Three days in eastern Montana

  • A visitor prospects the grassland south of Ekalaka, Mont., for prehistoric remnants from the Western Interior Seaway.

    Matthew LaRubbio
  • A bull snake killed on a road outside the town of Belt.

    Matthew LaRubbio
  • A wild horse tries to shake off one more cowboy at the Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City.

    Matthew LaRubbio
  • Andrew Miller takes morning inventory at his family's roadside grocery store in Moore.

    Matthew LaRubbio
  • Montana towns memorialize Charles M. Russell through place names and statues like this one in Chinook.

    Matthew LaRubbio
 

The bull erupted from its pen, plunged toward the dirt, kicked its hooves into the air and sprayed grainy shit across my face.

None of the bull-riders and cowboys winced like I did. Cow crap is as common in their lives as sunlight and coffee. "It's just something you'll have to experience for yourself," the small-town folks I'd met had told me, referring to the annual Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City, Mont. There I stood, mingling with manure, on day two of a three-day sojourn in the lonesome prairie country of eastern Montana.

Most people know the Big Sky State for Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It or for Glacier National Park. They picture dense forests crawling with wildlife or crystal creeks cascading from alpine lakes. That's a portrait of the western half. The eastern side is less visited, more open and moves at a much slower tempo.

Spend a night at the O'Haire Motor Inn in Great Falls, where you can indulge in fried food and flamboyant drinks at the infamous Sip ‘n' Dip tiki lounge before voyaging through this sea of grass. If you have time, visit the home and studio of the Western romantic artist, Charles M. Russell, who spent the last 20 years of his life painting cowboys and Indians in a log cabin studio built with cedar telephone poles. He'd sit on the porch, smoking Durham tobacco and spinning yarns about the time he spent learning the cowboy way. Even back in the 1920s, Russell lamented that this was no longer Nature's country.

Russell was right, and the thought left me solemn. But I took solace in discovering that almost 100 years later, humans still struggle to live out here.

Mobile phones don't often work between towns, and towns out here are few and far between. So don't rely on your smartphone as a route finder. An atlas is fine, but true road dogs depend on the Montana Atlas & Gazetteer, which depicts nearly every back road in the state. That way, while you're on your way to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge -- 166 miles on the most direct route -- you'll know where to detour to eat a gigantic burger in Utica and wander through Russell's youthful cowboy haunts. You can continue south to Sapphire Village, where the famous Yogo sapphires are mined. They gave tours until a recent accident shut down mining operations, but the drive is still worth it. Keep the Gazetteer handy because you don't want to get lost on these country roads. It's easy to do: This country's so remote, you can camp along the roadside without bother. You might be able to break down, deplete your provisions and die without bother, too. So be prepared: Fill a five-gallon jug of water, pack a cooler and bring camping gear.

On Highway 87, on your way to the Charles M. Russell Refuge, visit the Big Sky Grocery, run by the Amish family of Reuben and Linda Miller. Nine of their 12 children helped build the roadside store in April 2011. Sandwiches are $3 and milkshakes are $1.50. When I asked Reuben if there was anything else in the area worth seeing, he suggested a local timber mill run by another Amish family. That might not be your typical sightseeing suggestion, but it indicates an elemental, practical view of the world.

This area of the Great Northern Plains is a sea of grass. But mountain clusters like the Little Snowies offer dark islands of pines. Small canyons and coulees occasionally split the plains, especially in places like the Russell Refuge, where I met Bob Skinner, biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, at the Sand Creek Ranger Station. He and refuge specialist Dan Harrell drove us down a gravel road along the Missouri River. We passed a prairie dog town that Skinner said was there when Lewis and Clark visited. Then, Harrell turned onto a two-track toward the uplands. We crouched in the grass, identifying the plains' most nutritious and productive plants and forbs. The winterfat and chokecherry and golden currant and silver buffaloberry that deer, elk, birds and insects love have nearly vanished from prairielands because of grazing and fire suppression. If you visit, take these guys up on their offer to give you a tour. You'll never see grassland the same way again.