Big Sky Country—Our Road Trip To Family Through Montana’s History

Montana from the seat of a combine.

No real names were harmed in the making of this film. I mean blog.

This blog is sponsored by Tire Rama and Fix-A-Flat! Hot air when you need it (unlike this blog)!

For our first summer road trip, please check out Land of the Tall Faces.

Last month (August) we road-tripped it for a second time to the great state of Montana to visit friends and relatives. Over 2,000 miles of a roundtrip in a week. What beautiful country! My wife is originally from Montana, and I’ve been there several times over the past 20 years, but this time we made several stops along the way, instead of our usual “destination” trips of screaming from Point A to Point B in the shortest amount of time possible.

First off, loads of road work toward Great Falls from the south! We travelled on Sundays to and from the state, which really saved our bacon (and it was hot), so we mercifully missed out on all that fun, but still found large portions of road literally ripped up and ready to be re-paved…or literally nothing left of asphalt but that gravel base (yeah, that was a slow joy to drive…). One minute you’re on paved road, toolin’ along at a good clip, and the next—wham!—there’s no road in front of you and you’re jumblin’ along on crushed rock. For 10 miles. I still can’t see quite straight.

Note to self:  keep Ferrari at home. You know, were I to own one.

For our first stop, we visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield, at the intersection of Montana’s I-90/87

Last Stand Hill--RIP, 7th Cavalry, June 25, 1876.

Last Stand Hill–RIP, 7th Cavalry, June 25, 1876.

and Highway 212, on the Crow Reservation. I love things-historical. On the day we stopped it was hotter than blue blazes, and, it turns out, that’s how it was June 25th and 26th, 1876, when 260 soldiers and attached personnel met their death at the hands of thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Never under-estimate your enemy, my friends. But, as a National Battlefield speaker mentioned (we stopped just in time to get in on a tour guide’s description of the battle), it was not just a last stand for Custer and his men, but also for the Native American way of life.

Why DID the Crow fight WITH the White Man?

Why DID the Crow fight WITH the White Man?

While there, I seemed to be following along with a Native American family touring near us, and the kids had asked a great question (this question was implied by the answer the adult member of the family pointed out to the kids), about why Native Americans were actually helping Custer and fighting beside him and his men. The father pointed out a display that answered that—that the Crow had always been warring with three other tribes (Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho), and that to help the White Man fight their common enemy would make them a friend to the Crow…but also help preserve their beautiful country, rather than destroy it. I found that interesting.

Custer and Men, June 25, 1876: marked where they died.

Custer and Men, June 25, 1876: marked where they died.

The battlefield was quite poignant. All the markers were where soldiers and Native Americans had fallen during battle.  Up on a knoll just NNE of the Visitor’s Center was the small cluster of headstones marking Last Stand Hill, where Custer, and the men directly under him, fell. Their actual bodies were later moved to the ground under the large marker atop of the hill (a handful of bodies that were moved elsewhere; Custer’s body was also removed and is interred at the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, N.Y.) but seeing where everyone died really hits home. My imagination ran wild. Seeing Custer’s marker in the center of all the other markers, imagining their end, the thoughts that ran through their minds leading up to all this.  Did they all wake up that final morning knowing they were gonna die? Were there any “weird” portends to their deaths? Good Lord, what a massacre. What miscommunication. What hubris.

Native American Memorial

Native American Memorial

On the other side of the knoll was were the Native Americans were (some Native American markers exist, but right after the battle, the dead Native Americans had been removed from the battlefield), including an interesting Horse Memorial. We only spent an hour there, so we just took in the last 20 minutes of the Park Ranger presentation, checked out Last Stand Hill, and the Native American memorial off to its north, and checked out the some of the National Cemetery alongside the road where we parked. It was fascinating to have finally visited this battlefield, where my interest is constantly rekindled every time I watch the Twilight Zone episode, “The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms.”

Fort Benton Bridge, 1887--first bridge to span the Missouri in Montana.

Fort Benton Bridge, 1887–first bridge to span the Missouri in Montana.

Our next stop was Fort Benton, MT. We overnighted at Greats Falls, after a long day of driving the previous day, and (as also mentioned) driving through large areas of ripped-up road. Fort Benton,  nicknamed, “The Birthplace of Montana,” experienced its first recorded “white visitor” in 1806, when Captain Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, beat a hasty retreat from the Blackfoot by canoe down the Missouri River. Fort Benton was later established as a fur trading outpost in 1847, and prospered well with steamboat traffic (1859) and the gold strike (1862), until, oddly enough, the advent of ye old railroad (i.e., with the advent of the cross-country railroad, no longer was this interior port town as much of a necessity as it used to be). Fort Benton also gained a reputation as the West’s toughest town, sporting the “The Bloodiest Block in the West”title, with signs detailing the lawlessness along the main street (aptly called, “Main Street”) to prove it. This single block of businesses that faced the Missouri levee was the heart of western commerce with its saloons, dance halls, and brothels, some of which ran 24-hours a day. From early spring to until the winter freeze.

Also in Fort Benton is the world-famous story of a dog, named “Shep.”

A Dog Named "Shep."

A Dog Named “Shep.”

In August of 1936 (cooincidentally, our trip was in August—cue Twilight Zone music…), a casket containing a sheepherder’s body was loaded onto a train, bound for the East. Along with the casket followed a dog of collie strain and anxious, watchful eye.

Imagine being that dog…how many years you’ve been at your owner’s side, his companion, his best buddy, and he’s there for you—it’s just you and him and hard work—and then…he’s just gone.

Forever.

That dog, who’d come to be known as “Shep,” returned to the train station with every train that passed through, four times a day, until its death, in 1942. That’s six continuous-without-fail-devoted-years to waiting for his owner’s return. Here’s Shep’s story, and if you don’t shed a tear, you’re not human. Or an ardent cat lover.

Shep Met His Last Train January 12, 1942.

Shep Met His Last Train January 12, 1942.

A memorial to Shep was created atop a bluff overlooking the railway depot, a bluff from which Shep was said to have watched these trains, waiting (or pining?) for his owner. It’s a short walk (I think it took me about 7 minutes, one way, bein’ “brisk” about it) across rock and dirt, but in the incredible heat of the day, I found myself thinking, gee, a person really could die just trying to get to this site—or were one to be lost out in the middle of nowhere with no water—and don’t even talk about lack of shade…

Was my insurance paid up?

Had I recently told my wife I loved her?

Okay…well, all this in a tiny little town easily missed and driven past if you don’t make the right turn off open Montana road, Highway 87. Don’t blink.

Speechless.

Speechless.

Onward, we continued, north, until but a stone’s toss from Canada, where we stayed with some of my wife’s relatives—literally out in the middle of those vast, rolling acres of wheat. Talk about quiet. Sunsets. Stars and the Moon. There were fires raging somewhere, so we had some spectacular sunsets. Wow.

1680 Axial-Flow Case International Combine

1680 Axial-Flow Case International Combine

While there, I was just able to hitch a ride on a combine and see the season’s final swipe of a wheat harvest. I also was able to see some of the whole wheat “farming” process—loading the feed trucks from the combine, taking it to the grain train “elevators,” and loading a personal grainery. Was also fascinating learning about how a combine actually works, cutting up the wheat, sifting it for the wheat kernels, then spitting out the chaff out the back. Cool piece of machinery, that one—and they’re air-conditioned. And being back on a farm felt good. Though growing up on my family’s “farm” was nothing like these literally thousands of acres out here Montana farmers own, it brought back old times, in terms of the old tools and buildings and such (I grew up in a c. 1880s home). Poking my nose into decrepid barns and

Load 'em up!

Load ’em up!

abandoned homes (not tellin where I did this…!). Imagining back into the past…when all this stuff was new…what the lives of the people were back then. How backbreakingly hard the work was then. Not that it’s necessarily “easy” today (it’s all relative, my friends), but the hours, the continued effort. Equipment maintenance. You gotta know a lot about a lot, cause you’re it out there in the middle of those vast wheat fields. It all gave us quite a different perspective, in driving past all that open space and what “out in the boondocks” can mean. What actually exists out there. There many be thousands of acres between homes, but there’s also a whole new world out there, way back from the main drags of the state, and they all know each other and each other’s business. It is, in the perfect definition of the term,  a community. People wave to you as they drive past (and, there’s an unwritten [well, not any more, I just wrote it down…] practice when driving past one and other on those little dirt and gravel roads:  slow down as you approach each other; it lessens the smashing and cracking of windshields to both parties from flying debris).

Yeah, we see you. You want us to move...you hafta come over and MAKE us move.

Yeah, we see you. You want us to move…you hafta come over and MAKE us move.

And the wildlife! Hawks, ground owls, coyotes. Deer. Eagles. Sure, we obviously have them in Colorado and elsewhere, but I’d never heard of nor seen an actual Burrowing Owl (one that actually burrows into the ground, or takes over ground-hog holes), and seeing them so close. And hawks were like the ubiquitous pidgeon in Colorado. They’re everywhere.

Entrance to Havre Beneath The Streets, Havre, Montana.

Entrance to Havre Beneath The Streets, Havre, Montana.

We also took a rather interesting tour in the town of Havre, Montana, called “Beneath the Streets.” Back in the early 1900s, Havre burned down—not just once, but twice. The town then decided to build beneath its streets, and to this day, some of those subterranean areas remain (though only for tours, not current commercial commerce): a post office, dentist, bar, bordello (dang it, sorry, those pictures didn’t come out; perhaps spectral humility?), pharmacy, and a barber shop, to just name a few. Fascinating, though not for the claustrophobic, by any means. It was run by a businessman-of-the-day, named Shorty Young. Some thought him a not-at-all-savory individual, who performed all manner of illegal activity while alive—but when I spoke with the museum after having returned was told that, really, it wasn’t that he was “unsavory,” as he ran businesses, and the businesses in the town he lived in happened to involve what would today be termed “unsavory” (ok, maybe even then, but apparently, to him, money was money). When he died he donated huge sums of money to charity.

We also visited a live Hutterite colony. Hutterites have gained recent “fame” from a NGS TV show called, American Colony: Meet the Hutterites.

Hutterite Colony

Hutterite Colony

So, here we are, driving into this colony (we called first, before even setting out on the drive), out in the middle of nowhere, seemingly more removed than the the middle of the thosuands of acres of wheat fields we’d already been staying in, and it’s quiet and empty.  On the colony grounds are unattended graineries and equipment.

Dust blowing, empty buildings and machinery everywhere. Nary a soul. Not even a cat.

We pull up to an open metal barn. A a tractor is parked before it.

Out of it, emerges a single guy.

Then out of nowhere, they come.

They emerge in groups of one or two…men seemingly “materializing out of the woodwork”—or fieldwork…from different buildings. From within the barn. From…”other places”…they suddenly populate the landscape around us….

Suddenly there’s someone under the tractor. I swear he hadn’t been there when we first arrived.

Another couple men are suddenly crawling around the tractor like ants, working on it, that I also swear had not been there earlier.

Then, he comes, one lone individual in particular makes his way over to us…and one or two other men divert toward him, toward us….

This one “particular” lone individual turns out to be the colony’s leader, and he’s all smiles and handshakes and rather outgoing, and before we know it, we’re on our way, touring the colony….

Oh, the imagination came mess with your head, sometimes!

Disclaimer: I jest about their apparent “mystical properites” above, but I don’t want the Hutterites to feel I’m portarying them negatively nor as anything “mystical.” I’m not. Just taking literary liberties for blog effect. I highly respect them and their culture. They’re a good people.

U.S.-Canadian Border.

U.S.-Canadian Border.

They’re all attired in similar garb, with similar patterns, and all them—whether in their dark jackets or shirts or skirts—are dusty. They are sturdy people, used to hard work, and it shows in their manner, but they are also friendly, humble, and open. They are aware of the world outside their colony and quick and easy to laugh and joke around with, though, especially the women we met, a bit more reserved than, say, someone like me, who can be loud and wise-cracking. Needless to say, I throttled back me personality and wise-cracking some.

A couple men and women (I’m not giving out names to respect privacy) gave us our tour. The colony leader was quick to point out, however, that they are none too pleased with this Meet the Hutterites show, and simply do not understand why that colony had decided to participate in the show, short of some kind of possible financial remuneration. I’ve seen the show, and actually kinda like it, though can see why the colonies might feel the way they do, if this man’s opinion really is colony gospel.

The Hutterites we met were friendly (though they seemed, to me, initially [and understandably] a little wary) and quite open, and we were quite honored that they allowed us into their world and openly shared it with us. These people were so genuine, open, and clearly hard-working. They allowed us into their world, and it was a cool glimpse into another way of life by a pacifist people who love their God and their world. They took us all over their colony showing us their garden (and what a vast garden it was—grew Montana watermelon!), various stock rooms, church, meat processing, laundry center, and even one of the colony’s personal living quarters—and all of it spic-and-span commerical-grade shiny bright clean. These people have living down to a fine art and they seem extremely business minded, and everything they do is utilitarian and shared. But then, that’s their communal way of life. We bought lots of fruit and vegetables, and they were extremely fair in their prices. It was an honor meeting with them.

Awesome.

Awesome.

Next day, we traveled farther eastward, to Glasgow, in eastern Montana, and visited a handful of friends and family there, and family related activity. While in Glasgow, we got a flat tire—all the miles I’ve driven between both east and west coasts over my lifetime and I’ve never had a flat! Thankfully, the flat occurred in a neighborhood and only minutes away from a Tire Rama. And I didn’t even have to change the tire—I credit the ease of fixing the tire to Fix-A-Flat.

Thanks, Fix-A Flat!

This stuff worked great!  You shake up the can for 30 seconds, then spray it into the tire. Not sure how long it’s actually good for, but it gives you enough air to get back on the road, and comes in different tire sizes. Gotta get me some more of that stuff. Anyway, while the tire was being filled, we took a walk to visit another friend of the family in an Assisted Living home, nearby, who we were actually on the way to see in the first place. We had to be back at a certain time, because Tire Rama was closing, and—funny thing—when we walked back to pick up the car, we had to cross train tracks.

Guess what happened.

Yeah, Amtrak. Decided to stop.

Thanks, Amtrak.

The tire shop was literally on the other side.  I could have spit and hit our car, which we saw from between the rail cars.

Sunnofa—

Glasgow, MT Train Station.

Glasgow, MT Train Station.

Luckily, we were told that trains are only supposed to be stopped like that for a limited amount of time, eight minutes, I think it was (it was some state or national ruling), but as we stood there watching our time ticking away to closing (I think we had five minutes or less), another fricking train pulls in behind Amtrak!

What the

And this was some long-assed, 100-car beast!

Waiting for another eight minutes plus the time (which took for fricking ever) for that behemoth to creep by (yes, I mean creep! and it did!) would put us way past closing (and I swear it actually slowed up a couple times as it crept by—maybe even backed up once, just to show off—taunting us…), and we’d be stuck without our car, which we could see 30 feet in front of us! As I talked with an Amtrak employee on the Amtrak train, he told me they were ready to leave, but didn’t know anything about that other train…and his tone of voice was almost like that of the Wizard of Oz, as the Wizard talked to Dorothy as his balloon lifted off from Oz without her….

I thought—I’m pretty quick, if I could just jump between the cars….

Well, we called Tire Rama, and they laughed…and told us to enjoy the view. They’d leave the light on for us….

Thanks, Tire Rama!

Those Lost in The Fort Peck Slide of Sept 22, 1938

Those Lost in The Fort Peck Slide of Sept 22, 1938

The last leg of our trip took us to another set of my wife’s relatives (one of these relatives worked at Fort Peck’s power plant) and Fort Peck Dam. The Fort Peck Dam, just south of Glasgow, was authorized by President Roosevelt in 1933, and was completed in 1940, and created an economic boom as thousands of jobs were created. At peak construction, 10,546 people were employed, and if you consider 1930s Montana, that was quite a feat! The construction of this dam is mind-boggling, engineered by the Army’s Corps of Engineers. I won’t go into all of it, because you can read it here, but holy crap. Essentially, they drove 4 miles worth of steel sheet piling down through 160 feet of alluvial deposits until it hit the shale, below the river bed. This was to prevent water from leaking under the dam, once constructed. Then they dredged out huge sections of the Missouri river and dumped this dredge and clay over this steel sheeting, for a height of about 250 feet. There had been a setback, when, in 1938, a huge section of the dam fell away, killing a handful of men. A recent memorial had been set up for them (and the rest of the people who had also died during the 7-years of dam construction), some of which are still interred within the actual dam itself.

But what an incredible feat of engineering!

Our drive home was relaxing and beautiful…until just inside the Colorado border (sorry, Colorado…), when the Interstate filled back up with our usual Indy 500 fare, and people began cutting us off.

Welcome back to civilization.

Adieu....

Adieu….

Gone were the wheat fields and Big Sky country. Sparse population. The friendly waves from passing drivers. Those incredible summer sunsets. Some of you elsewhere might laugh at this, given that Colorado itself is considered “open country,” but take a trip to Montana where Ford trucks are the norm, and “amber waves of grain” really has actual, functional meaning, and you’ll get my drift. While in Montana, living among the wheat fields, we could feel the stress leach out our bodies. There was a different kind of Time there.

And we liked it.

It’s not that we don’t like our life in Colorado—heck, everyone needs to get away, even those who live in Montana—but, oh, the slower pace in life was so nice! While roaming the farm in Montana, I actually thought back to my Colorado life, it’s hustle and busy-ness, even to the rock music I listen to there, and it all felt so alien and so distant. I wondered: was that life real? A dream?

A dream to some…a nightmare to others!

Were we to live here in Montana, would I be able to listen to the same rock music? Work out? Be who I know myself to currently be (see, I can be a little more, uh, “tightly wound” sometimes…)? Would my language and thoughts be overtaken by such terms as CRP, graineries, and 1680 Axial-Flow Case International combines?

And how would I feel when I returned to Colorado?  Would my “previous life” Before Vacation come back, creep back, be kept at bay? Could I return to the Fast Pace and gym workouts? My novel? Or could we just stay here, wandering the thousands of acres and do something to keep ourselves up in Montana (and rent the land to farmers), out of the Rat Race…?

Yeah, I actually thought of these things.

Montana’s a blast, their people are great—but so are other places on Earth. And our lives are what we make of them—and I’d miss trees, especially the leafy, deciduous kind. I’m sure were we to move to Montana, then take trips to Colorado, we’d be thinking…man, we miss Colorado.

Sigh.

There’s no place like home.

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About fpdorchak

Paranormal fiction author.
This entry was posted in Leisure, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Big Sky Country—Our Road Trip To Family Through Montana’s History

  1. Ron H says:

    This is where much of the most incredible scenery in the world is hiding… also where people like Teddy Kaczinsky and the Order hide out. My sister lives in Bozeman so we keeping planning a trip up but just haven’t gotten it done — or as they say in Big Sky Country – “haven’t getted ‘r dun.”

    It would not be intelligent of me to go there right now. I’m skinny as a rail and my hair is really-really long now. And lightish gray so it could be mistaken for blond at distance.

    Don’t wanna get confused for somebody channeling Georgie Armstrong!

    Great pics, Frank. Glad you had a great time in “almost heaven.”

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  5. Oh, even an ardent cat lover can adore Shep’s story! 😉

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