Methow Valley and Paradise Valley, Montana, and its primary town, Livingston, share many similarities. They are both inspiringly gorgeous with all the amenities the great outdoors has to offer. Mountains, rivers, fish and wildlife abound. They both have humble roots where indigenous peoples lived off the land and honored it and the living things that inhabited it. Then along came the resource seekers — timber, silver, gold, coal, furs — and, in Livingston’s case, the railroad to haul the booty.
Livingston had another calling card — its close proximity to the oldest national park in the U.S., Yellowstone. Trains brought visitors to Livingston where they boarded YNP buses or another train to the park 50 miles away. A majestic and ornate depot was built in 1902 to accommodate the rail travelers.
Livingston bustled and expanded. Immigrants arrived from Italy, Portugal, Slavic countries, and a few from China and Mexico. They manned the hot coke ovens and labored on the railroad. Modest houses went up to accommodate the hardworking, low wage earning folk. Churches, a hospital, neighborhood grocery stores, and dry goods stores provided their needs. In the meantime, banks and bankers became prolific and with their profits large mansions rose up, gracing the West Side of town.
I was born in this town where my dad devoted over 60 years of his life to the Northern Pacific Railroad. Then, things changed. In 1979, passenger service was suspended on the southern route that went through Livingston. The merged railway line pulled out of Livingston, which had been the home of the largest train repair shops between Seattle and Chicago. Hundreds of workers were dispersed, laid off, or forced to retire.
Just as the Methow Valley did when the resource industries died down or dried up completely, Livingston had to reinvent itself. With the help of celebrities the likes of the Bridges’ brothers (Beau and Jeff), author Tom McGuane, Margot Kidder, Peter Fonda, and Steve McQueen, the quiet beauty of Paradise Valley was let out of the bag. Ranch owners sold acreages and mansions sprang up in all the prime places. Beer bars were replaced with art galleries. Small local stores fell under the shadow of the larger superstores. Neighborhood grocery stores all but disappeared. Everybody didn’t know everybody any longer.
I returned to my hometown last week with my adult sons to give them a glimpse of my life growing up. They had not been there for 29 years, since their grandfather died. They wanted to ask what the locals thought of all the changes. It reminded me of the changes here in the valley where old-timers remember how things used to be. As we visited different places around Paradise Valley, often my comment was that this used to be this or that or this or that used to stand here, but it’s gone.
One of my sons posed the question to my cousin who has remained in Livingston his entire life. “What do you think of the changes?” he was asked. “It sucks,” he replied. He explained how an average house used to cost $100,000 or less and now, if you can find a modest one, it’s at least $300,000. Many properties are being offered in the millions. Wage earners are lost to this market. Rentals are snatched up within hours. Service workers are hard to find. Sound familiar?
My husband’s cousins took us on a little driving tour of the upper valley. They have lived there all of their lives and know every piece of property. So-and-so bought that ranch. So-and-so owns all of that property up to the mountain ridge. I mention one of the co-founders of Home Depot who owns two huge ranches because he has given back to the community, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to non-profits, including efforts to vaccinate Montanans and Georgians (where his company headquarters are located).
Sage Lodge, owned by Seattle’s Joshua Green Corporation and operated by Seattle-based hospitality management and consulting company Columbia Hospitality, was our last stop on the cousins’ tour. A magnificent lodge with a bird’s eye view of Emigrant Peak newly opened in 2018, offering a destination for solvent adventurers seeking rugged Montana beauty.
Paradise Valley and Methow Valley are experiencing relentless changes. I’m not one to really know how to deal with it all, but from my own experience as a “local” Montanan, I was most happy to see the things that have remained the same: Mt. Baldy, Yellowstone River (albeit as low as it has ever been), Pine Creek Falls, and Sacajawea Park.