Today is Tuesday August, 8th, and it’s my Birthday. I am now at the milestone age of 27 and am starting it off with a bang by waking up in the parking lot of what I now realize is the Canadian visitor center to Glacier National Park. I step out of my car and the first thing I notice is my foot. It’s still getting worse and it is killing me at this point. The swelling and bruising have become more visible, but thankfully I don’t have to put a lot of mileage on my feet today as I need to recover before I head into the backcountry of Yellowstone. I sync up my GPS watch with the app and see that I have hiked a total of 34.75 miles during the two days prior. Thank God for recovery day, I thought as I pack up my things.
         Recovery day for me just means getting off my feet, but I’m not good at the whole relaxing thing so today I’m going to run an inflatable Kayak down the Middle Fork River, which makes up the western border of Glacier National Park. I have always loved whitewater and have rafted some pretty badass rivers, including a memorable trip to the ‘New’ in West Virginia. I’m set to push off at 10:00am, so with a couple hours to kill and considering it’s my Birthday, I figure I should eat a big hearty breakfast, rather than a protein bar like the three days prior. I find a local diner in West Glacier and proceed to order a feast that includes eggs, hash browns, bacon and a giant blueberry pancake. Feeling re-energized after housing that and about six cups of coffee, I am ready to get on the water.
       I’m renting my kayak from a small rafting company in the area called Wild River Adventures and will be tagging along with some guides who are taking a couple groups rafting down the same stretch of river I am. A couple weeks prior to today, I got in contact with the owner of Wild River, Lexi, and we spoke about me getting some drone footage, which I would give to them to promote their company. The river is a grey area for drone use since the east bank of the river is technically part of the park and flying drones anywhere in NPS land is a BIG no-no. After talking on the phone for a bit, we agree to make a game time decision before I set off.
       “Is Lexi here this morning?” I ask when I check in at the front desk. A cute, slender, blonde woman in her mid-thirties walks out of the office right around the corner and says, “I’m Lexi, how can I help you?”. “We spoke a couple weeks ago about me flying my drone during our trip, so I wanted to see if you’re cool with it.” “Oh yes! Alex, thanks for coming!”, she responds as we walk outside to chat further. I can tell that she is still on the fence about it and after talking for a few minutes, we both reluctantly agree that it’s best not to use it. As much as she would have loved the footage to use for enticing tourists to their outfitter, she couldn’t risk putting themselves in a position of getting a huge fine (or worse) from the National Park Service. Completely understandable, GoPro it is!
        We board the school bus and set out for the river. “You’re the drone guy, aren’t you?” asks one of the guides as we go down the bumpy gravel road. “We were all stoked to have you get some footage, bummer that Lex reneged on that”, said another guide sitting in the row in front of me. We start talking on the way to the river and I learn that all four are (self titled), ski bums at Big Sky by winter and river rats in West Glacier by summer. Super cool people, who love life and are all about spreading the good vibes.
       We finally make it to the launch point and I hop in the ducky then push off into the water. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never taken an inflatable kayak in whitewater before, but the river is pretty tame so I’m not too worried about it. Within fifteen minutes of starting, we pass a tree with a giant bald eagle perched atop staring down at us. Aside from a grizzly bear, the wildlife that I most wanted to see was a bald eagle, and we ended up seeing five during the two and one-half hour trip. There are not many more animals who have the same majestic aura about them as a bald eagle does, so I was pretty pumped to see them in all their glory while taking in the amazing wilderness around me.
            The rapids were mostly class II-IV and nothing too crazy, but it made me want to get into whitewater kayaking as I really enjoyed the control that it offers over a raft. 'Great, yet another hobby to add to my already aggressively long list,' I thought to myself as I get back in the bus to head back.
       While on the bus, I strike up a conversation with a guide, Kelsi, who is sitting in front of me. “I’m staying in Missoula tonight, any suggestions of places to go… involving beer?”, I ask. “Hell yeah, I went to the University of Montana, so I got you. Big Sky is obviously a good one and they do free tastings which is dope, but KettleHouse is my favorite brewery and it’s downtown, so you need to check that one out.” says the once Missoula resident. “Say no more, I’ll be sure to hit both!” I respond with my mouth already watering from the thought of all the local beer I’m going to be consuming.
            I get back in my car and start the, comparatively speaking, short drive down to Missoula. I thought it would be a good time to listen to my audio book of the famous, ‘On the Road’, by Jack Kerouac. As I open up my audible app and see “Now a Major Motion Picture”, I can’t help but recall a conversation that I’ve had many times with my brother about how much we hate books that have a movie cover. Not sure why it’s one of my pet peeves but I’m sure we’re not alone in our pure hatred for the publishing companies who taint classic covers with pictures of Kristen Stewart (OK maybe a bit of an overreaction, but just don’t).
           After sleeping on the ground or in my Jeep the last three nights I decide that I would ball out for my birthday and get a hotel room… at the Econo Lodge. Still in pain from the ambitious mileage I went in Glacier, I limp into the lobby and am greeted by a wirey, awkward looking high school age kid. “Thanks for choosing the Econo Lodge Missoula! Checking in?” said the overly-excited host. “Yep, one bedroom for Anderson” I respond. “OK Mr. Anderson, pool is straight ahead, there’s a fantastic continental breakfast from 6-10am and checkout is at 11:00. How many keys can I get you?”. “One key is fine, thanks”, I reply. “Traveling alone I see. What brings you to Missoula?”. “Yep, I’m just passing through. Was backpacking in Glacier and heading down to Yellowstone tomorrow” I reply in a less enthusiastic tone. “Isn’t that like… lonely? Doesn’t sound like much fun if you’re all by yourself.” replies the acne faced high schooler who I’m starting to get annoyed with. “Nope not lonely, that’s kinda the point of the trip and what” I say before stopping myself as I don’t have the energy to justify what was a valid question by the only curious kid. I grab my key, thank him for the help, and head up to my room.
I get some much needed R&R then call my Mom and Dad, who I know are eagerly waiting to hear about the first leg of my journey. I could tell that my Mom was a bit nervous before I left, but my Dad was super pumped as I think it helped him reminisce on his ‘glory days’ when he tackled the backcountry solo. This is probably the last word he would use to describe himself, but he’s kind of a badass. Back in the 70’s he once broke the record for the fastest ascent and descent of Mt. Whitney, which is the highest peak in the continental United States. He was a competitive marathon runner and eagle scout, which certainly helps. 
Pictured is my pops standing at the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft) circa 1977. His hands got so cold that he busted out his extra socks and wore them as gloves. Mustache game is on point though!         
            We talk for almost an hour and just after I hang up, I get a call from my sister, Ashley. “Happy Birthday little bro! What do you have planned for the night?”, she asks while holding my 18-month year old niece, Emory, who is speaking in fluent gibberish in the background. “I’m about to head to Big Sky Brewing, then I’ll go downtown Missoula and bounce around a couple places. I heard there’s going to be some bands playing at a bar called the Badlander, so I’ll probably check that out”, I reply. “When you go to dinner, you should tell them it’s your birthday so they bring you out a cake” Ashley says half jokingly. “Yeah good idea! Then the whole wait staff will come out and sing Happy Birthday while I’m sitting at a table by myself.” We both laugh, while I’m honestly contemplating doing it just to see people’s reaction. Feeling refreshed and in good spirits, I’m ready to hit the town.


            My first stop is Big Sky Brewing, which is just down the street from my hotel. Like many people, I’m familiar with them because of their popular brown ale, Moose Drool. I learn they are much more than that as they boast the title of the biggest brewery in Montana, so I’m excited to check out what they’ve got. I park and walk into their impressively massive 24,000 sq foot facility and immediately see a hanging chalkboard sign which reads, ‘free beer tastings’. Hell yeah, thank you Kelsi! I think to myself as I’m trying to decide on what to pick first. “What’s up dude? See anything that looks good?”, says a female bartender who is sporting an intimidatingly cool sleeve. “Everything looks good! You tell me.” I respond after giving in to the overwhelming list of options. “You get five free tastings, so I’ll give you a mix of our best summer seasonals and my personal favorites. Cool?” shes asks, while nod without hesitation. For the next hour or so, I sit at the bar talking with a few locals and the three bartenders working. Good beers with good people, I think as I get up and head back to my car.
            Still full from the obnoxious amount of food I consumed earlier today, I decide to check out another brewery downtown, so I drop off my car back at the hotel and call an uber to head downtown for the rest of the evening. Just as the uber is arriving, a thought comes to mind which leads me to open my car door back up, dig in the glove box and pull out a fresh pre-rolled joint. This could potentially come in handy later, I thought as I slip it into my pocket with no real plan in mind. A Toyota Prius pulls into the parking lot and I jump in. “Heading to Kettlehouse I see. Great choice.” says the driver as he speeds off for downtown.
             I figure a raft guide who spent her college years living in Missoula was a reliable source for a brewery recommendation which made coming here a no-brainer. I pull up to a cool, warehouse looking facility, which is built entirely out of brick and when I walk in, I immediately realize that this is the place to be. The wide open layout is filled with community tables that are packed with college kids, coworkers enjoying happy hour and even a few creepy looking locals who have clearly been here for hours. Good sign, I think as I assume my natural position at the bar. I scan the menu and see a pale ale, which my new West Glacier friend dubbed, “BOMB” earlier today. “What can I get you good sir?” says the eccentric looking female bartender with yet another rad sleeve. “I’ll have the Eddy Out, please” I say as I hand her my I.D. She takes a quick look and glances back at me with a smile. “Happy Birthday man! First one is on the house.” Good vibes all around today.
           Since I clearly couldn't just stay for one beer that was given to me for free, I decide to order one more. I see something called ‘Fresh Bongwater’, which is a hemp ale. “Can’t say I’ve ever had a hemp ale, how is it? Seems risky” I ask the bartender. “It’s… interesting” she replies with a tone not necessarily implying that it’s bad. “What the hell, I’ll give it a try”, I say with a degree of uncertainty. Less than 30 seconds later, she brings it back and stands there waiting until I try it. I take a large swig and before I can get it down - “well  what do you think!?” she asks eagerly. After contemplating it for a few seconds, I (genuinely) reply with, “It’s… interesting.”
           With only about a quarter of the beer gone I start to get hungry again, so I hop on yelp to see what’s around looks good. After scrolling for too long and getting overwhelmed by all the restaurants that look great, I strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, “Are you from around here? I’m looking for a good spot to get a bite to eat.” He turns to me with a smile and says, “born and raised! What kind of place are you looking for?” “No preference, doesn’t have to be fancy but a patio of some sort would be ideal” I reply. He proceeds to list ten different restaurants but ends by saying, “you should go to The Iron Horse. Great food, huge outdoor patio and in the middle of downtown so you can easily check out other bars after.” “Done! Glad I asked, thanks for lookin out” I say as I flag down the bartender to close out my tab. Working in sales and often in cities by myself, I almost always post up at a bar and try to get recommendations from locals. The system has worked great so far and also gives me the opportunity to connect with some interesting people. I cheers my new friend, polish off the rest of my beer and head for the for the door. Interesting, I thought as I walk out the door, still unsure of what I think of the Fresh Bongwater.

         Regardless of how much one may enjoy solo meals in peace, telling a hostess, ‘table for one’, will always be an uncomfortable feeling. It’s an absolutely perfect night out, so I make the easy decision of requesting a table on their rooftop patio. We walk up the stairs and the hostess sits me across from a rambunctious looking bachelorette party, which leads me to text my brother, Brad. “Is there a way to not come across as creepy, when eating by yourself while facing a group of good looking girls?”, I ask. “Nope, not possible”, Brad replies with a crying face emoji, just as the waiter is walking up. “How’s it going this evening? Can I start you off with a water or beer while you look over the menu?”, asks the waiter, a male around my age. Considering I’ve been drinking beer all afternoon, I go with my boojy, yet unapologetically favorite cocktail, “I’ll have a manhattan made perfect, with woodford. No ice, please.”  Per usual on my Birthday, I proceed to order a big steak, which really hits the spot after primarily eating goldfish, Clif bars, and freeze dried backpacking food the last few days. I earned this, I think unnecessarily justifying my decision again, as I get myself hyped up and ready to check out more of Missoula.
          It’s only 7:00pm and the music at the Badlander doesn’t start until 8:00pm, but I figure I’ll just go early and chill for a bit. I walk a few blocks across the beautiful downtown and into the bar, which is basically empty at this point. As I’m trying to quickly decide whether I should stay or come back in an hour, I make eye contact with the bartender, who gave me a pleasant nod. Well alright, guess I’m staying here, I thought to myself as I grab a stool at the end of the bar. “What can I get you man?” asks the stalky bartender with a perfectly groomed long beard, as I look up at their massive board of options. Since I’m already getting close to double digit drinks, most of them being craft beers, I figure I should pace myself and keep it light. “Coors banquet in a bottle, please” I respond, proud of myself for the ‘responsible’ decision.
           Feeling chatty (buzzed), I decide to start up a conversation with the two guys sitting next to me at the bar. “Hey I overheard you guys talking music, are you familiar with the Lil Smokies by chance?” I ask, in reference to one of my favorite bands, who happens to be from Missoula. “Hell yeah dude, the Smokies are badass!”, responds one of the guys. I go into the backstory of how I came across the local band. In June of 2016, I attended my first Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I was going to say ‘not my last’ but that didn’t seem appropriate considering it quickly became my favorite weekend of the year and an event  I won’t miss out on (sans death in the family or family wedding). Anyways, my good buddy Pat tells us about this up-and-coming bluegrass band out of Missoula who he heard was awesome, so we decided to check them out on the small stage downtown, before we head into the festival. Long story short, they absolutely brought the house down, standing ovation and all. My five friends and I look at each other with wide eyes and say, “holy shit, these guys are going to be big!”  I’ve seen them many times since and look forward to continuing the purposely annoying “yeah, well I saw them before they were popular.”
         Realizing a common interest for ‘real’ music, I continue the conversation with my new friends, Evan and Andrew. We shoot the shit for another 20-30 minutes and they give me the lowdown of the three major towns in Montana (Missoula/Bozeman/Billings), while I tell them about my favorite music venues in Denver and confirm that there is indeed a dispensary on just about every block. “Tight,” says Evan, who expressed his jealousy of my close proximity to the grade-A flower.
          It’s five till 8:00 and the first band is setting up. “Do you guys know who’s playing tonight?” I ask, unfamiliar of any of the bands I see on the lineup card. “Yeah man”, replies Andrew, “We know those guys setting up, they’re solid. The second band is from Portland and they’re alright; kind of strange. We’re headlining actually, but we don’t go on until midnight.” Completely taken off guard, considering we have been talking for close to an hour at this point and that somehow never came up. Shortly after, I reach into my pocket to grab my phone but instead feel the tube that my pre-rolled is in. I knew this was going to come in handy, I thought to myself before I asking, “hey Evan, how do you feel about smoking that grade-A flower tonight?”
         “Absolutely!” Evan responds with an expression that reminded me of a child walking down the stairs and seeing his presents Christmas morning. “Let’s go backstage and smoke outside the dressing room.” Andrew says as we close out and get up from the bar. We walk past the band who was just about to go on stage and I proudly give a nod to one of the guys, which probably looks as if we knew each other. He somewhat confusedly returns the nod. We head into the dressing room, where the second band is hanging out, then out a door in the back, which was outside to the alley way. I light up the joint and the three of us spend the next thirty minutes or so cheefing it down, while having great conversation. Super good dudes.
         We finish the "J" and I walk in to go to the bathroom. “Wow, I am WAY too high right now.” I think to myself as I’m washing my hands. I walk back out of the bathroom and Andrew asks if I want to head back in the venue to watch the band play. “Dude, that weed is out of control - we’re both so stoned” Evan said with a big smile. “I was thinking the exact same thing!” I respond as we walk back into the bar with all of us laughing. We proceed to watch the first band finish their set, and as the second is setting up, I hit a major wall. Hiking over 30 miles, combined with an excessive amount of heavy food, little sleep, lots of beer, and a fat J; the inevitable crash has finally caught up to me.

          It’s around 10:00 and the strange band from Portland starts to play, while I’m trying hard to fight my heavy eyelids. I really want to stick it out so I can see my new friends play, who I’ve been bro-bonding with the last few hours. I get to the point where I feel like I’m literally going to fall asleep at the bar, so I turn to Evan and say, “I really want to watch you guys play but I have to bounce, I’m about to pass out.”  “Dude, don’t even worry about it, we totally understand. Good times!”, he replies while I feel like I’m letting them down. I realize I never got the name of their band so I ask, as the loud music plays in the background. Evan responds but I can’t hear him. “What was that, the rabbit vines?” I ask again in a near-yelling tone as the music ramps up even louder. He responds again and all I hear is rat vines or something with vines I think, but unclear of even that, I just give up and do what my 93 year old Grandma did when she clearly had no idea what we just said - nodded and smiled back.
          I walk outside, call an uber and head back to my penthouse at the Econo. As I’m in the back seat I reflect on the day that was. This morning I honestly felt a little bit lonely when thinking about spending my Birthday on the road, as I normally would be with good friends or family, but as someone who genuinely enjoys meeting new people I sit back and can’t help but go back to what I did just a little bit before - nod and smile. I make it back to my room and fall asleep within seconds of hitting my bed. Tomorrow is a big day; tomorrow I set off for a place that triggered my love for the outdoors; tomorrow, I go to Yellowstone.

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