In Montana, former Falcons QB Steve Bartkowski finds perfect refuge

I know what you were asking yourself this morning as you arose to another day just like the one before it.

“I wonder,” you mused, “how are they getting along with all the current world-changing, behavior-bending events in Twin Bridges, Montana?”

Since you asked:

Here’s a postcard from the Ruby Drake Lodge.

Steve Bartkowski, the Falcons Ring of Honor quarterback and his wife, Sandee, are spending a self-quarantine around the tidy collection of cabins built out from a main lodge building that’s a fine tribute to woodworking and taxidermy. They and their son, Pete, run the place during the breadth of fly-fishing season.

The couple has about 11 days left, per the current state requirement that many of those entering from outside its borders keep to themselves for two weeks to contain the spread of coronavirus. They arrived, later than usual, from their winter quarters in Hawaii just last weekend.

Montana, a state of only 1.09 million residents, has one of the lowest case rates in the country, the total number of confirmed cases at 459 (16 deaths) according to Tuesday morning’s report from the governor’s coronavirus task force.

There’s a whole lot of room to breathe in this part of the world. “Social distancing up here is something people practice unwittingly,” Bartkowski said with a laugh.

“I don’t have a good feel for it because I haven’t been out in the middle of it because of the quarantine. From what I hear from Pete, people are being very cautious,” Bartkowski said. “These small communities, if you’re out of town and you come back people know if you’ve been good or bad (following the quarantine).

“We can’t be around people, which generally is not a problem. I can go fish the Ruby (River) here and not see another person for a week, probably.”

On the list of preferred ways to wait out a pandemic, getting stuck in Hawaii for longer than planned and then eventually making your way back to the splendor of Montana should be at least above the tree line.

When the AJC visited Bartkowski last summer, discovering that the No. 1 overall draft pick and the Falcons quarterback from 1975-85 had redefined his life at this lodge, the attraction of the place was obvious. At the time, he said, "People all want to know what it's like. They say, tell me what it's like out there. What's the attraction? I start to try to describe it and I just can't come up with the words. I tell them you just got to come out here and see it, come out here and experience it. You'll see stuff that I can't describe. It's like trying to describe a sunset to a blind man."

The very blessings that Bartkowski unearthed when he and his wife made the move four years ago to help Pete with the lodge are the ones most apt to see them nicely through the next uncertain months. There is a freedom and a comfort to living in a place cluttered only by winding rivers and bounded only by snow-topped distant peaks. Hawaii was great – it’s Sandee’s escape – but when they finally felt comfortable enough to get on a plane and head back toward southwest Montana, Bartkowski likened it to a release from prison.

Yes, Bartkowski still misses live sports, as do we all. A big Braves and golf guy is he.

Like a great deal of others, he fed the addiction any way he could, and if that meant watching the NFL draft far more intently than needed, so be it. He’s invested in the Falcons future, near term, because he recognizes next season to be a big one. “It’s kind of a do-or-die year for everybody there,” Bartkowski said.

Coaches and administrators need to win now or face the fallout. “And,” Bartkowski said, “everybody knows that Matt is in the fourth quarter.”

So, any advice to current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan this late in his career from a 67-year-old predecessor with plenty of hard-won experience?

“I got nothing to tell him that he doesn’t already know,” Bartkowski said. “He’s one of the more incredibly gifted guys I’ve been around, and no one is more competitive than he is. I know he’ll take full advantage of whatever opportunities he has. You’re only as good as the people around you, and he understands that. I wish him the best. You think about the squandered opportunities. You hope he gets another shot at (a championship).”

All those are secondary issues seen from a great distance. There are those more up-close to deal with when you’re trying to run a recreational business at a time when travel is fraught with worry and the economy is on snooze. One group from Atlanta already had to cancel because of the state’s quarantine rule, but Bartkowski believes Montana soon will be moving on from that. The next reservation is for early June, and that still stands.

In the meantime, there’s a lodge to revive from another winter’s hibernation. Plus, it’s supposed to warm up later this week, providing Bartkowski his first real opportunity to get out and fish.

About the time he'll be hitting the river, the AJC will be coming out with its Falcons installment in our Mount Rushmore series. It's the one designed to identify the four most monumental figures in the history of our major nearby teams. Given the head's up that he's probably not going to make the cut, Bartkowski seemed not rattled at all.

“I’d just appreciate an honorable mention,” he laughed. “Those things don’t mean much to me anymore. The older I get, the further I get away from it, I just realize more what an incredible privilege it was to play in the city of Atlanta.”

Why wouldn’t Bartkowski chuckle? That was a lifetime ago, and he’s in a place now where spending a day like the one before it can be pretty sweet.