I have discovered a new appreciation for the word VAST. It describes Eastern Montana, both the land and the sky. And the distances: I have spent more than a week of extended mileage heading east, yet the state goes on and on! This is one BIG place.
As I descended from Marias Pass over the Rockies, it was as if a switch was turned: no more trees, wide-open landscape, a whole new, open world out in front of me. What an awesome place! I feel like a land mariner on a huge open sea: the gentle swells of land rise and fall, with views left, right, center and behind as far as the eye can see.
(Note how straight Highway 2 is in what is called the “North Line” acr0ss E. Montana)
The difference from the mountains and trees of my first three weeks is stark. The high plains are rolling and remote. Yet populated by resilient and friendly folk. My first campsite in East Glacier MT was a result of a recommendation from the woman running a tiny cafe west of Marias Pass; she made coffee for me in the morning before I continued east. When I pulled into Hinsdale MT, a local suggested we (me and two other cyclists) stay in the basement of the Lutheran church in order to avoid the mosquitoes and gnats; she insisted on cooking breakfast for us the next morning. Road Angels are everywhere! The kindness of strangers is wonderful.
First, I put the Rockies in the rear-view mirror and focused on heading east.
This is Indian country, in a big way, with many large reservations. First I crossed the Blackfeet Indian Rez, on the east side of the Rockies, including a stop at the neat little Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning. Later I’ve crossed and/or stayed in the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations. These areas are home to the Blackfeet, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Siouxe tribes. Just this morning I was talking with a local in Wolf Point; when I told him I started in the Macah reservation at Neah Bay, WA, he was instantly more friendly, and assured me that now that I was in “Siouxe country,” all would be fine.
(A diorama from the Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning MT)
In the tiny town of Hingham MT (population 118), I stayed in the town park, on a Friday night. As luck would have it, a local grain company was hosting a burgers-and-beers night at the park for the area farmers. They invited me in: free burgers and beer, and a chance to chat with the locals. Nice people, all. They were incredulous of my trip, and talked reverently of the local land and its history, since to a person they had been born in the town or grew up within 50 miles. Weather is always a big conversation item among farmers, and here was no exception. When I mentioned that the Two Medicine area near where I camped in East Glacier got an inch of hail the night before, it was clear that I had used a four-letter word: to a person, conversation ceased momentarily as all the farmers thumbed their cell phones checking their weather radar apps as we hunkered under the picnic shelter with the latest thunderstorm raging outside. They told stories of losing more than $100K of crops just last Fourth of July because of hail. Definitely a concern among these folks.
The locals lamented the slow demise of these small farming towns along the “North Line” (the towns spread east-to-west along the old Great Northern railroad line as well as U.S. 2 highway).
(My campsite in the park at Hingham, MT, which used to be ringed by vibrant businesses.)
Locals my age talked about being part of graduating classes of 50 in the town’s high school; today there is one high school for four towns, and this year’s class has 13 students. The farmers acknowledged that the the trend is driven by economic factors: they now farm three- and four-times the acreage per family, and require fewer workers to do so because of increases in technology, thus there are fewer jobs to hold onto the kids who grow up here. The community is still close, and the hometown values clear. It was really fun to spend an evening with them — it renewed my sense that we Americans are far more similar than different.
In Havre MT (pronounced “Have ‘er”), I came across a “Buffalo Jump” — an incredible archeological site where Native Americans for thousands of years lured buffalo over the bluffs to their death within a small area. The ground is full of millions of buffalo bones in layers feet thick.
(Buffalo bones feet thick in the area of a “jump” where natives lured the animals over a steep bluff by the Milk River, Havre, MT.)
In the tiny town of Dodson MT (population 124), I met Al Minugh in the only “cafe” there. He started some coffee for me, then we spent two hours talking about his life, including many years in Seattle working on radio towers. He set up the high towers on Queen Anne Hill and fixed lights on the spike atop the Space Needle. He was locally famous in 1962 when he helped the University of Washington take down a prank flag from UBC by shinnying up the 90-foot tall flag pole on campus; his photo was on the front page of the Seattle P.I., which he proudly showed me a copy of. What a treat to find this guy out in the middle of the wheat fields with stories to tell about Seattle in the 1960s.
(Al Minugh in Dodson MT — famous as a flag-pole climber in Seattle in the 1960s.)
The wide open farmland of Eastern Montana continues relentlessly as I peddle east: high plains dry-land wheat, then peas and lentils, and lots of range land.
As well as lots off straight-as-an-arrow roads to ride down the middle of. Amazing country that seems to go on-and-on without end!
I met a great couple from Salem, Oregon, who are cycling the same route: Sherry Therens and Cindy Flugum. It has been fun to get to know them as we cycle together off and on over the past few days. They hope to finish in Maine sometime in the fall.
(Sherry and Cindy, my cycling mates for a few days in Eastern Montana.)
I’ll close with a perspective shot. I’ve been posting daily map updates on the “Where’s Dave?” page, focused as much as I can on the states involved. Here is my first post of the progress to date for the whole continent. I’ve traveled just over 1500 miles as of today, and the experience so far has been fantastic. I have a long way left to go!
Thanks for all your continued interest and support for my trip. I love hearing from you. Onward I go into North Dakota within a few days, and ever eastward.
— Dave (posted June 14, 2016)