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Out To Lunch In Caras Park: Making Missoula Vibrant
Montana Senior News, Feb. 2016/March 2016
If you ever yearn for a peaceful al fresco lunch spot in Missoula and it happens to be a Wednesday between June and August—forget about Caras Park. If, however, you can forsake quietude for the company of a thousand other music-loving folks and the best outdoor smorgasbord in town, by all means join the party.

Over the past 30 years, Caras Park has been the site of one of Missoula’s most beloved summer traditions—the Out To Lunch (OTL) gathering. Held near the Garden City’s iconic carousel, these free concerts have lured everyone from young families to shoppers and retirees as well as nursery school classes toting colorful lunch boxes. The largest group of participants, though, are the workers from downtown businesses who enjoy walking over during their lunch break. Regardless of age or occupation, people come for the music and the camaraderie. Some may bring their own PBJ, but others come specifically for the tempting array of food options available.

For all but five of the festival’s 30 years, Dalene Withycombe has worked behind the scenes, along with a dedicated cadre of seven other Missoula Downtown Association (MDA) volunteers, to insure this family-friendly event continues to refuel the tummies and spirits of Missoulians.
As Dalene explains, MDA’s purpose is, “to make the city of Missoula a better place to live.” OTL, as one of the organization’s key projects, is an integral part of fulfilling that mission. Unsurprisingly, it was obvious from the start that OTL was destined to become a Missoula institution.

“OTL has grown over the years from the number of vendors to the number of attendees, but it has always attracted a wide swath of the community,” observes Dalene. “I got involved as a volunteer because I believe in what the MDA is doing to keep the community together. Our goal is for the downtown to remain alive and growing.”

The volunteers’ work starts in February for the upcoming season. That is when they begin to choose food vendors, select the bands, and find weekly sponsors to fund the entertainment and pay Opportunity Resources’ disabled employees, who set-up and take down tables and chairs and keep the area clean.

Believed to be the oldest outdoor festival in the state, OTL features some 20 food vendors who bring the flavors of the world to this three-hour gathering.

“In the early days, only cold sandwiches were for sale. The food is more eclectic now. These days we have electricity and propane so vendors can cook with fryers, woks, and grills,” says Dalene. “Most people walk around once to look at all the vendors first so they can figure out what they want for lunch. Then they look for a spot under the tent where they can sit.”

Each week, a different band—ranging from swing to rock to country— takes to the stage enticing youngsters as well as oldsters to tap feet, clap hands, or twirl to the music in between bites of pizza, pad thai, and tamales. And since this festival aims to make every generation feel welcome, even kiddos are well occupied with activities such as guitar playing and gymnastics.

“OTL is fun and something to look forward to every summer. It’s a community builder. There’s even a Mountain Line trolley each Wednesday to transport people for free to and from Dornblaser parking lot and the Lewis & Clark Transfer Center. Beyond that,” adds Dalene, “OTL puts visitors in touch with locals and gives them a focal point for gathering information about Missoula.”

While food vendors remain the same from week to week, the musicians change almost every Wednesday. Much to the crowd’s delight, some of the biggest names in the music industry such as Carlos Santana and Huey Lewis have made surprise guest appearances sharing their talents just for the fun of it.

“I get a lot of pleasure seeing others enjoy what we have done. I’ve made new friends both at OTL and on the committee. I’ve seen the downtown grow,” remarks Dalene. “The idea of a downtown where you can walk the streets and go into different shops has always been important to me. It was a special treat when I was a kid growing up on a farm in Oregon and it is still a special treat. This is my downtown. I have a sense of belonging to it. There’s always an element of excitement there, always something new happening.”

For Dalene, as for many Missoulians, OTL has long been a gift for families of all ages. Every week one or more of her six grandchildren accompanied her to the festival as soon as they were kindergarten age. Afterwards, Dalene would take her crew for a carousel ride before heading home. Dalene’s granddaughter Kathlene has only the fondest of memories of these past Wednesdays. Now 24, she lives in Missoula and would no more dream of missing an OTL gathering than a Griz football game.

“It was a big part of my childhood—exciting, fun, something I could share with my grandma. There were always different things to see and do. It was a big day for me,” recalls Kathlene. “I could walk around and pick out the lunch I wanted. When I was a kid, it felt like the sky was the limit, like a party with all the people and live music. OTL has always been a great family event. Every type of person you would see in Missoula goes to OTL. It’s part of what makes Missoula so vibrant.”

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