Given that the ebb and flow of Missoula seasons is marked as much by its college-bound residents as anything that Mother Nature throws our way, it hasn’t been surprising these last few weeks to wait a little longer in the burrito line or to lose a bit of elbow room at our neighborhood bars.

What hasn’t been as easy to adapt to, perhaps owing to the peculiar phenomenon of high-speed motion, is the learning curve of drivers new to Missoula’s streets. Some events—like the first good snow of the winter—disable drivers at a more equitable, predictable pace. Not so the student onslaught.

We’ve been recently startled by cars obliviously cruising the wrong way down one-way streets and trucks blowing through those unmarked intersections that give any experienced Missoula driver pause, and we’ve been plain annoyed by daft drivers who creep along the street trying to search out the street address for tonight’s keg.

Perhaps a few tips are in order for navigators new to Missoula’s road rules.

The practical, if not legal, method for determining local rights of way relies on size, so smaller and less powerful travelers hold first priority. Squirrels, then, deserve deference from all manner of travelers, as does the frequent wandering dog. Pedestrians, especially in the University area, come next and you should expect them to blithely step out into traffic, crosswalk or no. Personally, we think pedestrians would be wiser to hide in the hills these few first fall weeks while drivers adjust (if you follow that advice, please, please leave your “incendiary devices” at home so we don’t thicken the smoky haze and/or ignite this bone-dry valley.)

The ubiquitous bicyclist comes next on the totem pole and should be given extra maneuvering room by drivers, who rarely realize the stress and mortal terror caused by tons of steel barreling at one’s back. And though the city’s network of bike routes—those narrow, white-striped extra lanes on the right side of major arteries—haven’t been marked on a good share of Missoula’s streets, it’s best to act as though they were, since the hundreds of locals who travel mainly by bike expect you to.

Finally, drivers will benefit by recognizing that traffic in this town is an odd blend of unhurried hometown motorists accustomed to our slow pace life and those desperately trying to get from Point A to Point D as fast as they can. As such, the prevalent Missoula go-with-the-flow attitude will serve you well.

And when in doubt—no matter your transportation mode—slow down, smile and wave. We’re suckers for congeniality ’round these parts.

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