A Real Montana Road Trip


Last week, I got to do one of my favorite things: Road Trip, to one of my favorite parts of Montana.

The weather was, um, sideways. Going east, I set a personal best for fuel mileage. The wind was blowing so hard, the grass was whipping, not waving. It wasn’t long before I relearned three old eastern Montana axioms: 1.) Point your rig upwind when you park, so you don’t spring the door hinges; 2.) Never open two doors at once. You’ll lose not just your trash, but everything else not bolted down; 3.) Adjust your hat to “tight.”

And there’s a fourth that kicks in east of Shelby: Keep your hand atop the wheel so you can wave at all your friends.

Cell phone? Don’t count on it. I went 36 hours without a signal, plus an hour after that to find a spot where I could retrieve messages without being dropped. If you need to make a call in Chinook, I hear the Albertsons’ parking lot is good, and so is the gravel pad east of the train depot if you hold the phone just so.

I went as far east as Poplar, as far south as Fourchette Bay, visited Fort Peck, and felt content in Content. I got snowed on in Zortman and followed that up with gumbo on the Hudson Divide north of Saco – the tires were still slinging chunks at Whitewater. I even got to visit Glasgow, Malta, Zurich, Dunkirk, Harlem and Kremlin without a passport.

As usual, there were lots of fat cows to ogle, nice green grass and crops all aglow, and although the deer looked pretty scruffy, I spotted an absolutely epic antelope buck that I would have tried to put a sneak on (for pictures) had it not been for the driving drizzle. I even lucked into the environmentalist bison herd. Five minutes later, they were gone.

As a final bonus, the weather flipped again – giving me a free rinse and a tailwind going home!

Never been? Then you’re missing the real Montana.

I was introduced to real Montana mainly through hunting and fishing trips with my Mom and Dad. Over time, we hit just about every jerkwater “Two Dot” on the map, and off.

So what makes Montana real? Well, it’s not just scenery or wildlife. As my friend Ron Stoneberg put it at his kitchen table 50 miles from pavement, “eastern Montana has to grow on you.” Even though I really enjoy the country for what it offers and how it looks (at least in certain light), it is an acquired taste. Timing matters. Lack of preparation, common sense, even luck, is inevitably punished, sometimes harshly.

Now, I was just out there for a few days … but while sitting up there on the bench above Frenchman Creek, admiring Canada with Tom DePuydt, I admitted I felt just a hair “small,” maybe a bit intimidated. Tom laughed and said he’d never felt that way, at least not at home, with friends who would come if he needed help.

His comment pretty much reaffirmed what makes Montana “real,” at least for me, giving me something to ponder on the drive home:
There are still many regions of Montana where, for lack of a better term, folks are just plain old “Montana nice.” Even the wino in Wolf Point who scored my “spare change” was Montana nice, courteously staying downwind – way classier than any Seattle or New York wino.

How come?

For starters, there is a pretty high proportion of long-term, multi-generational residents. You’re stuck with your neighbors, your family, pretty much forever. If you burn your bridges, you don’t just move on to another bridge. Nope … you’ll need help rebuilding the bridge you torched, dummy, so be nice.

Next, it seems to me the harsher the country, the nicer folks are. Life is tough enough and there’s no point in making it tougher, right?

So, I had a great trip. Not because I got lost on my way to the last best place, but because I know the real Montana is found in the last best people.