In 1841, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet founded the Montana Territory's first mission, St. Mary's, in the Bitterroot Valley. In 1847, about 100 miles northeast across the Continental Divide, on the Missouri River, the American Fur Company built Fort Benton. In 1859, Congress gave Lt. John Mullan $100,000 to build a 624-mile road between Fort Benton and Fort Walla Walla, another fur-trading post in Washington, opening the Northwest to soldiers, settlers, miners and traders. By 1870, Montana prospectors and cattle ranchers numbered 20,000. On July 4, 1872, John Featherman, William Dingwall and Allen McPhail -- merchants and cattlemen -- founded New Chicago, Mont., on Mullan Road, as a commercial trade and transportation center along the probable route of the newly formed Northern Pacific Railroad.
* * *
Ten in the morning on the last Saturday of October, as I steep my umpteenth ginger tea of the week, Nick and Crow make their entrance. "Big field day," says Crow.
"Gonna find all my sheep," Nick says.
"Gonna test my new rifle," says Crow.
"Got to do it all before hunting season," Nick says.
"Get out of town," says Crow. "Way out."
Their plan is to start east along I-90, climb south at Highway 1, wind west at Highway 39, and finally circle back to Missoula in a large loop tied by Highway 93. Nick wants to find the sheep he's studying, and Crow wants to field-test a rifle he's using in his raven research, so they'll spend at least as much time off road as on. My runny eyes shoot from my friends to the phone book a few feet away. I have no idea where, if anywhere, New Chicago, lies along the way. Surely, however, an all-day adventure can accommodate at least one dramatic detour.
"You coming?" asks Nick.
"He's coming," nods Crow.
I pull jeans on over my pajamas, throw on a stained sweatshirt, and exchange my slippers for hiking boots. I toss two water bottles, a box of tissues and a library copy of Tarzan of the Apes in the back of Nick's Isuzu. The guys observe in silence.
"C'mon." I utter my first words outdoors in 72 hours.
* * *
Despite Mark Beaubien's doubts, in August of 1833, 150 Chicago settlers gathered at his hotel, the Sauganash, to sign papers of incorporation. By the end of the year, the town population numbered closer to 250, including newcomers drawn in anticipation of the Potawatomi Indians' forced cession of 5 million acres to the federal government, as well as a state-sponsored canal connecting Chicago with the Mississippi River. Three howitzer blasts from Fort Dearborn opened groundbreaking ceremonies July 4, 1836.
Chicago survived the 1837 financial panic as a shipping and supply center for Western homesteaders. In January of 1848, the first telegraph line reached the city; in March, the Chicago Board of Trade first convened over a flour store near the river to trade grain and livestock; and in November, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad delivered its first trainload of wheat. When the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific in 1869 in the Promontory Mountains of northern Utah, Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, now president of the Union Pacific, hammered in the "Golden Spike."
* * *
We parallel the cold waters of the Clark Fork River upstream past Milltown Dam, a local political flashpoint. "REMOVE THE DAM, RESTORE THE RIVER," reads one popular local bumper sticker. "REMOVE MISSOULA, RESTORE THE VALLEY," reads another. Railroad tracks emerge between the road and the river. The rough curves of the Garnet and Sapphire mountain ranges gather the sky like a bowl. For a few miles, the highway jogs south. Pickup trucks and 18-wheelers blast past at 75 mph in the slow lane. We pull over, Crow takes out his birding binoculars, and Nick sets up his equipment. What looks like a car battery wired to a television antenna buzzes with static.
Nick holds the antenna higher. More buzzing. He shakes his head. For this stuff to work he had to spend a month the previous spring hiking up and down avalanche chutes, finding and collaring bighorn sheep. "They're not here," Nick says.
Crow, meanwhile, spots his subject here as he has every couple miles along the route. "That's why it's so great to study ravens," he says. "They're everywhere."
* * *
New Chicago soon included two hotels, two stores, a flour mill, several livery stables, a blacksmith and a stage station. A contemporary photograph shows the main street crowded with almost two dozen horse-drawn covered freight wagons, part of a regular caravan from Salt Lake City. Inhabitants enjoyed a post office, of which John Featherman was the postmaster, a telegraph station, and a Wells Fargo branch. Complementing these were two saloons and a Methodist Episcopal church. In 1874, the village invested $1,000 in a white schoolhouse to serve pupils from "6 years to 6 feet."
* * *
On the road again, we pass domesticated buffalo on a checkerboard range of high yellow grass and brown-black excrement. A metal bridge carries us over a stalled Canadian Pacific engine linked to what looks like two oil tanks. We turn left up a dirt hill where the radio signal range will be greater, stopping before an abandoned power-line post the height of a basketball hoop, topped with frayed wires tangled in knots by the wind. Bunchgrass and knapweed cushion us from road noise. Nick turns on the telemetry equipment and adjusts its settings. Tinny beeps echo slowly from inside the leather case.
"I hear them," Nick says, "but they're far away."