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