Australians in Montana

People & Place

With the Australian dollar on parity with the U.S. greenback Aussies in record numbers are flocking here. While many still head to the typical tourist traps, the McGown Family from Australia chose to Get Lost in Montana. What happens when Down Under Comes Up Top? Tracey McGown shares her family’s story.

Our boots leave imprints in the soft snow not revealing the black ice underneath as we follow the somewhat cleared path of the ice fisherman before us. If they walked through here safely then so could we—after all we could see a ‘pick up’ parked on the lake. Back home we would be squelching through hot sand hurriedly seeking the cool of the sea. Now we were about to get our first lesson in ice fishing etiquette—our Aussie twang taking the locals by surprise. 

It wasn’t quite a bucket list but we were ticking off experiences we would remember for the rest of our lives. Finding a powder run in Whitefish before singing carols door to door with Christmas revellers: the picturesque village and ski resort—one of the must places to visit in Montana.

The lone moose ambling along the creek of our Red Lodge cabin where in summer pyjamas and snow boots we danced in 14 inches of fresh powder, temporarily mad, before realising I had locked us all outside in the freezing temperature.

Squealing as I zipline across Big Sky Mountain resort forgetting my age and whooping it up like our nine-year-old. Freezing feet scuffling back to our car after soaking in the boiling river at Yellowstone. Paddling the cold water with the hot for the perfect temperature while gazing out at snow-covered ranges imagining how the American pilgrims discovered this land. Then when you thought you were as hot as you could get — the icy blast and almost frostbite to your feet as you slosh back to the car in flip-flops. 

They are memories as clear as photographs—pictures capturing the very spirit of Montana. 

I look out across the Bozeman’s Main Street from our flat above Leaf and Bean, grabbing lunch at the Co-Op like locals, trying to convince my husband we could get that two-metre painting home from the Beartooth Gallery in Red Lodge or that elk horn lamp through customs. 

What was it about Montana that touched our souls, leaving us aching to come back, even dreaming of living in Montana some day?

Our family are travellers — this was our second visit to the USA. Both times we filled our kids’ seven weeks of December/January vacation with winter memories contrasting with our beach and barbecues. 

This trip we had Montana in our sights. It started funnily enough with this magazine. I picked it up as we whirled through Bozeman in January 2011 on our way from Mt Rushmore to West Yellowstone — where we were heading into the park for a winter experience.

The neon Lewis and Clark Motel’s sign glowed, snow was falling, workers were bringing down the Christmas decorations, and the Ale House beckoned as a place for some Montana hospitality. Clever you to put orange in a beer—how can you beat a few Harvest Moon’s Beltian Whites, the sound of billiard balls and pool cues clicking while all around you the talk was of powder runs? It was destiny we had to come back.

Without a doubt the drive from Bozeman to Big Sky and further onto West Yellowstone has to be one of the most scenic drives in the USA.  At Yellowstone we oohed and ah’ed over a solitary long-horned sheep thinking we hit the fauna jackpot only to laugh a week later when a herd of about 10 blocked traffic on the road out of Big Sky. 

Everywhere we went we encountered wildlife like never before. On the last ski run for the day in Red Lodge there was a huge elk running for the trees. 

Animals, scenery, and snow certainly make a holiday but it was the people from Montana who really made the holiday: honest hospitality and friendship, generously sharing traditions that left us wanting to move tomorrow.

Like Cathy Anderson Magida from Red Lodge Vacation Rentals who came bearing keys and a hearty laugh for the mad Aussies locked out of their cabin. Dentist Kelly Reynolds who on New Year’s Day squeezed my husband, Darren, in for an emergency root canal, when he chipped his tooth on the ice. 

Lisa Jones of Whitefish who not only shared her favorite ski runs but also introduced us to her annual carolling tradition. We warmed our voices in front of a bonfire before trudging through the snow ringing doorbells, then laughing at the faces of those surprised at their doors. Up til then we had only seen that in movies. Usually on Christmas Eve we are in the pool cooling down from another sultry night. 

Montana delivered on so many levels.  Any resort can turn it on in a good year — but when you are whooping through inches of powder on a bluebird day at Whitefish, Big Sky, and Red Lodge in what everyone was declaring a ‘bad year,’ you can see why Montana and its slice of the Rockies is starting to appear on the travelling Aussie skiers’ radar. When a resort is run by people who live and work in the local communities you can tell there is a real sense of ownership and pride that you don’t see at some ski villages boasting mostly seasonal workers.

At Whitefish Mountain we stayed at Kandahar Lodge’s sumptuous accommodation with the best of both worlds: we had a loft apartment so could eat in when everyone was too tired or out as we did on Christmas Day at the world-class restaurant. We like to live like locals and so opted for a cabin in Red Lodge and a flat in Bozeman. Nothing beats grocery shopping and moving around a town as if you lived there. We were treated to the Huntley Lodge at Big Sky, which certainly deserved its big breakfast reputation. Big Sky is one of the few ski resorts visited by a president — the Obama Family came for the fly fishing in 2010 — and we enjoyed hearing stories of their visit. 

Under a fantastic moon, covered in blankets, and our ears peeled for the call of the wolves, our trusty steeds, sure-footed under the silvery beams  delivered us to a historic cabin complete with kerosene lanterns and cowboy music. 

You know it is a good holiday when you keep talking about it. Montana knows how to turn on hospitality and courtesy: no matter which town we were in, cars would stop and wave a pedestrian across the road. Don’t visit Brisbane without talking to me — back here we would run you over as quick as look at you. It’s no wonder Where to Retire Magazine has Montana on its recommendation list and you know what — we might just do that. 


Personal Best List

Best drive: Bozeman to Big Sky

Best Lunch: Bozeman Co-op 

Best Place to Stay: Red Lodge Cabins

Best Breakfast: Huntley Lodge, Big Sky

Best Restaurant: Cafe Kandahar, Whitefish

Best Place to Buy Boots: Kalispell