Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West. We recommend that you use the Gallery View option to enjoy these photographs.

When I arrived at the crossroads of Cartersville Road and Highway 446, I expected to photograph only a decrepit old schoolhouse; after all, I was searching for a vanished town called Cartersville, which had shrunk so small that Montana's state government dropped it from the official state highway map. Instead, I saw signs of life: two farm kids standing on a truck in the field while their grandmother drove a combine. They led me to several farming families, who steered me to an old-timer who had lived there his entire life, and they filled me in on the history of Cartersville.

That was just one of the intriguing experiences I had in my recent exploration of nine towns that were erased from the Montana map 12 years ago. I also visited nine tiny towns that the state considered erasing but ultimately kept on the map.

Their stories, past and present, offered an unusual perspective on the fragility of place in the rural West. These towns were the smallest of the small -- one family, one year-round resident, one schoolhouse or one grain elevator. Ironically, I discovered that some towns that had vanished from the map more than a decade ago had as much life in them as some that remained.

If the last man in Horton, Mont., hadn't been struck by a train, Horton might not have vanished from Montana's highway map. One hundred fifty miles away, the community of Flatwillow faced the same fate, but the town's two families fought for their spot on the map and won.

For a photographer and adventurer, this was the perfect lens for exploring Montana. I found honest characters, back-roads lessons in history and unique Montana landscapes. After 7,000 miles on the road, I learned what the Montana Department of Transportation learned: When you propose erasing a town, it's about so much more than just words on a map.

The next time you itch for adventure, pull out an old map and compare it to a new map. Look for towns in your state that have seemingly disappeared. Hit the gravel roads in search of homestead shacks, abandoned post offices, grain elevators, schoolhouses and stories of places that used to be.

Jeremy Lurgio is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, and an assistant professor of photojournalism and multimedia at The University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula, Mont. His full "Lost & Found Montana" project can be viewed at www.lostandfoundmontana.com.