Missoula sits west of the Continental Divide and enjoys a fairly mild winter by Rocky Mountain standards. The warm maritime air is able to push into the region and moderate the extremes of winter cold and summer heat. To the east of the Continental Divide the continental polar air mass dominates all winter and battles the western air for control of Missoula's climate. Bitter cold air accumulates in the high valleys of the Rockies, the Swan, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and as it cools it becomes dense and flows down the valleys like the rivers themselves and issues out onto the valley where Missoula lies. This cold wind too is a part of Missoula's heritage.
The Clark Fork flows through a narrow canyon as it approaches the town, opening suddenly onto the valley. Because of the cold wind that blows out this canyon all winter, it has been aptly named the Hellgate. Sitting at the foot of the Hellgate is the campus of the University of Montana where I spent three years earning my MS in Geology. I recall many long days, and longer evenings there with my eyes firmly attached to the petrographic microscope seeking to unravel the mysteries of southwest Montana's ancient past.
One evening in particular stands out in my mind, one bitterly cold winter evening. I had been in my office working on my thesis slides for several hours and my eyes were weary from the strain of the scope. I noticed that it was already around 8:00 PM and I had not eaten. Ahead of me was a half-hour walk to my apartment in the winter night. I packed up my things and put on my coat and then steeled myself for the blast as I opened the door. The outside air did not disappoint me. The wind out of the Hellgate was strong and gusty, the ground covered with a white crust of hard-packed snow. I figured it was easily 10 to 15 degrees below zero, (we didn't bother with wind chill factors, it was simply dang cold!).
Walking across the campus and out past a parking lot, I saw a car drive into the lot and around to park at the far end. As that car turned, its lights illuminated the flatness of the surface. Looking down the lot towards the Hellgate as the light flashed past I saw the snow blowing over the surface of hard packed snow, swirling white ice powder. Beneath my feet the snow made a weird cracking sound with each step. In that temperature the snow dries and will not pack, the crystals grating as the pressure of each footstep forces them past each other. I stood there for a bit after the car had stopped, its occupants left unaware of my presence. I reflected on the winter night, the cold, the snow swirling in the wind, the cracking sound of my footsteps, and of the walk I still had ahead of me. And then I smiled. Alone, I turned again towards my path and I smiled. I thought "This is great". The memory of that thought, the emotion that I felt at that moment is still fresh. In Montana in the winter.. life was good.