Three days in eastern Montana
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.
You can stay on the refuge for the night by either driving to a developed campground, or simply pitch your bivy sack wherever you see fit. In this area of the refuge, you'll want to keep your car tires on the gravel if it's going to rain or else you'll be stuck in muddy gumbo until the land dries out.
My second morning out, I stopped in tiny Ingomar for breakfast at the Jersey Lilly. In the early 1900s, the town sheared and shipped 2 million pounds of wool a year, more than anywhere else in the world. Only 27 people live there now. The streets are dirt. False-front buildings with wooden porches and homestead-era schoolhouses sit on the open prairie, but now they mingle with a couple of trailer homes. Ranchers congregate at the Jersey Lilly at lunchtime for old-world pinto beans and the original shepherd's hors d'oeuvres: crackers, oranges, cheese and onion. It's a good spot if you want to linger because everybody seems to have time to chat.
I left Ingomar for the aforementioned Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City. The event, which attracts worldwide attention and a Dionysian crowd, was designed to be a venue for stockowners to sell bulls and broncs to the wider rodeo circuit. But the wild horse racing seems to stoke the greatest frenzy. The horses are tethered to a rope in a pen with three anxious cowboys on the other side. When the gates open, one man holds onto the rope, another wrestles the horse into a headlock, and the third tries to jump on its back for a goofy ride around the track. It's like witnessing an interspecies street brawl, the wildest you can imagine.
The evening is reserved for drinking and dancing. Three bands played on different stages downtown. Every bar door was propped open with packs of people drifting in and out. I slept in my tent at the fairgrounds and tried to shut out the mayhem; I wanted to get an early start the next morning.
On my final day, I headed south on Highway 212 before turning onto Hammond Road, about 28 miles southeast of Broadus, just to see where it would lead. This chalky gravel road runs through sheep and cattle ranches whose owners have to drive an hour to get to town. The landscape ebbs and flows in a leisurely way. I took two hours to drive 30 miles to the connecting highway and never passed another moving vehicle.
Traveling by automobile doesn't part you from feeling that you are awash in wilderness here. In places, the land lumps up into little mesas or ruffles into boulder clusters, but it predominately rolls along like petrified tides, as if you're driving over an ancient ocean floor. Outside my window, I imagined sea creatures swimming by.
Before hitting Highway 323, I pulled onto a BLM road to catch a view from high ground. A pronghorn watched me from a low, muddy trough. Grasshoppers buzzed and birds chirped so loudly I couldn't hear my footsteps.
At the top of the hill, I sat down on an orange-lichened rock. I took a closer look and realized that the rock was a conglomeration of seashells. This ocean of land was, in fact, once the Western Interior Seaway. Drive a short 20 miles from here into Ekalaka and you'll see the 16-foot skeleton of a 75-million year old Hadrosaur that once roamed the area as the sea retreated. You might also meet a gray-haired receptionist, Gwen Shultz, at the Carter County Museum. Gwen moved to Montana in her 20s to be a rural schoolteacher. She married a local rancher and says she's grateful to live out here. It's not a place that changes quickly, she says -- not like everywhere else.