Notes from the Road: How To Visit A Yellowstone Country Town
Visiting a small town, like visiting a big city, requires a reframing of perspective. If you were visiting New York City, you’d likely walk a little faster, talk a little more brusquely. While visiting Atlanta, you might notice a slight drawl creeping in when you ordered your coffee with sugah. And, when going anywhere in California, you might notice that you end up with your sunglasses practically glued to your face, even at night.
It’s the beauty of travel: experiencing first-hand the unknown secrets of a new place, and possibly even adopting these habits as your own—even if it’s just for a short while. It’s in discovering these local quirks that they don’t tell you about on the internet, or in guidebooks, that we come to appreciate a place that much more. And it’s in walking faster in New York or wearing your sunglasses all day in California that makes you feel a little bit less like a tourist and a little bit more like a local.
So, just like visiting a big city, there are some quirks to discover here in Montana’s Yellowstone Country. I’m going to let you in on a few things that made my transition from tourist to local a little bit smoother and a lot more fun. But maybe, just come here and experience it for yourself. That’s half the fun, isn’t it?
You can talk to strangers. Yellowstone Country towns are small; Bozeman, the largest, tops out around 40,000 year-round residents; the rest stay comfortably below 10,000 (some below 5,000). Which means that most of the people that you meet will safely assume that you either know their spouse, work with their best friend or maybe even lived in the apartment upstairs. Feel free to smile, wave, tip your hat, say hello or ask about the weather to anyone that you meet without fear of snubs or sideways glances. We really are that friendly.
You can walk at a more comfortable pace. There’s no rush in Yellowstone Country. And while that might sound stereotypically small town, I didn’t realize how much I used to rush around before I lived here: rushing to catch trains, to catch flight connections, to catch a cab. Rushing to the grocery store before it closes or the restaurant so I didn’t miss a reservation. Here, you can slow down because there’s more to life than getting to the next thing. Like, enjoying the current thing, which we take very seriously around here.
Be prepared to shed some anonymity. Showing up at the same bar two nights in a row? The bartender will remember you and ask you how your fishing trip went. Visiting an outfitter the second year in a row? They’ll remember you from last season and ask how the weather’s been in Florida (or wherever you’re from). If you’re not used to discovering the life story of your cashier at the grocery store, don’t ask her how her day has been (she’ll probably tell you anyway). Small town visiting means you’re a part of the community, whether you live here or not. You’ll be remembered, even if you only come around once a year.
And rest assured that, just when this starts to sound as though everyone’s too friendly and won’t give you room to breathe, these are the same folks who’ll gladly pull your rental car out of a snowy ditch or let you cut in line at the grocery store.
Don’t be afraid to fly your ‘tourist’ flag. At one point, a lot of the now-residents in Yellowstone Country lived somewhere else. The consistently rising population around here means that people are coming to visit and forgetting to leave (can you blame them?). I guarantee that, if you show up at a coffee shop and let your Midwest accent slip a little, the barista will ask you where in Minnesota you’re from (and probably knows someone from there as well). People in Yellowstone Country relish these connections.
And a word of advice: quell the temptation ask about "secret (insert-your-favorite-sport-here) spots." I’ve lived here for a few years and my friends with secret fishing/skiing/hunting spots still won’t clue me in. Them’s the breaks.
What small-town quirks did you discover the first time you came to visit Yellowstone Country?