Sunday, 10/1: We bade farewell to Gwen, Dannyelle and Johnpaul, and drove west into Montana on SR 2, chasing a cloud-obscured sunset. We crossed into the Mountain Time Zone, gaining an hour and perhaps a bit more dusk. Two and a half hours later, we stopped at a tall-ceilinged old hotel in tiny Fort Peck. We clattered up a long wooden staircase to the lobby. Fishermen had taken up nearly every room. All the creaky historical hotel had available was a second-story room with a bathtub.
2: Glasgow, Montana
There was nowhere else to stay in town; so we drove on to Glasgow. Here, twenty minutes’ drive away from the attractions of Lake Peck, there were plenty of rooms at a modern motel, the Cottonwood Inn.
Our plans for the coming days; find Thoeny (“Teeny”), MT — John’s birthplace and now a ghost town. Continue west, closely following the Canadian border, to Glacier National Park.
Monday 10/2: A winter storm was approaching over northern Montana. I ‘found an online map displaying Montana road conditions. It showed the roads in different colors signifying dry, wet, slush, ice, blowing snow, etc. The roads west of Glasgow didn’t look good. We decided to give up our quest for Thoeny; it’s too far out on the northern prairie, and will have to wait for a future trip. We stayed in Glasgow for a day to wait for better road conditions.
Our Cottonwood Inn motel let us move to a larger room without charging any more rent, and let us use a second desk chair and suitcase stand. It had a passable restaurant; good breakfast, mediocre dinner. Only a few people were eating when we were there. Glasgow’s streets were wide but had little traffic. We shopped a bit and gassed up the car in the life-sucking wind.
Tuesday 10/3: This morning I got up early and crossed the parking lot for a swim, and discovered that wet snow was falling. Two people stood in a corner of the indoor pool talking, as if it were a Roman bath. Afterward I had breakfast in the motel restaurant. The room went dark; Glasgow’s power had failed. The desk clerk assured me that my room key-card would still work. Ten minutes later, the power came on again.
The online road conditions map showed that, unlike the northwestern route we’d planned to drive, the way south and east was clear. So much for Great Falls and Glacier National Park. We bundled up in our warmest waterproof layers and drove south to the Fort Peck Dam.
The dam looks strange to eyes accustomed to Washington’s concrete-wall dams such as Grand Coulee. It’s a huge, gently-sloping, grassy hill. The Interpretive Center is actually an impressive museum with a large dinosaur exhibit; the monsters were common along the shores of the ancient sea whose bottom now forms Montana’s prairies and badlands. Many fossils have been found here; some “firsts,” some “largests,” and some unique in the world of paleontology.
A small exhibit about the dam is in the back of the museum; it was a depression-era project conducted with an eye to creating jobs. Despite an emphasis on safety, 60 people were killed in the course of the project. The bodies of some men who died in a mudslide were never found and are supposed to be entombed in the dam.
We continued south and west to Jordan, buffeted by wind and snow showers. The worn little town clings to a crossing of two back roads on the crest of the prairie. A sign warned that cattle were loose on the road, but those we saw were in the fields, being good. We refilled the gas tank at a little store that didn’t want us to pay in advance. It was 39 degrees F. The weather and road conditions looked okay, so we set course southwest for Billings.
Snow-speckled, desolate hills separated long stretches of undulating grassland. We saw dozens of small brown deer idling near the road and perhaps looking to cross it. We saw some abandoned farms, and stopped to take pictures of one near Roundup. I found that a section of its fence had been patched with bedsprings, an improvisation that must have a sad story behind it.
4: Billings, Montana
We reached Billings at dark and had dinner at Tao New Asian, an elegant little restaurant with Japanese, Chinese and Thai offerings. What a contrast between city and country!
I asked for some miso soup. The waiter explained that, altho miso soup was on the menu, they no longer offered it, because not enough Montanans will eat it. He went to the kitchen to ask the chef if he could make a bowl of it for me, but returned to report that the chef had no miso paste that day.
Wednesday 10/4: We had a fine second breakfast at the Four B’s Cafe across the street from our motel. Pat asked a motel employee where we might hike, and she suggested Zimmerman Park. It encompasses meadows, bluffs and a sheer cliff that forms the north side of the Yellowstone River valley. We walked a network of trails that led up to steep boulder-strewn slopes with splendid views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Here there was no need to worry about falling off a cliff or stepping on a rattlesnake. Those things don’t happen in a city park!
A big cloud drifted up the valley from the west, spoiling the sunset. It looked like rain, so we turned back to the car. We had good salads for dinner (Santa Fe Chicken Salad for me) at CJ’s Bar And Grill. When we came out it was raining.
Thursday 10/5: By means of a supreme effort we managed to check out at 10:20am. We had an evening date with Pat’s brother Tim and his wife Cathy in Anaconda.
On our way west we stopped at Madison Buffalo Jump State Historic Site. Before Spanish interlopers brought horses to North America, an Indian community would drive a herd of buffalo off the cliff, kill the animals that survived the fall, process them using every part, and put the meat by for winter. We followed a trail to a hilltop below the cliff. It gave a fine view of the broad, grassy valley where buffalo once roamed.
Our next stop was Missouri Headwaters State Park. Here at “three forks” the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison Rivers join to form the Missouri River. The pretty rivers join in a meadow surrounded by low mountains. The 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition had camped a mile from Three Forks on its way to the Pacific. Their Indian interpreter Sacajawea recognized that this area was where she had lived as a girl before being kidnapped by another tribe. Eventually she was reunited with her brother and the chief.
The nearby ruin of an 1868 hotel, held together with massive wood beams, is all that remains of the town of Gallatin. Speculators had started it in the early 1800s, hoping to profit by supplying gold prospectors. But a waterfall further down the river made steamboat transportation to the eastern US impossible. In desperation they moved the town across the river, but apparently still above the fall; in a few years it faded away. Nearby farmers tore down part of the hotel for its wood.
5: Anaconda, Montana
We reached Anaconda at dusk. East of town we drove past long black mounds speckled with snow. These are copper smelter tailings; a few tall smokestacks and foundations are all that remains of the smelters. Tim and Cathy met us outside the Copper Bowl bowling alley. We gave Tim the rest of the Relics. He’d originally given a collection of flint arrowheads and other stone tools to John. It was intriguing to imagine people making such implements on which their lives depended.
Tim took us on a car tour of the mine tailing reprocessing plant that he manages. The tailings, he explained, are mostly iron silicate; the iron content is 65%, rich enough that another business is considering refining it. The material also contains arsenic and other toxic substances. It’s dangerous if heated, and its dust is also dangerous. The smelter had melted copper ore; the tailings material had risen to the top, to be removed and piped in a watery slurry to the tailing pile. Water used in the process was sent to settling ponds and then dumped into the river, dying it lurid colors and killing everything in or near the water, even plant life. Tim told us that much of the land has since been reclaimed. He had a part in this work; as a train engineer he’d driven trains carrying removed material to a repository across the valley from Anaconda.
The reprocessing company’s conveyor belts carry the material through a spinning tank with hot air blowing thru it, like a giant clothes dryer. Next it’s conveyed into a screening building. Two grades of sand are stored in silos; the remainder is returned to the tailings mound. The fine sand is bagged and sold for use in sandblasting; it’s well-suited for this, because it’s half again as heavy as normal sand. The coarse sand is bagged or loaded into covered-hopper rail cars or trucks for use in manufacturing asphalt shingles.
On our way out, Tim pointed out a large warehouse across the road. “That’s full of equipment we could use, like a 50-pound bag filler,” he said. “The people who own it used to run a smaller reprocessing operation where our plant is now. They neglected to pay their lease to Asarco for eight years; so Asarco put a lien on the plant and kicked them out. They’ve gone to court several times to try to get the plant back; but they’ve always lost. And they’re too mad about it to sell us that equipment.”
Tim and Cathy took us to dinner at O’Bella, a nice little Italian restaurant nearby. We looked at pictures of their grandkids and had a fine visit until the restaurant asked us to leave to make way for a large group. We drove on to Missoula; not in the mood for Ruby’s Inn again, we stayed in a large Best Western.
6: Missoula, Montana
Friday 10/6: I got up early, thanks to the alarm clock that the last person in our room had set, and went downstairs for a swim. The pool had no changing room, so I’d hoped to slip thru the corner of the lobby in my swimming suit unnoticed. Two employees were chatting there. “Well, look at YOU!” One woman exclaimed. “Are you on your way to the pool?”
“Yup,” I said.
Pat and I had breakfast together. She dropped me off at the end of a different branch of the Clark Fork River bicycle trail. It tunnels under Reserve Street, Missoula’s most overloaded arterial, and weaves thru a residential area to the riverbank, joining the main trail where I’d ridden on the second day of this trip. It was a beautiful fall day with warm sunlight sparkling in the river, and more color in the leaves than before. I crossed a cute little suspension bridge to an East Missoula park. I rode to the Canyon River Golf Community, where the trail ends across the street from a nice pond garden. On the ride back, cold shadows stretched across the path and a gusty wind rushed down the river valley.
We had dinner at Perkins with Pat’s Aunt Ginny and cousins Kim and Sandy. I saw an elderly woman at the next table struggling to reach her cane that had fallen into the aisle, and went over to help her back into her seat and prop up her cane. I had Santa Fe avocado salad, giving Pat the avocado, and lemon meringue pie for dessert.
Sunday 10/9: While taking a load out to the car, I met a middle-aged couple in the elevator. He was holding a bouquet, and she held a pot of flowers with bits of tinsel. “I don’t often see people traveling with flowers,” I said. They explained that they’d come to Missoula for their daughter’s funeral service. Their daughter had cancer, and they’d often stayed at this motel while visiting and caring for her. The staff had come to know them, and the flowers and a card were from the staff.
Showers and gusty winds opposed our drive west. We saw the base of a large rainbow as we left Missoula. Lunch was in the funky deli in a back corner of the Pilgrim Foods grocery store in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Beyond the Rockies we crossed eastern Washington’s flat, grassy prairie on the ruler-straight highway.
By the time we’d crossed the Columbia River the setting sun was getting in our eyes. We stopped in Kittitas to wait out the sunset in Olmstead Place State Park, an old farm with a large collection of antique farm machinery. The tours had ended an hour before, and the park was empty. A ranger hurried over to see whether we had an annual park pass; I was hanging it on the mirror while Pat talked to him. He suggested a footpath that followed a stream, and we had a short stroll. Windmills lined the low ridge beyond the fields to the southeast.
Dinner was at Ellensburg’s Dakota Cafe, the best restaurant of the trip; pot roast for me. Pat was eager to be home, so we drove on into the Cascade Mountains thru a pounding rainstorm. It didn’t let up until we’d crested Snoqualmie Pass.
There’s no place like home!