Having just come back to Seattle from 3 weeks in my home state of Montana, I might have said that my favorite moments were at 10,000 feet at a mountain lake watching my son and grandson catch cutthroat trout. Or maybe it was helping my granddaughter Mia, who is 5, catch her first trout. Or that the best time was walking up to the ledge that we’ve been returning to for 30 years that sits well above the river and that you have to bushwhack through the forest for a quarter mile to get to – a spot where you throw you dry fly down onto the surface to see the brook trout rise to grab that bit of feather tied to a hook and take it for a run.
But as it turns out, for me, one of the best moments were when I was driving from Billings to Lewistown for the 60th wedding anniversary of my cousin Molly and her husband Larry. They’ve been ranching out of Grass Range for the better part of 45 years now and it was a celebration of their life together that I didn’t want to miss. So that got me out of Red Lodge. And after the hour drive to Billings, I headed north toward Lewistown which leaves you with a long drive through the heart of central Montana – realizing that this is probably one of the lowest population densities in the US. It was hot, in the low 90s, as I drove from Billings for the other two hours it takes to get to Lewistown.
There is something about the open road in Montana, that I just never get tired of. I find the two-lane blacktop comforting as it seems to run on – forever – north, on its way to the end of the world, with no one behind you and no one ahead of you. Maybe it is because it hearkens back to my earliest memories – looking out the car window as we drove from Rudyard to Chester on the Montana hi-line to pump our drinking water out of a well with a big long steel handle when I was 4 years old. That is likely my earliest memory, watching the telephone poles go by and the fence posts and wondering why they seemed to go by at different speeds.
I spent the better part of an afternoon with my arm out the window playing with the warm wind – balancing my hand and arm against the force of my 75 miles per hour push through the high desert ranch country – passing through Carbon, Yellowstone, Petroleum, Musselshell, and Fergus counties on the way.
I drove by one sign that said, “Little Snowy Mountains – 25 miles” and from there you could see this little road ramble off to the left toward a pretty small clump of mountains in the distance. I took a mental note that I will take that road one day.
I drove past the twisted remains of once great oak trees – all dehydrated, almost petrified from the lack of moisture. They are so dry that they can’t decay – their bark-less polished limbs frozen in time.
So it was just me, the wind, the endless vistas, and my Spotify playlist as the soundtrack for the drive. Some songs fit the moment better than others – the Honeycutters fit right in with songs like “Lillies” and “Mr Cody” – perfect Western sensibility for the afternoon. Emylou Harris won for Best Song of the day with “Tulsa Queen”.
The air was hot and the only spoiler was a gauze of smoke from the fires this summer. One of the fires was not far off in the distance as I approached Roundup. It rose like a wide grey curtain straight up out of the desert east of town. You could see a fat airplane that was approaching it to drop water or retardant on it. The plane was flying so slowly as it approached to drop its load that looked like a UFO, not moving, like it was out of some sci-fi movie sitting suspended in mid-air.
If you don’t count Grass Range, which is really just a pit stop, Roundup is only town that breaks the pace for nearly 130 miles. You have to slow down as you drive through town. I’d like to say something nice about Roundup but it’s hard to come up with much – she has seen better days. There’s a Winnebago that is jacked up right outside of town with some old wood wrapped around the bottom – like a plywood ribbon. It’s job is to cover the tires I guess. It’s a very dry place. Even the graveyard, just off the highway, has no grass. I’m not sure how they break the sun baked cement colored dirt to bury you there.
Quickly enough though I was back into cruise mode as I headed toward Grass Range. I love solitude and it is surely found in that section of road. The vistas go on forever. Nothing but cows, grass, dirt and sky as far as the eye can see.
The city has a way of putting you in knots. Somewhere along that stretch of road, a couple of them came untied.