Tag Archives: Montana

Three weeks ago, Day 6

 The Hi-Line of Montana

 Have you ever heard of the Hi-Line?    The first time I ever ran across the term was in William Least Heat-Moon’s book Blue Highways about 25 years ago.  It captured my fancy then, and I’ve thought about driving it off and on ever since. 

The easiest way to explain the Hi-Line is that it’s the stretch of U.S. Highway 2 (the northernmost east-west highway in Montana) east of the Rockies to the North Dakota state line.  I lived in Libby, a town along U.S. 2, for a few months almost twenty years ago, but it’s in far western Montana in a mountain valley, and so it doesn’t count. 

Loma, of the magnificent bed and terrific Mexican food, is about an hour south of Havre, the unofficial capital of the Hi-Line, and its biggest town.  Also the only cluster of more than one fast food place between Glacier National Park and North Dakota, not that it mattered.  I did stop for gas, and was approached by a woman carrying an iPad who was conducting a tourism survey for the University of Montana.  I answered her questions, but drew the line at taking a mail-in version along with me. 

From Havre I headed east across the plains, which aren’t nearly as flat as you’d think they are.  I swear it’s over 200 degrees from horizon to horizon, though, instead of 180.  There’s a reason they call Montana the Big Sky country.  It’s enormous here.  The clouds march across it in ranks like soldiers, except no soldiers in the field were ever that clean.

I turned south at Chinook to visit the Bear Paw Battlefield, where Chief Joseph and what was left of the Nez Perce surrendered to General Miles.  “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”  Chief Joseph has a brief role in Repeating History, setting my kidnapped tourists free.  I hope I did him justice. 

I never know what to say about places like the Bear Paw Battlefield.   It is a very lonesome place.  It doesn’t look any different from the thousands of square miles of undulating prairie surrounding it, but it is.  There weren’t even any trees, just a low place in the ground with two springs and a creek, which I’m sure is why the Nez Perce chose that place to camp.  The modern facilities are modest in the extreme — a pit toilet, a couple of sheltered picnic tables, several brass and stone monuments, and several more modern interpretive signs.  I did not walk the trail, because a) there wasn’t another soul out there, and b) there were signs all over the place warning of rattlesnakes.  Like every other battlefield I’ve been to over the years, Bear Paw Battlefield is a very sad place, permeated with memories.  I’m glad I made the detour, but it did make me feel like apologizing, if there had been someone there to apologize to.

I probably should have eaten lunch in Havre, even though it was way too early.  Chinook did not have much to offer.  The towns along the Hi-Line are sparse and tiny.  I did finally find lunch in the Indian Reservation community of Harlem, in a diner where I had another excellent hamburger and an ice cream cone.  I passed through the next town of Malta, halfheartedly looking for a grocery store and not finding one, then stopped at a BLM campground on Nelson Reservoir, a couple of miles north of the highway.  Nelson Reservior was gorgeous, especially as the sun began to set.  And I saw a white pelican floating on the water.  It was a great place to camp.  And so I did.

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Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures

Three weeks ago, Day 5

The oldest town in the state of Montana isn’t that old.

If you’re an Easterner.  Or a European.  But by intermountain West standards, ~160 years old is pretty ancient. 

Fort Benton, Montana, was the head of steamship travel on the Big Muddy, and hence one of the most inland ports in the world, from the 1850s, when special steamships were devised that could handle the shallow waters, snags, and other impediments of the Upper Missouri, and the late 1880s, when the railroad came to Montana (I’ve occasionally wondered if Charley, the hero of Repeating History, which is set in the late 1870s, might have traveled by steamship from Fort Benton at one point — maybe someday I’ll find out).  Nowadays, it’s the seat of Chouteau County, and bigger than I had thought it would be, with an elegantly remodeled Carnegie Library (about which more anon), and a stately stone courthouse.  It is, after all, Town for a great many farmers and ranchers, who are the main reason for its continued existence. 

But it also knows its large place in Montana history, and does some lovely things with it.  The riverfront, for instance, where once upon a time hundreds of puffing, smoking steamships disgorged thousands of tons of freight destined for the gold mines of Virginia City and Last Chance Gulch, is now a grassy promenade studded with signs telling the town’s fascinating history.  Did you know that an acting governor of Montana drowned in the river here?  Or that a dog named Shep once gained national fame for waiting here for years for a master who never came back?  (the man couldn’t help it — he’d left town in a coffin)  The Grand Union Hotel still welcomes guests (albeit at a price that was completely out of my range) behind its stocky but elegant red-brick façade.

And then there are the museums.  Sorry.  You know by now that in one of my lives I am a freelance museum curator, and it will probably come as no surprise to you that I was, in part, a history major in college.  Fort Benton, oddly enough, has a restored fort.  The Museum of the Upper Missouri tells the story of the steamship era.  The Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive (sigh) Center introduces the shiny new (so new that the last time I was in this part of the world, in 2000 when a friend and I kayaked part of the Upper Missouri, it didn’t exist yet) Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.  And then there was the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, which tells the story of the homesteaders and ranchers, and the tough lives they led and still lead. 

And, of course, there’s the Hornaday buffalo.  Have you ever seen a buffalo nickel?  This was the fellow they modeled it on.  Ever gotten a good look at the bison on the National Park Service logo?  Yeah, him, too.  The whole diorama, which consists of sixteen, if I remember correctly, bison of all ages and sexes, lived in the Smithsonian Institution for decades before making its roundabout way back to Fort Benton, where it is on permanent display now.  I have to admit to a strong preference for live and wild over taxidermied when it comes to any animal, but still.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I discovered every motel in town was full — not tourists, but some nearby road construction project.  I went to the library to see about some wifi so that I might find an alternative (camping is all well and good, but not several nights in a row).  As it turned out, while it was nice to check my email, the librarian was of much more help.  Seems there was a set of cabins, mostly used by hunters, in the next little town down the road.  I was dubious, but I called, and yes, since it wasn’t hunting season, they had a vacancy.  I snagged it, thanked the librarian, and tooled twenty miles north to the wide spot in the road called Loma (population 85).

Not only was that no hunting cabin (unless you counted the elk motif decorating the entire place), it held the most comfortable bed I slept on during the entire trip.  The restaurant next door was called Ma’s Loma Café.  As I was to find out, Thursday nights were Mexican night.  Cooked by Ma, who was first generation Mexican-American.  I had the best fajitas and guacamole I’ve had in years.  Not hot spicy, but delicious spicy.  Combined with classic Montana beef (in my humble opinion some of the best on the planet).  I’m drooling just thinking about it.  I did not eat alone, either.  As soon as I sat down, the couple at the next table invited me to join them, and I, for one, had a wonderful time.  They were locals, and as interested in me as I was in them. 

And after that?  I wandered back to my cabin, sank into the bed from heaven, and that was the end of me for the night.

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Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures

Three weeks ago, Day 4

From the state capital to the first settlement in Montana, in 132 easy miles.

I guess I should have expected a road through something called the Gates of the Mountains, named by Lewis and Clark no less, to be more beautiful than I thought it would be.  But for one thing, Helena’s geographical situation is rather like Denver’s, right where the Rockies start to rise out of the Great Plains.  And Great Falls is even further east, along the, well, Great Falls of the Missouri River, which were (they’re mostly tamed by hydroelectric dams now, to the point where one of Great Falls-the-city’s nicknames is The Electric City) really more cascades than falls.  So, logically, I should have been driving through flatlands between the two cities.

But no.  I had a hard time getting photographs — there weren’t many places to pull over, and while I have been known to aim the camera through the windshield on occasion, a) the windshield was fairly bug-pocked by that stage, and b) it’s not the greatest, or safest, technique in the world.  But there was a shiny new rest area at one point, so what pictures I have of a road that must have been quite the engineering feat were mostly taken there.  It almost reminded me, the way it was carved through the canyon, bridging and rebridging the Missouri and cantilevered out in places from the cliffs, of the Virgin River Gorge portion of that selfsame I-15 in the far southwestern corner of Utah.  Quite spectacular.

And then the canyon walls opened out onto the northern Great Plains and someone laid the highway out with a ruler the last few miles to Great Falls.

Great Falls is a brick city (the third largest city in Montana, which really isn’t saying much) with one-way streets downtown and shady trees and a charming park lining the Great Muddy (the Missouri’s other name) for several miles.  With gardens, where the iris were blooming, and a pond with fountains, and lots of big shady trees.  And geese.  I stopped for a bit and walked around, then drove on along the river out of town until I reached the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. You cannot stumble over a rock in many parts of Montana without figuratively falling over Lewis and Clark.  And I can’t say I’m overly enthused about the term “interpretive center.”  What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned “visitor center”?  But I was charmed by the native blue flax growing even in cracks in the parking lot, and, when I went inside, by the breadth and depth of the exhibits.  And I must say, just looking at the prickly pear cactus and rocks over which those men hauled their canoes during a twenty-plus mile portage made my feet hurt.

After that, I only had another hour’s drive to go to reach my destination for the night of Fort Benton.  I will write more about this most historical of Montana towns  in tomorrow’s post.  Suffice to say today that I arrived, ate a delicious hamburger in the VFW hall, which was the only restaurant in town open after 5 pm, and camped that night in a municipal riverfront campground, which was just about all I could ask for.

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Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures

Three weeks ago, Day 3

 Helena, Montana, is a nice town.  If I could stand the climate, which is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and very dry all year round, it wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live.  Granted, it’s a bit isolated out there in the eastern foothills of the northern Rockies, but no more so than anywhere else in Montana.  It’s an hour from Butte, a couple of hours from Great Falls, and only four hours from Yellowstone, after all.

But I was heading in the opposite direction from Yellowstone.  At least for the time being.

I had two research stops planned on this trip, and Helena was the first.  The Montana Historical Society is headquartered in Helena, with a terrific museum and a research library staffed by some extremely helpful librarians.  I spent the morning there poking through clipping files and microfilm, looking for anecdotes written by people who had been in Yellowstone during the days after the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake since I am going to be placing another character in the park during that event.  The Hebgen Lake Earthquake was the largest (7.2-7.5 on the Richter scale — the 1906 San Francisco quake was a 7.9, for a basis of comparison) earthquake in the Rocky Mountain region in recorded history, and, in the area immediately west of the park, it caused a landslide that killed almost thirty people and created an entirely new lake. 

Inside the park, no one was killed, but a great many buildings (including the Old Faithful Inn) and quite a few miles of road were severely damaged, and what the earthquake did to the thermal features (geysers, hot springs, etc.) apparently put on quite the show.  Some of the changes were permanent, some temporary, but it is safe to say that the Hebgen Lake Earthquake profoundly changed Yellowstone, and the stories people told about it are a novel begging to be written.

From research to what I’ve been calling shilling, for lack of a better term.  After lunch, I went to the Lewis and Clark County Library, where I spoke with one of the librarians and left bookmarks, then I strolled on down Last Chance Gulch, which is a) what Helena was called back when it was a mining camp in the 1860s before it became Helena, and b) the name of the main drag downtown, which is now a tree-shaded, lilac-lined pedestrian mall.  I stopped at the city hall’s historic preservation department, the chamber of commerce, a local bookstore, and at the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society along the way, trailing bookmarks as I went.  I also found a new-to-me quilt shop, and, of course, left with fabric.  Ahem.  My name is M.M. Justus, and I am a fabricoholic.  There.  That’s out of the way.

By that time it was late, and I went back to my motel to get ready to head on the next morning.  I do like Helena.  It was a good place to set part of a novel.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of today.  But there will be more tomorrow.

Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures

Three weeks ago today, Day 2

In which I discover that Butte is not just a place to get lunch and gasoline on the way to Yellowstone. 

Day two started damply, to say the least.  I suspect it snowed a bit overnight, but by the time I woke up it had changed over to a drizzle just a few degrees above freezing.  I packed up quickly and left out before my only neighbors in the campground woke up because I wanted to get the heat running in the car.  I have a sleeping bag that has kept me warm in the snow before, but it doesn’t do much good after I get up.  

Speaking of the neighbors, they were a retired couple from Florida who were spending the summer as campground hosts.  The concept of a campground host is something I don’t remember from camping as a child, but it has become very popular over the last ten-fifteen years, and I think it’s a good thing, especially when I’m in an otherwise empty campground on my own.  

The male half of the host couple and I had a very nice conversation the evening before, and the upshot was that he was the first person to whom I gave a Repeating History bookmark on this trip. 

So.  On the road again.  My goal that morning was Butte, Montana.  “The richest hill on earth.” (local slogan)  “The noisiest place we ever camped.” (my mother)  And what I’ve always thought as a rather ugly stop on the Interstate just west of Homestake Pass (aka the Continental Divide).  Convenient, but ugly. 

I don’t know how the World Mining Museum arrived on my radar, but it did, and so a week or so before I left my route changed from a straight shot to Helena to a slight detour to Butte.  The World Mining Museum is on the campus of Montana Tech, which must be a very odd place to go to school.  You see, Butte, Montana, appears to have been stalled in time, to back around the turn of the last century.  The museum itself was fascinating, in a small-town let’s-collect-everything-we-can sort of way.  There was an entire village of buildings full of antiques.  Another village of vintage dollhouses.  A room full of minerals (including a blacklighted section for those that glow in the dark).  And a room telling the story of the richest hill on earth and one of the largest manmade holes in the ground on the planet, the Berkeley Pit, from which millions of dollars of copper were extracted up until the 1980s.  

But it wasn’t just the museum that was arrested in time.  The entire downtown (Butte has a nationally-registered historic district second in size only to New Orleans’), perched on the mountainside, looks like you’d expect ladies in long skirts and men in tailcoats to stroll by.  The copper kings’ mansions (one of which I toured) have turrets and stained glass and gilded wallpaper and hand-carved staircases.  

Absolutely none of which you can see from the freeway, from which vantage Butte simply looks like a dirty, gray huddle of buildings on the mountainside. 

Then there is the Berkeley Pit.  They quit mining from it in 1982.  The last time I spent any time in Butte was in the late 1960s, when it was being mined 24/7 (hence my mother’s comment about the noise).  It is now over half full with water so contaminated that the whole town is a SuperFund site.  But it’s still pretty darned impressive to look at. 

I spent most of the day in Butte, and found every minute of it fascinating.  Yes, the town has problems the way Crocodile Dundee has a knife, but it’s still an amazing place.  And not just a stop for gasoline and food. 

Late that afternoon I turned north on I-15 towards Helena.  Helena is the capital of Montana, and a very nice town I’d visited a couple of times before.  Oddly enough, the farther north I drove (once I crossed the Continental Divide), the better the weather got.  The cold drizzle in Butte changed over to sunshine.  The views down the valley were beautiful.  And it was a new road to me, at least for a few miles. 

I had a date with a research library the next morning and the hope of handing out as many bookmarks as I could.  After all, about a third of Repeating History is set in Helena.  In 1877-8, granted…

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Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures

Three weeks ago today

I hit the road for my first long trip alone in five years. Not that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed the trips I’ve taken in the last five years, with my friend Mary and my friend Loralee (oddly enough, the three of us all have Mary as a first name — Loralee and I go by our middle names), but it was time, and past time, for me to take off on my own.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me how brave I am to travel alone, I could probably finance one of these trips, but you’re only brave if you’re scared first. And I’ve never been scared of traveling by myself. Traveling alone is an entirely different experience than traveling with a companion. If you enjoy your companion, it’s fun to share what you see and do, but when you’re traveling alone, you’re more open to what’s around and about you, to meeting new people and absorbing new things. And there is an abundance of time to think.

Even on the first day and last day of this trip, which was basically the only bat-out-of-hell driving I did, to get across Washington and northern Idaho — someday I need to explore northern Idaho instead of flying past it to get somewhere else — into Montana or to get home, I didn’t listen to anything except my thoughts. No radio except the occasional search for a weather report, no CDs, no nothing except peace and quiet and time to think.

I’ve said this before, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing like being behind the wheel of a car. Being between places, neither here nor there. It’s why I fight so hard when other people say we need to get away from private transportation. For one thing, many of the places I long to go will never have public transportation. It simply isn’t cost-effective when you’re connecting towns of less than 2000 people a hundred miles from each other, or getting people out to places where they can get away from people altogether — to the edges of wilderness areas where they can really renew their spirits. What we need is a way to run private vehicles that is renewable, efficient, and environmentally friendly. Not to get rid of private vehicles.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes. The bat out of hell first day. I will admit that sometimes it would be nice to be able to transport me and my vehicle (which carries more necessities and is cheaper and, really, faster, to transport via driving than I am by flying and renting a car) across the wide-open spaces of eastern Washington. Getting off the Interstate and exploring there is one thing — I’ve done that before and enjoyed it. But it is not attractive or interesting from the freeway.

Snoqualmie Pass is beautiful, with some snow still on the ground. The wild horse sculptures on a butte above the Columbia River are striking. There’s a terrific fruit stand in the tiny community of Thorp in the eastern foothills. After that? I’m just waiting to see the first pine trees west of Spokane.

Spokane is a lovely city at the foothills of the westernmost stretch of the Rockies in the continental US, and it happens to possess Manito Park, one of the nicest traditional public gardens in the inland Northwest, in my humble opinion as an amateur garden fanatic. I spent about an hour there, admiring their signature lilacs as well as the first iris and peonies and the landscaped beds just beginning to come into their own for the summer. Then it was on to 75 miles of northern Idaho, past Lake Coeur d’Alene (heart of the axe is what I was told that means many years ago — I have no idea if that’s right) and over Lookout Pass and down into Montana.  About 500 miles that first day.

I spent my first night on the road in a forest service campground along I-90 just west of Missoula, under the pine trees with the early flowers — balsamroot and serviceberry and bistort. And got snowed on just a bit that night Yes. In late May. Welcome to the Rockies.

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Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures