Saturday, September 2, 2017

Montana's Smoky Capitol of Helena

We have really liked our time in Montana, but it feels like we have been running from the smoke for the last month. We found blue skies in the north, but we know there are more wildfires raging as we head south. Driving the motor home along this narrow highway, we can see the Rockies on the right side of the picture. But they are completely obscured by smoke on the left. We know there are mountains there, but we can't see them through the smoke.

As we headed south, the flat plains turned into rolling hills with a sprinkling of pine trees. Then we headed over a pass and found ourselves in the middle of a rocky, thickly-forested mountain range.

This 1.5 hour drive south has brought us to Montana's capitol city--Helena. With a population of only 31,169 people, it's one of the smallest capitol cities we have visited. But we like that, because it means traffic is minimal and parking is easy. We drove right up to a free parking place in front of the state capitol. 

Denisa especially liked the floral display in front of the capitol building. It said, "Montana 2017" in orange and silver flowers. The gray and smoky skies behind the capitol told a less beautiful story about what was going on in Montana during the summer of 2017.

While admiring the blooms, we found a beautiful winged visitor.

We could see that this guy was enjoying sipping the sweet nectar from these bright blooms.

Montana has spent a lot of money to get their capitol looking its best. Like many state capitols we have enjoyed, this one has a beautiful dome in the center. There were four pictures encircling the dome, representing the four groups that have had the largest historical effect on this state--cowboys, trappers, miners, and indians.

Floors have been re-tiled, and walls have been painted in their historical style. The red and green color combinations looked classy, and the stained glass windows and grand staircase were beautiful.

We have discovered that we enjoy a guided tour, and learn so much more about a state from a local guide. But because of budget shortfalls caused from the expense of fighting forest fires, guided tours were discontinued just two weeks ago. The governor has announced a ten percent decrease in all state budgets. So we used the self-guided pamphlet to find our way around. That's how we found the Charles M. Russell picture hanging at the front of the House of Representatives. We've heard a lot about this famous Montana artist, and we are a little disappointed that the locked doors and no guided tours kept us from seeing it up close.

We learned that the town of Helena got its start in the 1860's when four guys from Georgia determined this was their last chance to find gold. If they didn't find it here, they would be forced to head back east as failures. But they did strike it rich here with a gold vein in the gulch that runs through present-day Helena. One of the main streets here is "Last Chance Gulch," and part of this thoroughfare has been turned into a pedestrian plaza. On a summer evening, we saw it filled with locals meandering among the restaurants and shops. The most popular business seemed to be the Big Dipper ice cream store.

It was also interesting to see a touch of history in the naming of one of the local elementary schools. The "Four Georgians Elementary School" would have puzzled us if we hadn't already read the story of the four easterners that hit it rich here. This is a great little city filled with lots of green spaces. We spent some time walking those public areas and found this bronze grizzly bear hanging out at the pond. Since meeting a couple bears on a recent hike, Mark felt comfortable to sit down with this guy.

A children's museum had music-makers outside, and Denisa was trying hard to make a song with the ill-tuned pipes.

There are flowers in some of those parks, and these Gaillarida were especially lovely.

With drought conditions and fires plaguing the state, this honey bee was happy to see some bright blooms. So was Denisa.

One of the downtown walking areas is the historical Reeder's Alley. Saved from demolition by the local historical society, it looks much like it did 100 years ago. It's another  public walking area that is fun to see on a cool evening. In another part of town, we see the city's history reflected in streets lined with hundred-year-old mansions. At one time, Helena had the biggest percentage of millionaires per capita of any town in America.

The city of Helena has "selfie spots" all over town. The idea is for people to stand in the foot steps and take a selfie to post on social media to publicize the city.

We're not a fan of selfies, but behind us you can see another green pedestrian area of Helena--Northern Town Center. You can also see the gray skies of this smoky city.

We drove by another of Helena's icons, the beautiful Cathedral of St. Helena. Those twin spires are the city's most recognizable landmark, but they were obscured by the smoke much of time while we were visiting.

When we are visiting a new city, we love to find fun places that the locals enjoy. We found the Great Northern Carousel, and Denisa always loves a good merry-go-round ride. This one features 37 hand-carved Montana animals. Denisa had to choose between many of the wildlife we have enjoyed--bear, big horn sheep, prong horn antelope, etc. She chose a mountain goat because it was on the outside, and she was excited to find another carousel with rings to grab on each revolution. Alas, the little girl behind her got the brass ring. She really wants to get a brass ring, but she has mixed emotions about taking that honor from one of the children on the ride.

We had other things planned for our stay in Helena. We normally would have hiked to the top of Mount Helena, and walked the Upper West Side area where the most mansions stand. This is the kind of small city that we like, where it doesn't seem unusual for a deer to meet you running down a street.

But with hot temperatures and poor air quality, we spent most of the last two days indoors. Montana is experiencing near record high temperatures, and we had highs in the 90s during our four-day stay. We also saw our first air quality that had "Unhealthy" warnings for the area during our last two days in Helena. This town is used to smoky summers, but this is one of the worst. The local news showed a graphic that compared the number of Montana wild fires and acres burned over the last twenty years. Aside from the record-breaking year of 2012, this is the worst fire season that Montana has seen in those twenty years. We love experiencing unusual fun events, but we are sad to be here while Montana is experiencing unusual fire events.

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