As anyone who's ever driven from sea to shining sea knows, one of the great challenges of cross-country travel is finding a decent cup of coffee. Oh, it's fine within a few hundred miles of either coast. But as my husband and I discovered during two long round trips, the 2,000 or so miles in the middle are a dry gulch. Dishwater-weak or overboiled and bitter, flat or sour, the coffee disappointed us from diner to drugstore to hotel.

We found unexpected salvation in Montana. Missoula, home of the University of Montana, sounded suburb-size to us, but in fact it's the state's second-largest city, a mountain-ringed hub of collegiate culture -- and, it turns out, an oasis in a coffee-addict's desert. The day we arrived last fall, we discovered an Internet cafe called Liquid Planet. Expert espresso! Aromatic americano! Creamy cappuccino! I was home.

Well, not exactly home, because in the District the caffeine scene is dominated by Starbucks, Cosi, Caribou. Tiny Missoula, in contrast, teems with proudly independent java joints, all of them at least very good, some serving locally roasted coffee. And there's nothing in Washington that compares with the roadside flights of fancy Missoula's brew inspired: a gaggle of cheerful, idiosyncratic, free-standing coffee huts. We found them on side streets, in mall parking lots, next to gas stations and grocery stores. They had distinct personalities and funny names -- our local favorite was the Grizzly Bean, though on the road we were charmed by Pony Expresso. Some had been creatively converted from old rail cars or trailers, and they were decorated for Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Nobody in Missoula seemed to think the huts were at all unusual or charming. But we truly miss them now that we're back East. There's nothing wrong with the half-caff-skim-venti latte I get from the franchise at 15th and K, but I loved it more from the Loose Caboose.

-- Nancy Szokan

For general info on Missoula, Mont., contact the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-526-3465,

* HIGHER GROUND: Get your caffeine fix and do some good. Proceeds from sales at Higher Ground -- which was built with donated materials, labor and landscaping -- go to Teen Challenge, geared toward assisting troubled adolescents. The stand, which opened in June 2004, is at 334 N. Third Street W.

* BETTER BEAN: Owner Nathan Eyre plays his guitar between serving customers at this tiny place, at 4471/2 Hill St. If you're lucky, you may be there when his friends show up for an impromptu jam session.

* SHOOTING STAR: You'll have to keep your eyes peeled for the Shooting Star, a mobile espresso service that zips around making the rounds at the town's special events. The Star, shown here in Missoula's Caras Park, was launched by Liquid Planet, a downtown coffee-tea-wine-and-beer spot. * GRIZZLY BEAN: Owner Marjorie Fowler bought the Grizzly Bean, at 17041/2 Russell St., in November and immediately adorned it with flags and yellow ribbons. The decorations pay tribute to all soldiers, including her son, who's currently serving at a Washington state naval air station.

* LOOSE CABOOSE: Co-owner Malcolm Lowe refers to the quirky, approachable design of the Loose Caboose as the "dog that everyone can pet." Open since October 2003 and located at 6149 Mullen Rd., this stand is one of three Cabooses (Cabeese?) in Missoula. The other two are at 3175 N. Reserve St. and 2310 Brooks St.