me where I’m going and says she believes I have to have six months left on my passport before I can go. We read the web site. Yep, Italy requires three months out after your last day. So, I’m thinking, let me get this straight. I have a passport that has not expired, but it’s not valid? I ask her how a person is supposed to know that six month thing. I wonder out loud why they sell international tickets to people who do not have that six month window. Now here’s the part where the ticket agent’s face gets all stoney as she expects me to lose my cool. She says I must have missed that notice. I’m trying not to throw up on her counter. All I can think about is all that money I’ve racked up on this trip, my ticket, about a thousand dollars worth of frequent flyer miles on my Capital One Venture card, reservations secured with that card, friend contacts made … rather than say again, “Are you kidding me?” I ask her “What do I do now?” She gives me a Delta number to call and tells me to hurry down to the post office (federal, see) and speak to the passport representative, but she carefully — with her calm tone like she’s addressing a child who might pitch a tantrum — tells me she believes it will still be a couple of days before I can get an expedited renewed passport. I ask, “So, I’m not going to be on this flight?” She looks at the clock, and I give her credit for that, and says, “I don’t see how.” She then tells me how sorry she is for the inconvenience and I tell her it is not her fault and creep away with my humiliatingly fushcia carry-on slumped sadly atop my meticulously packed wheely bag.

So, since I put the cab company number into my phone ages ago, I call a cab to take me back to my vehicle and zoom to the post office down town, Great Falls, Montana. I used to live in Great Falls. I am a fourth generation Montanan, a state with an agricultural base. Very few of us consider ourselves worldly or well traveled or even particularly cultural. Some of us try to keep up digitally. The lady at the post office is not among those. She had a little placard in her window declaring she was currently taking passport pictures and would be right back. I waited, feeling dismal. Presently she came in, smiling benignly, said, “You must be my next appointment.” I responded that no I was not that but that I had travel problems. I told her the gal at the airport had sent me down there. I told her my passport was short of validity and I didn’t know what to do next. Seemingly offended by my lack of appointment, she instructed me it took a month to get a new passport. I asked her about an expedited passport and she backed that time up to a week and a half. Then she got out her big ominous looking three ring binder and gave me the U.S. passport services number which I have in my phone and suggested that maybe I could fly into one of the cities who have a passport service but she was very strict in telling me that I would have to make an appointment and get the passport and it might be done in a day or two. Clearly she considered me an idiot who wouldn’t make an appointment. I wrote down the number she gave me and was dismissed.

Dejected, miserable travel buffoon that I was, I wandered out to my vehicle to call the Delta representative. After a short wait, a Sherri Thomas came on the line. I began by telling her I had indeed pulled the biggest bonehead travel stunt of all time and I didn’t know what to do next. I told her I had been to the post office and that lady had suggested the going to Atlanta or Detroit or somewhere to get a passport while I’m in that city. I’d have to make that coveted appointment, leave the airport, and hang out over night and I still wouldn’t get to my vacation for several days. Trouble with that plan is I can’t use the already purchased ticket because it is international and I can’t get on the plane because my passport is short of validity. So dear Sherri begins to look up costs of flights to these cities. She says I’m looking at 3800 dollars and that wouldn’t include the return flight and I’d be better off trying to get a cheap ticket off the internet. But the very first thing she said was, my ticket was good until March 2, 2016. I told her I couldn’t afford 3800 and I was worrying about all those Venture Capital One miles. She said they’d be gone if I didn’t use the ticket I had. And then the wonderful helpful Sherri Thomas said she would waive the 300 dollar penalty fee on my ticket and even put it in the system and wrote it on the ticket. What it amounts to is a credit with Delta good until March 2nd of next year. It is no surprise to me that more people fly Delta than any other airline. Hence, travel rule #3 arises: be flexible!

But now to the issue of the passport. Really? I’m asking myself. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. It’s a renewal. It’s not like the thing is expired. There must be a faster way to get your passport renewed. I get on-line. First of all, you need to fill out an application. The passport agent at the post office could have handed me the application. Maybe I needed to make an appointment to get that from her. There is a fee, of course, and you need to have two photographs taken within the last six months. CVS Pharmacy takes passport photos. So does Costco. Triple A does it for free. But here’s the thing. It can all be done digitally on-line. It is possible to fill out the application on-line, send your picture from your computer (most have cameras) or you can attach a file from your smart phone, and send your money electronically these days. You can pay extra for a RUSH. You can just get an expedited one in twenty-four hours. TWENTY-FOUR hours! They have passport books with chips in them now so your information is stored somewhere else electronically. It can also allow for quicker movement through customs. It’s sure too bad the passport agent at the post office didn’t know ANY of that. I would think that as a paid employee of the federal government behind her little window with “Passport Services” above it, she might be expected to be up to date on those services.

It took me two days to discover all of that information and get my reservations and contacts cancelled and refunds on my museum passes and wine tours. With the exception of the non-refundable room (which was my own fault for not adhering to Travel Rule #2: read everything on a site) I got all my money back. I could have soldiered on and made my vacation two days later, but I learned much from this experience and hopefully now so have you.  Now I can learn more Italian and lose more weight! So my Italian trip has been postponed but between now and … May?, September?, I’ll have more adventures to relate. And the minute I pick a new date — one minute after I have that renewed passport in my hand — I’ll start all over again on my Tuscan Corkscrew Adventure.

EIGHTEEN DAYS AND COUNTING

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A funny thing happens the minute I walk into an airport. I become someone else. There is something … magical after four or six or eight or more hours on an airplane. It’s like re-booting a computer. I become someone — not different — but more. I become a better version of myself. Suddenly I’m more confident and witty and capable and worldly. Some people love to gamble. They like to believe that some strategy or skill or bit of good luck allows them to beat the system. Well, that’s how I feel about travel. Most people consider travel just a means to an end: that fabulous vacation spot perhaps. I might be weird, but I like the actual travel itself.

From the moment I walk in, the game begins. I compare every airport and their personnel. Print my boarding pass from my computer before I leave home? You bet. Check in curbside or at a kiosk? Yup. Buy a better bag so I’m hands free going through boarding or in the bathroom? Done. Read every article about how to make your flight go better? Yes, indeed. To travel comfortably you have to suspend your sense of control over what happens next. It’s going to be what it’s going to be and you have to learn to roll with it. My niece calls that “getting your Zen on”. I just like being released from having to be in charge. I’m kind of a control freak, but I also think I’m pretty smart. I embrace the slip on shoes, wireless bra, no belt, three ounce liquids in a clear plastic bag and carry-on size rules. I’m glad those people are serious about airport security even if they feel around on my body. I take my own blanket in the form of a wrap and have the best damned travel pillow ever. I’ve got the apps and the frequent flyer program. I drink the Airborne laced water, I use the disinfectant wipes on my seat and tray. I even clean up in the bathroom and brag about it to the flight attendants. I judge every person I come in contact with from the TSA agents to the waitresses in the bars. I have favorite airports and ones I’d rather never have to be in again. Often it’s the bathroom attendant or the grumpy looking customs agent who will make my day better. I’m at the ready with a smile and friendly greeting. And even though I like to pretend I know things about travel that no one else does, I know it’s basically playing the odds. Do it often enough and not only will you enjoy the vouchers and the discount prices and the occasional free upgrade, but you’ll also get your share of crap. It’s always the people who make the experience better and once I’m calm and friendly they will be too. You get what you give in an airport and mastery over one’s frustration is the best start — because there will most assuredly one day be frustration.

Now I haven’t been everywhere I’d like to be, but I’ve been a few places. My next adventure is taking me back to Italy. I’ve been to the Amalfi coast and enjoyed the sweet little sea side town of Sorrento, a fabulous trip that will be recounted on another blog entry one day. Yes, I’m headed back to Italy, in eighteen days. I’m going alone and leaving on my 54th birthday to Florence and then to Sienna and if I can successfully navigate, I’ll be visiting the tiny little town of Montepulciano — a name you may recognize from a wine bottle or two. This Corkscrew Adventure is taking me to the heart of Tuscany, people!

I’ve been studying Italian through Rosetta Stone so I might be able to order a salad (insalata) rather than soup (minestra) and talk to the locals about vintages and various dishes (pietanze). I know from past excursions in foreign languages that the most important phrase you can use is, “Please speak slowly” (parle lentemente per favore). I also think it’s respectful to be able to say “please” and “thank you” (grazie) in the native language. If you follow along with me here, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Obviously, before you can go on a trip, you’ve got to PLAN a trip and this is where your inner control freak can rule! I’ve studied maps and researched train tickets and museum passes and booked my Delta flight and my rooms. But this is when my first stupid travel stunt occurred. I used Booking.com but I did it late at night after a hard work week and got sloppy. I booked everything at once because, as you know if you’ve ever been on one of those sites, all the rooms are “filling up fast … one left at this price”, without making sure I was getting refundable rooms. Most of them you can cancel and change right up until the day before, but you have to be careful and book a refundable room. When I went back to research a little more I found a more reasonably priced room, but I had purchased one nonrefundable one. I could have saved myself a couple hundred dollars. Lesson learned! Don’t panic.

I’m increasing my language lessons and restraining my excitement, but I’ll be making regular entries for this trip and I hope you’ll join me. Perhaps next we’ll explore a little history. So, ciao, la mia amiche, I’ll be in touch.