Methow Valley and Paradise Valley, Montana, and its main town, Livingston, share many similarities. They are both inspiringly beautiful with all the amenities that the great outdoors has to offer. Mountains, rivers, fish and wildlife abound. They both have humble roots where indigenous people lived off and honored the land and the living things that inhabit it. Then came the searchers for resources – timber, silver, gold, coal, furs – and, in Livingston’s case, the railroad to transport the loot.
Livingston had another calling card: its proximity to America’s oldest national park, Yellowstone. Trains brought visitors to Livingston where they boarded YNP buses or another train to the park 80 kilometers away. A stately and ornate depot was built in 1902 to accommodate rail travelers.
Livingston came alive and expanded. Immigrants arrived from Italy, Portugal, Slavic countries and a few from China and Mexico. They tended the hot coke ovens and worked on the railroad. Modest houses were erected to house hard workers and low wages. Churches, a hospital, neighborhood grocery stores and dry goods stores met their needs. During this time, banks and bankers became prolific and with their profits large mansions rose, adorning the West Side of the city.
I was born in this town where my father dedicated over 60 years of his life to the Northern Pacific Railroad. Then things changed. In 1979, passenger service was suspended on the southern route through Livingston. The amalgamated railway line withdrew from Livingston, which housed the largest train repair shops between Seattle and Chicago. Hundreds of workers have been dispersed, made redundant or forced into retirement.
Just as the Methow Valley did when the resource industries died out or completely dried up, Livingston had to reinvent itself. With the help of celebrities like the Bridges brothers (Beau and Jeff), author Tom McGuane, Margot Kidder, Peter Fonda and Steve McQueen, the quiet beauty of Paradise Valley was pulled out of the bag. Ranch owners have sold land and mansions have sprung up in all prime locations. Beer bars have been replaced by art galleries. Small local stores have fallen into the shadow of supermarkets. Neighborhood grocery stores have almost disappeared. Not everyone knew everyone anymore.
I returned to my hometown last week with my adult sons to give them a glimpse into my life growing up. They had not been there for 29 years, since the death of their grandfather. They wanted to ask what the locals thought about all the changes. It reminded me of the changes here in the valley where the elders remember the way things were. As we visited different places around Paradise Valley, often my comment was that it was once this or that or that or that, but here we go.
One of my sons asked my cousin who has been in Livingston all his life. “What do you think of the changes?” he was asked. “It sucks,” he replied. He explained how an average house costs $ 100,000 or less and now, if you can find a modest one, it’s at least $ 300,000. Many properties are offered by the millions. Employees are lost in this market. The rentals are torn off in a few hours. Service workers are hard to find. Seems familiar?
My husband’s cousins took us for a short drive through the upper valley. They have lived there their entire lives and know every property. So-and-so bought this ranch. So-and-so owns all of this property up to the crest of the mountain. I mention one of the Home Depot co-founders who owns two huge ranches because he gave back to the community, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits, including efforts to vaccinate them. Montanais and the Georgians (where his company’s headquarters are located).
Sage Lodge, owned by Joshua Green Corporation of Seattle and operated by Seattle-based hospitality management and consulting firm Columbia Hospitality, was our final stop on the Cousins Tour. A magnificent lodge with a bird’s eye view of Emigrant Peak recently opened in 2018, providing a destination for solvent adventurers seeking the rugged beauty of Montana.
Paradise Valley and Methow Valley are undergoing constant change. I’m not the type to really know how to handle it all, but from my own experience as a “local” Montanais, I was very happy to see things that stayed the same: Mount Baldy, the river Yellowstone (although as low as ever), Pine Creek Falls, and Sacajawea Park.