There are two prominent exceptions: Missoula and Kalispell. I enjoy our Montana layovers very much. Even when I flew for Horizon they were among my favorites; now they're the very best places I fly. Just the thought of going to Montana makes me happy. Seeing four long Montana layovers on this month's awarded line totally made up for having zero weekend days off.
My fondness for Montana layovers partially stems from my time at Horizon; I spent a lot of time in the state so now an arrival in Kalispell or Missoula is almost like a homecoming. After hours upon hours of the relentless anonymity of the plains, it's cool to start spotting recognizable landmarks and suddenly find myself in familiar surroundings. Unlike many of the places we fly, I'm pretty familiar with Montana's geography. Here I know where I am in relation to real places, not just navigation stations and fixes. As we approach our destination, the scale decreases and I can soon pick out my favorite spots in town: cafes and bars, parks and hiking trails. I know exactly where to look for the airport and the best way to work around the terrain in making my descent. Then we land and park and I take my first deep breath of clean mountain air, and there's no doubt that I'm in my happy place. I could be sitting in a New Jersey landfill and merely hearing someone mention Montana would instantly summon forth that unmistakeable crisp scent - a mixture of pine, cedar, and a whiff of woodsmoke.
My attachment to Montana isn't merely nostalgic. In many ways, it's a welcome change from the daily grind of the job. Many of the airports NewCo flies to are practically indistinguishable from each other. Air traffic control tells us when to descend and when to turn and what speed to maintain, and they eventually put us on a straight-in visual approach (with ILS for backup, of course) three to five miles behind preceding traffic. The only thing left to think about is whether it's a left or right turn off the runway to the terminal! Mountain flying, on the other hand, makes you sit up, pay attention, make some decisions for yourself, and demonstrate a little finesse. Many of our pilots don't have any mountain flying experience, so it's fun showing them the ropes of flying into FCA and MSO.
On the ground, too, Montana is quite different from most of the places NewCo flies. Most obvious is the physical beauty of the place; it takes my breath away every time I visit. Of course, living in Minnesota now, it's a pleasure to just see mountains. The wild, remote feel of the place adds to its unique appeal. Montana has great swaths of wilderness that run right up to and even intrude upon its few populated areas. As I was climbing Mount Sentinel on the UM campus in Missoula this week, a mule deer trotted by not thirty feet away. It occurred to me that there aren't too many college campuses in America where you can climb a mountain and view wildlife.
Beyond the grandeur of the mountains, Montana has a different feel to it that you'd never mistake for the Midwest or eastern states. Although the places we fly in Montana are the largest cities in the state, they are nonetheless small towns by most standards. They have the pleasant attributes often associated with small towns across the nation - friendly people, walkable downtowns - but lack the negative aspects, namely small-town boredom. It seems as though there's always something going on, and of course there's plenty of outdoor adventure to be had in every season. Unlike Midwestern small towns that have been dying for years as their youth move to urban areas, Montana's small towns are actually growing as outsiders (ie Californians) move in. It probably helps that Montana doesn't have big city lights to lure the kids away; Seattle and Denver, the nearest major cities, are both several states over. All this gives Montana's towns a vibrant feel that you wouldn't expect for a place so isolated. That's not to say Montana is in any way cosmopolitan - indeed, it often feels 20 years behind the rest of the US. For someone my age, that's half the charm, as it's like stepping back into my childhood.
On my Missoula layover this week, my FO and I walked through the University of Montana campus and climbed Mount Sentinel (more popularly referred to as "doing the 'M'"). Later the whole crew got together at the Press Box to cheer on the Griz over fresh trout and pints of Moose Drool. Next week we're hoping to score last-minute tickets for a Griz home game. The week after in Kalispell, I'll introduce my FO to Moose's Saloon. If the snow holds off, we might rent a car and drive up to Logan Pass; otherwise the weather should at least be warm enough to repeat this spring's hike to Avalanche Lake. It's going to be a good month!