Monday, July 28, 2008

The Miracle of America

I waited for the rain to fall when I was in Superior, a small town between Missoula and the Idaho border. I was staying at the Big Sky Inn, an old two-story motor court by the interstate. Every time a big truck went by, my bed would shake, and I thought of my old friend Richard Newman’s poem “Highway Sounds” about him living in Soulard.

The next morning I awoke and took off for Hot Springs, Montana, thinking I would spend the day taking a relaxing soak in the 1930’s resort town. Even a few miles out, I knew that Hot Springs would be like many other places in Montana, half as big and twice as old as I expected. Some places show charm with their age, but for some reason, I just wasn’t feeling it. All the pictures I had seen showed front porches and rocking chairs shaded by trees, which belied the truth that Hot Springs is roughly in the middle of nowhere in a long valley. It was just past lunchtime and the sun was beating down, heating up the few blocks of which the town consisted. I had decided earlier while driving that I would stay at the “fancier” motel, the one with the restaurant and the pools, but upon seeing it, there was not a tree in sight and the exterior of the compound seemed to be peeling and falling apart. The pool was small, in full sun, and with three people crowded around the one small umbrella. I drove a few more blocks, saw the other motel, and then opted out of staying in Hot Springs, my soaking dreams dashed.

I thought I’d continue on north and hit Flathead Lake. After all, it was hot. I rounded past Elmo and on through the part of the lake that is Native American land, crossing the bridge on 93 into Polson. I pulled into the Port Polson Inn, another old motor court, though this one in much better shape. The Inn was two stories, with flowers out front and an unobstructed view to the lake across the road. The rate was a little steeper than I could swing, but then the nice lady cut $35 off, and it was do-able. I asked for a suggestion for lunch and I was steered towards Isabelle’s.

Downtown Polson consists of a few blocks of a Main Street. There are shops and the ever-present Montana saloons, and then at the end of it, Main Street intersects with 93, and a block or so down the road lies a little cottage that is Isabelle’s. The sign out front has an enormous cowgirl on it, saying that they specialize in burgers, but the menu inside seemed all cafe, focusing on fresh and local ingredients. I chose a Philly sandwich with a salad and iced tea. There were boots all over the inside.

After reading and having a great lunch, I took off away from Main Street an towards the Miracle of America Museum. Somehow, I hadn’t even thought of visiting this great roadside attraction until I had found myself unexpectedly in Polson. I am guessing that the name threw me off; I don’t think I ever even read a description of the place, thinking it somehow religious. And in fairness, the experience was somehow akin to church, in an awe-inspiring sort of way.

The Miracle of America Museum exists as something like the independent Smithsonian of the Northwest Rockies. There is a large warehouse-like structure that houses room upon room of collection (toys, weapons, dresses, housewares, motorcycles, military memorabilia, Native American artifacts, instruments, etc. And then... there are 35 more buildings out back. After I paid my $4 admission, the lady gave me a laminated map, in what looked like a plastic menu holder. Outside, in addition to the buildings, there were icons for helicopters, planes, cars, boats... and some of them were even marked as okay for kids to climb on. I set off to see America.

Map of the Museum

A few of the items had signs saying who they were donated by, and most were donated by locals of Polson and the Flathead area of Montana. Within each collection inside, there was usually a small sign with a paragraph or so explaining the significance of the collection or of the items. Around the military paraphenalia, there were a lot of signs about freedom and responsibility... and a lot of donations. But for the most part, everything just existed as it might in someone’s grand collection, simply placed together, like with like, and left for the viewer to interpret, question, or admire.

Outside, I was stunned. Over what had to be a couple of acres, there were original buildings (period schoolhouses, jails, etc.) and replicas, as well as barns, huge buildings holding dozens of classic cars, boats, and tractors. And then there was just an odd coupling of UFO props. It had the feeling of a backlot of a movie, except less organized. you could go inside each building, but then there would be wire corralling you to the doorway; inside would be stuffed with everything (period or otherwise) that fit within the context of the building. There were beauty parlors and doctor’s offices, post offices and banks.

I was overwhelmed. I left, actually, after a little over an hour. It seemed one of those places where you either look at everything or you “look” at everything; I chose the former. I left, amazed that I had never seen this place in any of my roadside books, or seen it on PBS, or found it online. Montana, surprisingly, has proved a hotbed of great (and odd) roadside attractions. The only thing is, I am not sure that they see the kitsch factor, which in a weird way, makes it all the more endearing. Here, these are not gimmicks or strange eccentricities. The Miracle of America Museum was started by someone who thought there should be a good museum of material culture accessible to people in Montana, and man, did he make that happen.

Miracle of America Museum website

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