The natives called it, “The Valley of the Flowers.” W.W. Alderson described the valley as, “one of the most beautiful and picturesque valley’s the eye ever beheld, abounding in springs of clear water,” Alderson referred to it as “The Egypt…,” or “The garden spot…” “…of Montana;” this was well before the flowers were leveled, and the city of Bozeman was established in the valley by one of the city’s founders, W. W. Alderson. Nevertheless, the beauty of the valley is still very much present, and if there is any city credited for razing beauty, then I’m glad it’s Bozeman, because in Bozeman at least beauty was razed, and then replaced with beauty. I grew up in the south and had little experience with Montana before I was an adult, but Bozeman, along with Missoula, were cities that I’ve always been familiar with, at least by reputation, because they are writing communities, and I ran in writer’s circles.
By the time I discovered Bozeman for myself, it was no longer a kept secret, people were moving to the valley of the flowers from all over, it was the fastest growing community in the country last year, and its growth has been remarkable. It dawned on me, after spending time in the northern states, and particularly in Bozeman, in the southern states, where I was raised, people graze, they’ll get ready for the day and see where the day takes them, however, in the northern states, people will call ahead. Getting into the mindset of calling ahead, when I go to out to eat or shopping, is one that has been difficult for me to adopt. Nevertheless, I enjoyed wandering around the streets of Bozeman. I have discovered relatively hidden coffee shops and bakeries, unique and stylish restaurants, breweries, and pubs, and some with little success (I didn’t call ahead). I did, however, after a few attempts, discover the single best breakfast sandwich that I have ever had at Cateye café. Learn to play the game, and it will pay off.
I found that my routine, when I visit Bozeman, is to park on Babcock Street, and walk the block to the downtown mile, where there are a couple of hip coffee shops on Main (and an underappreciated tea shop). Wild Joe’s is always packed, and anyone who knows that a good cup of coffee takes some time to make will know to expect a wait, and to, perhaps, wait even longer than you might expect to. Most of the cafephiles’ at Wild Joe’s are college students, so I prefer the ambience at Rockford Coffee, a few blocks east, although the modernesque style at Rockford does feel drab and a bit cold. And after grabbing my coffee, and maybe writing some while my coffee sits ignored on the table next to me, I walk the eight blocks back and forth hoping to feel inspired to peek inside a few of the many shops.
I’ve made several attempts at enjoying myself while walking along Bozeman’s Main Street, downtown, and despite a number of really great restaurants: Bacchus Pub, Revelry, Jam, Burger Bob’s, the Rocking “R” Bar, Mackenzie River Pizza, Co., Sweet Peaks Ice Cream, and a couple of cool shops like Vargo’s Jazz City & Books and Montana Trail’s Gallery, Main Street doesn’t really impress the curiosity in me; it is, definitely, aesthetically appealing, and during the summer months, the city shuts Main Street down to traffic for Music on Main on the evenings, and the entire city comes out for the music and for the food. Still, for the most part, aside from the food and the façade, I don’t know what to do downtown, except to maybe sit, and people watch, however that will only take you so far, and for so long.
And so, I have taken to exploring Bozeman from a slightly different approach, and I have learned that I like to disappear down the side roads and walk around the historic neighborhood south of Main Street. There are some really old, really amazing houses, down on the founders and president streets (named for Bozeman founders and the U.S. Presidents, up to a point), between Main Street and the MSU campus. I’ll pick a street at random, at first choosing streets I have never walked, and I’ll walk toward Cooper Park—which is the unofficial boundary between two neighborhoods, one of which is unquestionably my favorite in Bozeman, and the other I can’t drive through fast enough—is probably one of my favorite parks nationwide, and the surrounding community clearly feels the same way, as much love as they give the park.
There is a lot to explore outside of Bozeman. A national forest, a national park, two wildernesses, and trails in every direction; there are unlimited possibilities for hiking, camping, fishing, and good old fashion exploring. When in Bozeman it's important to remember that it is a driving town, and the best, and most unique places, are scattered throughout the city, and sometimes hidden on side streets surrounded, mostly, by residences.
One particularly beautiful day in Bozeman, I parked next to Soroptimist Park off of Rouse and Main Streets, and I started walking around the downtown area looking for a new restaurant or a brewery that I haven’t been to, and one that, for whatever reason, called to me as I ambled by. I walked up and down Main Street twice, and nearing the east end, the second time around, I was compelled to go inside Sweet Peaks Ice Cream shop. I ordered a Bear Scat ice cream in a waffle cone—mmm, Bear Scat—I sat under a tree outside of the ice cream parlor, in one of the least comfortable looking chairs that I have ever seen—it ended up being one of the most comfortable—facing Main Street, and Soroptimist Park. I could have sat there all day, enjoying the beautiful afternoon.
And then I started walking west, again, and stopped at Rocking “R” Bar, and I got there just before the early afternoon rush, and in time to get a table on the patio. I ordered a drink and a burger, and extended my afternoon well into the evening, nursing my drink and people watching, after eating, what was a slightly above average burger for Montana, although it might be “amazing,” almost anywhere else. The burgers in Montana have been consistently great, regardless of where I eat.
As I was walking back to my car, I stopped and read a historical marker fastened to the brick wall of one of the businesses—there are quite a few of these in Montana, on buildings and in front of historic residences. The marker stated that Bozeman became popular for the arts, and specifically for the theatre. One of the nicer hotels constructed an elevated path from the hotel to the playhouse so the theatre goers wouldn’t get their shoes and dresses muddied as they walked the unpaved streets. Obviously, the mud wasn’t ideal for the increasingly popular art scene or the wealthy theatre goers, so the city called for, what turned out to be a bit of an ireful meeting, held among city officials to decide what to pave the streets of Bozeman with. One man, after quieting the aggressive officials, cried out, “For God’s sake pave the streets with something!” And the streets were finally paved, in 1908, which led Bozeman into the 20th century, and by way of the arts. I’ve read a bit about Bozeman, and the city has a very turbulent, or maybe just incredibly odd, history and though there may not be a great deal of pride in the history, there is, without a doubt, a great deal of spunk.
It’s difficult to make the most of Bozeman in a single afternoon, or over the course of a weekend even. If you do want to spend some time exploring the city, and you have the opportunity to get to know Bozeman, there is a lot to like about the valley of misappropriated flowers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the best of Bozeman is downtown, because you’ll miss out on the most quality places: Sidewinders American Grill, Plonk, Wild Crumb, Feed’s Café, Hop Lounge, Freshies Café, The Ponderosa Social Club, the Valhalla Meadery, MAP Brewing Co., Feast Raw Bar & Bistro, and the Museum of the Rockies, all of which are a bit off the pilgrim’s path, but this will likely be where you will find the real Bozeman, in part because you will have to explore the raw domestic streets where the most beautiful flowers do, in fact, still flower.