Montana is big, no news to anybody who lives here, comes to college here or tries to drive across it, but it still freaks this city boy from the east. It’s big and empty, especially eastern Montana. Having gotten used to the very conveniently spaced roadside rest stops of MI and MN, I have to readjust to the scale of the place. Not a problem, just saying…
It’s not anywhere near accurate to call this rich ecosystem of the high plains empty, but that’s the first thought that comes to mind when driving at 80 mph for hours and hours and seeing not much that is different from what you saw two hours before. I’m used to driving 4 hours and going through three states! Here I will be driving like this for three days before getting to Idaho. Contrary to what is apparently a widely believed myth of the state without limits, the speed limits in MT are 75 on the interstate and 70 on just about every other road, except when you come to a town, when the limit decreases very quickly to 25 or 30. I wonder how many speeding tickets this nets yearly? I do NOT want one, so I am being very careful to do just what the sign says. The “reasonable and prudent” speed limit went away in the 70’s.
My first stop is the town (city?) of Glendive, the county seat and currently the host of a big (for this area, a fellow traveler assures me) gun show and sale. Saturday night isn’t all that rowdy here, though, and Sunday morning is so quiet I have trouble finding a cup of coffee. I’m at another small, local establishment, the Motel El Centro in downtown Glendive, near the county clerk’s office. It has a clientele that seems more and more common out here, oil field and pipeline workers who drive great distances to work each day. The man in the room next to mine is a welder from Ohio, working on the Keystone pipeline. (And here I thought that was nixed! Silly me.) The room to the other side of my own houses a young couple with a baby. They obviously have some seniority here and have decorated the front of their room.
Overall, it’s a quiet town whose claim to fame is its place on the Dinosaur Trail. Since the local dinosaur museums are currently closed, I don’t get to check this part out too closely, but the sign at the end of town shows both the desire for branding and at least one citizen’s sense of humor in placing his ad next to it… or perhaps it’s only my eye that puts these these together?
After Glendive, ad some wandering and shooting in black and white, I make it as far as Livingston, where I head south on 89 and stay at the Paradise Valley KOA Kampground (sic).
This is ranch country and the back road that gets me to the kampground takes me past large new homes interspersed with rangeland populated by sleek black-angus cattle and farm buildings. It takes me a while to realize that many of the homes are a sign of a major change here, just north of Yellowstone Park. They are “ranch-lets,” built on spec for wealthy folks from the city or custom built for wealthy locals who want the feel, but not the fact of a cattle ranch. These are, for the most part, not the homes of the men and women who work these herds. Many are so new that they are uninhabited. Real estate bubble?
The other thing that is evident on this road is the devastation left by fires that came through here at the end of August. I started down the road to get to a campground in the Gallitan National Forest. The road to it is closed; burned over, and so I end up at the KOA. Small columns of smoke still appear to be rising from the hills behind me, and the air is thick and hazy with smoke from fires now burning to the west and south. Heading on to Missoula the next day I try to get a handle on where these are, iso that I might avoid them. Locals don’t seem to know, only that they are up-wind of where we are. “Idaho, I think,” says one man at the gas station in Butte. “What can you do? Fire season.”
I take a detour (the Pintler Scenic Highway) through Anaconda, Philipsburg and Drummond to get off the highway for a bit and encounter these signs
The smoke gets to my sinuses and I try for a motel in Missoula, but my budget doesn’t fit with Missoula prices. Even the motels similar to El Centro and Scotty’s want in excess of $58 for the night. Too rich for my blood. I head on down the road only to get caught up in the evening rush hour. Did I say that Montana was empty? It’s not. It’s just that everybody has moved to Missoula and leaves work at the same time! At Lolo, I realize that it will be almost 50 miles of back-country mountain driving before I get to another area where inexpensive motels are available and it’s getting late. I want to see the Bitterroot Mountains in the daylight and without smoke. The forecast for tomorrow is for a shift in the wind. I bite the bullet and take a right turn into the last Day’s Inn before turn-off for Lolo pass. The man at the counter, who got married in Lowell, MA, gives me a reduced rate (“Not for everybody, you know, but you, I trust.”) and I will sleep my last night in Montana in a sterile, generic motel room and head out tomorrow to Lolo pass and maybe the hot springs. By lunch time I hope to be in Idaho.