“Grass fed?” someone asked the guy selling tri-tip steak sandwiches at the farmers marker.
“Actually, it’s Costco,” he said.
During a visit to Big Sky, your best bet is to experience some of the canyon, some of the meadow and a bit of the mountain. I spent my nights in the canyon, at 320 Ranch, a collection of duplex cabins where my neighbors were some Colorado cowboys whose boots clip-clopped across their wood porch. Several of the cabins face the river (though that means they also face the road). Like any self-respecting ranch, it also offers meaty meals and daily horseback rides.
When I told the folks at the small Big Sky tourism office that I wanted to check out some hiking, they asked if I was more of a flower or wildlife kind of guy. Wildlife I told them; I’d rather watch things move and graze and look back at me. Their next question was whether I had bear spray.
Bears — black and the attention-getting grizzlies — are a very real part of life here, all the way down to the desserts made to look like bear claws. A waiter at the pizza place suggested I leave my leftover slices outside my hotel room for keeping when I told him my room didn’t have a refrigerator. It made sense, considering that at 7,000 feet, temperatures drop to the upper 30s at night even in summer.
“But wouldn’t a bear come find it?” I asked.
“Considering that I just rode by one on my dirt bike going through someone’s trash, yeah,” he said.
It’s realities like that that lead most everyone to carry the bear spray that’s for sale at every nearby outfitter and hardware store. Not only did I track down some bear spray before heading out on a favorite local hiking trail called Beehive Basin, I sang aloud to alert any bears of my presence as long as I was hiking alone. Which was until I ran into Joe Gretzula, 55, a dermatologist who splits his time between Big Sky and Palm Beach. He told me I was doing things all wrong.
My bear spray was in the external pocket of my back pack. Got to have it on your hip, he said, or at least chest strap.
“You want it in front,” he said. “That’s the biggest mistake people make.”
“Is it better fortune to see a bear or not see a bear here?” I asked.
“Depends on how close you are,” he said.
We climbed for another hour or so to one of the most idyllic scenes I’ve ever reached on foot: a meadow sitting high above the land we left below. An alpine lake sat in the center of the meadow, and at its end stood tall, jagged mountainous teeth. The crowd, on a sun-dappled summer afternoon, was made up of locals.
On some rocks above the lake, I met Sandy Eggers, 65, who has split her time between Memphis and Big Sky (there are many part-time residents) for 13 years. I remarked on all the new construction and the new businesses down in the meadow and asked if the place felt bigger even though it remains relatively cozy. Big Sky was indeed getting bigger, she said, but it still felt manageable.
“There are more buildings,” she said, “but it doesn’t feel more crowded.”
The sky, she added, still felt plenty big.