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MONTANA is Big Sky country. The nickname is no empty cliché: the entire state is blessed with a huge blue roof that both dwarfs the beautiful countryside and complements it perfectly. A magnificent northernmost cap for the US Rockies, this is a region of snowcapped summits, turbulent rivers, spectacular glacial valleys, heavily wooded forests and sparkling blue lakes, at their most dramatic in Glacier National Park . By contrast, the eastern two-thirds is high prairie: sun-parched in summer and wracked by icy blizzards each winter.

Preconceptions of a desolate land populated by cowpokes are soon shattered: each of Montana's small cities has its own proud identity. The university and sawmill community of Missoula , for example, possesses a high-culture feel absent from the heavily Irish, copper-mining town and union stronghold of Butte , while elegant state capital Helena still harks back to its prosperous gold mining years, and Bozeman , just to the south, is one of the hippest mountain towns in the US.

The fur trappers and gold miners who were the first whites to brave this inhospitable terrain soon moved on, but as white settlers invaded Native American hunting grounds, conflict was inevitable. A key plank of army strategy was to starve the Native Americans into submission: "For the sake of a lasting peace let them [professional hunters] kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered by the speckled cow and the festive cowboy," declared General Philip Sheridan. By the late 1870s the buffalo were almost gone, and most of Montana had been cleared for settlement.

The speckled cow and festive cowboy were not in for an easy time. The horrendous winter of 1886 wiped out many herds, and the "sodbusters" who planted wheat in the wake of bankrupt ranchers often fared little better. Plagues of grasshoppers, droughts, falling wheat prices and erosion of the topsoil caused farms to fail everywhere in the 1920s, during which time Montana was the only state to record a population decline.

Wheat has since made a revival, and now, with lumbering and coal mining, forms the base of Montana's economy. Tourism is currently the state's second biggest earner, though, apart from skiing, the harsh climate generally restricts the season to the months between June and September

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