Across the West: Oregon to Montana, “The Last Best Place”*

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Cousin Betty Jean Hackman on the Castle Mountain Ranch, where she lived until age 12


On Saturday, July 15, I flew to Phoenix (first time at the splendidly-named Sky Harbor Airport in 23 years) and on to Medford, in southwestern Oregon.  It was so wonderful to fly over, and then be back in, The West.  Looking down on the endlessly varied landscapes, I was slack-jawed, mouth agape.  I was once again smitten with the region.


Scenes from the dry West: northeastern Arizona, irrigated valley, the edge of Phoenix


Like an atomic bomb: this cloud was part of an isolated cell that visited torrential rain on Arizona; remarkably, the latent energy in these clouds is equivalent to that from a nuclear blast. Nature is powerful.


From the wetter West: the Sierra Nevada after a snowy winter; Lake Tahoe at left, and Mount Shasta

My brother Jim and sister-in-law Pam welcomed me to Oregon, hugs and kisses.  It had been way too long, eight years, since I had been out to see them.  On my first visit in 1999, I thought it was scenic.  A decade later, 2009, it seemed more beautiful, and as we descended and drove from the airport I thought it lovelier still.  Gentle, green-clad mountains, vineyards, golden fields and grass.  It’s a Mediterranean climate, hot and dry on summer days and cool enough to open the windows by 9 pm.

We made fast for Frau Kemmling’s Schoolhouse Brewhouse, a German restaurant in a former (1908) school in Jacksonville, a town of about 2,500 six miles west of Medford (which has about 200,000 in the metro area).  J’ville, as locals call it, is a pleasant historic mining and timber town, which began with gold fever in 1851-52.  We sat in the beer garden and had some brew, a nice meal, and a lot of splendid talk.  My brother and I had been talking about a road trip to our father’s Montana roots, and it was about to happen.  We were bouncing up and down with excitement.  Drove a few miles south to their wonderful house in the country, climbing 500 feet in elevation.  Ate a cookie and promptly fell asleep just after nine.

Up before sunrise the next morning, downstairs for coffee, then a good yak with Jim and a pancake breakfast.  Helped Jim clean the gutters, then hopped in the car, down the hill for a walk around town, starting in the historic Jacksonville cemetery, and on through some pleasant residential areas.  Back home, I did another chore, trimming the merlot and syrah grapevines in his terraced back yard (each fall he harvests a few pounds of grapes).  Ate a light lunch, took a nap, pretty much chilled in preparation for two long days of driving.  We had a couple of beers on the patio, and Pam brought out some family photo albums, which were great fun.  I can relate to her late parents: mom Bea was a stewardess (as they were called back in the day) on DC-3s, when she met dad Paul, who Western Airlines hired in 1952 and kept on until mandatory retirement at 60 in 1995 – 43 years of flying, the last ten or so after Delta bought WAL.  Had a lovely meal of pasta and salad, walked the yard a bit, and was asleep early, so excited to be heading on the road.

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Scenes from the Brittons’ backyard: doe and fawns, laurel bark, a tiny vineyard

I kept telling Jim and Pam “You’re so fortunate to live here,” but every time I made that remark it failed to register.  For locals, there’s no comparator.  But there is for me.


Hummingbirds at dinner; Jim and Pam feed lots of winged friends

Up before six, cup of coffee, nice cooked breakfast (thanks, Jim!), then out the door at 8:30.  The day 1 drive was long but wonderful, 520 miles through a range of landscapes to Boise, Idaho.  Started out climbing a pass over the Cascades and into the Klamath Valley.  We stopped briefly at the Running Y Ranch, a lovely planned development on the south shore of the huge Klamath Lake.  Jim showed me the wonderful building lot Pam and he bought, and on which they hope to build a house.  Really cool place.

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One of the only clear snaps from two days of driving: Mount McLoughlin in the Cascade Range

A little detour: as a geographer, I have long enjoyed snapping photos along the way, but my brother, although also a geographer, seemed to want to make time, so, alas there are almost no photos to post on the blog from two days of driving across spectacular country.

We skirted Klamath Falls.  I thought once you were east of the Cascades you were into flat country, but we rose and dropped over at least half a dozen mountain passes as we headed east-northeast.  And there were spectacular sites, like the huge Lake Abert and the Malheur River Valley.  We crossed the Snake River and entered Idaho, onto Interstate 84, and into Boise.  Jim booked a room right at the Boise Airport, figuring I’d like the sounds of nearby jets.  We were worn out, and, happily, a basic eatery was right across the street.  Ambled across, tucked into a big meal and a local brew, and clocked out.

Up Tuesday, out the door, back onto Interstate 84 southeast to Mountain Home, quick breakfast, then east on U.S. Highway 20.  Again we were climbing passes and descending into irrigated green valleys, across southern Idaho, through Arco, past the Idaho National (nuclear) Laboratory, around Rexburg.  That day and before, I was reminded many times that in the West water is everything; folks in the well-watered Eastern part of the nation – including lots of leaders in Washington – fail to understand that basic reality of life.


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Roadside spring near West Yellowstone, Montana

Just past noon the jagged “teeth” of the Tetons poked out of the eastern horizon.  Started climbing, up and up and into Montana just west of West Yellowstone.  So I could gawk, Jim drove the last 90 miles to Bozeman, down the spectacular Gallatin River Valley.  We were in our motel room by 4:15, showers, relaxing after another 460 miles.  An hour later, we were out the door and across a splendid college town (Montana State University) to the Bozeman Brewing Company, the city’s oldest craft brewer (since 2001!).  Had a great T-t-S with John, the taproom manager, and tucked into a pint of splendid IPA.


At seven we were at the front door of our cousin Betty Hackmann (nee Britton, b. 1945), who I had not seen in more than half a century.  She showed us around her house, which brims with her art and that of others.  Enjoyed a nice dinner and the start of catching up, as well as learning from her recollection of Britton family history.  It got complicated early on: in 1918 our ne’er-do-well paternal grandfather Albert abandoned his wife and four kids (Betty’s dad Harold, then 16, Constance, 14, Mildred, 8, and our dad Clifford, 4).  Constance stayed in Montana, but about a decade later grandmother Florence, Harold, Mildred, and dad moved east to Sioux City.  Harold soon returned to Montana and the other three went on to Chicago, where they were able to move out of poverty and into some modicum of comfort.  We’ve lost track of Constance, but Harold went on to manage a big Montana cattle ranch (more on that in a moment) and more.  It was a great evening.

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Cousin Betty in her basement art and photo studio

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Uncle Harold, fearless bronc rider, 1922

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There’s a reason they call Montana “Big Sky Country”!

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Our motel “beacon”

Wednesday, July 19, was as full and wonderful a day as I’ve had in a long time.  Jim and I were up by seven, breakfast, and back over to Cousin Betty’s.  I hopped in Betty’s big Ford and Jim followed behind, motoring north out of Bozeman into the Bridger Mountains toward Betty’s hometown of White Sulphur Springs, seat of Meagher (pronounced “Marr”) County, population 900.  First stop was the cemetery, to see the graves of Uncle Harold (1902-1975) and Aunt Dorothy (1909-2001).

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The Bridger Mountains, above and below


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Just before 11, we introduced ourselves to Bev Fryer, co-manager of the Castle Mountain Ranch, the huge spread that Uncle Harold managed from 1932 to 1957, and that we last visited in 1956.  More than six decades later, memories of that visit are still fresh in my mind: the cookhouse where we ate with the cowboys, Bertha the cook, fearlessly riding a horse at age four (the last time I felt confident on one), and more.  The low hills above the ranch were just as I remembered.


On the ranch, 1956


We learned a lot about Bev and Ed that day.  They were both from the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains in south-central Montana, and had been ranchers since graduating from Montana State in the 1970s.  Their first jobs sounded spare, working on a ranch called the Flying D, south and west in the Gallatin Valley (Bev referred to those years as “BB,” and I immediately grabbed the reference – CNN founder Ted Turner bought the spread and they were there before Ted’s bison).  They had been at Castle Mountain for 20 years.

We hopped in Bev’s red Suburban and headed out for a look around just a small part of the ranch.  Bev told us they tended 3000 cows and 1500 yearlings across tens of thousands of acres.  Although they’ve made “modern” improvements in irrigation, watering, hay cultivation, and such, old-school practices remain: they still use draft horses for winter feeding (“saves on fuel and they always start on cold mornings,” said Bev).  Several hundred elk roam the ranch, and Bev was proud of their stewardship of those majestic wild beasts.  Paying off the remark above about lean years early in their marriage, she said “back then, when we were young and starting out, we hunted elk, it was our only meat.”

We caught up with Ed, who was running a very cool hay-bale stacker.  When you’re putting up winter forage for a big herd, you need lots of hay, and we watched Ed drive a Stinger hay stacker and mover, lifting enormous bales that weigh 750 pounds and are equal to the 10 smaller bales I remember stacking when I worked summers on the Kellys’ dairy farm in Wisconsin.  Ed motored the Stinger toward us, parked, and we met.

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Above and below: scenes from Castle Mountain Ranch

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Bev, Ed, Betty, Jim, and I headed into White Sulphur Springs for lunch.  Ed’s first choice was packed, so we drove on to the Branding Iron.  Ed and Bev knew lots of folks in for lunch, and Betty said hello to a few.  I reckoned it would be disloyal to order anything other than beef, and I tucked into a wonderful hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and lots of rich gravy.  We yakked about a lot of stuff, including the Fryers’ two boys, one still on the ranch, and the other not far away after many years of working in Geneva and Shanghai for Cargill, the grain trader and processor.  Like my late Wisconsin farm friends David and Katherine, these were people rooted to the land, but wordly, too.

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Bev and Ed Fryer; next time you tuck into a burger or steak, tip your hat their way!

For the three days that we were in farm and ranch country in three states, I kept thinking about the hard and precarious life of people who work the land.  I have long understood and respected them – a perspective more city people and politicians need to embrace (for just a glimpse of that life and work, take a look at this video of winter on the ranch).  At the end of the meal, I looked Ed in the eye and told him how thankful I was for what he and Bev did every day.  As expected, he was modest, and thoughtful in his reply: “Well, Rob, we are grateful for consumers like you; we need you as well.”

After lunch, we drove back with Bev to the ranch, and said goodbye.  Jim and I checked into the motel (our home for the next three nights), said goodbye to Betty, and took a short nap.  At five motored into town to the 2 Basset Brewery, a microbrewery Jim found on the Internet.  What a place!  In no time we met co-owner Barry Hedrich and his daughter Molly, who had just finished nursing school and landed a job in the neurosurgery unit at the Mayo Clinic.   We had a long T-t-S yak with Carter, a retired dispatcher from Montana Rail Link, a mid-size railway in the state.  We enjoyed two pints of some seriously good beer.  And of course we asked Barry and Molly about the brewery namesakes, Leroy and Stanley, learning that they don’t much like to visit in the heat of the afternoon (we met them two days later, in early morning).  Refreshed, we drove back to the Branding Iron for a light dinner and clocked out early, way tired from a splendid day.


Happy scenes from the 2 Bassets Brewery

We “slept in” until 6:45 on Thursday morning.  Before breakfast, I ambled around White Sulphur Springs, snapping pictures.  After a bowl of cereal and coffee at the motel, I walked a block to the Forest Service office and met Nancy at the desk.  She provided ideas for our day, and we set off, north on U.S. Highway 89 and into the Little Belt Mountains to Memorial Falls, a splendid small cascade in the woods.  It was a short, easy hike to the lower and upper falls, through beautiful forest.  Back in the car to WSS (as locals write it), quick sandwich lunch, then in the car again.  We refueled at the Conoco, where Gerald washed every window on the car not once but twice.  As we gassed up we yakked a bit, and got a reco for dinner that night.


Houses in White Sulphur Springs: fancy (“The Castle”), comfy, and in need of work; below, scenes from town and Memorial Falls



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We headed west, soon on dirt roads, 18 miles to Gipsy Lake in the Big Belt Mountains (Nancy from the Forest Service suggested it, an easily accessible mountain lake).  We hoped for a trail all the way around, but could only go about one-fourth of the way.  Still lovely.  Back down the hill, and into town.  Jim took a nap and I headed to the tiny county library to try to do some research on the “old days,” but there were no references, and the heavily tatted young librarian (I was hoping for an old timer who really knew stuff) pointed me to the Meagher County Historical Society in the old house known locally as “the Castle” (it was built in 1905 by the Donohoes, second owners of the Castle Mountain Ranch).  I met volunteer Helen Dupea, told her a little about the family, especially Uncle Harold (who she remembered), but they didn’t have anything helpful.  She suggested the clerk of Meagher County, so I stopped at the courthouse, but the friendly young woman only had records for land ownership, and water and mineral rights.  Back to the motel, shower, and on to beer at the 2 Bassets.  WSS is a small place: Helen was there, as was Nancy from the Forest Service!  Enjoyed a couple of pints, then motored south to The Roadhouse, which Gerald from the Conoco recommended.  Jim and I both tucked into a walleye dinner.  On the way out, we spotted Gerald and thanked him for his guidance!

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On the way to Gipsy Lake (below)

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Montana wildflowers


Splendid taxidermy in the Meagher County Courthouse

Four days into a flawless trip, we hit a small snag Friday morning.  After an amble around town, which included a stop at 2 Bassets to meet Leroy and Stanley (Barry was brewing, the hounds were paddling around the tasting room), we headed south to Ringling, a shrinking burg that was once on the main line of The Milwaukee Road (a major Chicago-Seattle railway, now part of either the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, BNSF, or the Union Pacific); the Milwaukee’s main line through Ringling was long gone, and we worked hard to spot the former right of way.

After a two-minute drive around town, we set off for our morning destination, Maudlow, where dad and sibs lived with our grandmother until moving east.  The dirt road was bumpy, our map was not that detailed, and even though I had a GPS signal on my smartphone, I reckoned we were lost about 10 miles southwest of Ringling.  So we turned around (we later learned we were headed the right way, deep sigh), back north.  At the intersection of U.S. 12, a major east-west road, we headed west, across the Big Belt Mountains, for lunch in Townsend.  It was a well-kept town, seat of Broadwater County, right on the Missouri River, which was flowing north toward a huge reservoir and Great Falls.  Great burger, nice chat, then north a mile to the river for some pictures.

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On the road to Maudlow


The Missouri River at Townsend; Lewis and Clark paddled here in 1804

Back in White Sulphur Springs, I dropped Jim for a nap and headed to the self-service car wash to clean the dust off his car.  I worked up a thirst, so stopped at the historic Stockman Bar for a cold one; it was right across Main Street from the 2 Basset, and the Stockman had their beer on tap.  The place was echoing with decades of cowboy voices (the celebrated Montana novelist Ivan Doig spent time there with his dad, and wrote about it in his autobiographical essay This House of Sky), plus a beautiful carved-oak back bar with columns and mirrors, just way cool.


At this point, it’s probably redundant to write that Montana was fertile ground for my Talking to Strangers impulse; here are three vignettes from Friday:

> With Ethan, 19, son of the current owner of the Stockman. I gave him our brief family story, and he remarked that his uncle is current county sheriff.  Made me wonder: would he have hired Uncle Harold?

> With Ernie and Alice Bachsler a couple hours later at the 2 Basset.  Ernie’s dad emigrated from the ethnically German part of Romania in 1919, stowed away on a ship, and somehow made his way to North Dakota, south of New Salem.  Ernie and Alice moved west to Seattle with their five kids, and after retiring moved to Montana – “much better weather,” said Ernie.

> With Dale Luchterhand, known as Red, who I met after dinner (found the best place to eat in town, the Bar 47), when I ambled up a side street to take a picture of The Castle.  Dale was yet another memorable fellow, a former Wisconsin dairy farmer squeezed out, cowboying in Meagher County since 2006, and about to head off to Dillon, in southwestern Montana, to learn bootmaking.  Whew!

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Dale Luchterhand, cowboy

We were up before six on Saturday morning, into the car, and south on U.S. 89, then west on Interstate 90, across the Yellowstone River, over the south end of the Bridger Mountains, and into Bozeman.  First stop was to retrieve my iPhone charger at the motel where we stayed Tuesday (smooth recovery from a senior moment Wednesday morning); then for a short stroll on the tidy, compact campus of Montana State University; then to the Nova Café on Main Street to meet Jim’s long pal Boone, friends since the late 1970s.  Through the years, Jim often spoke about Boone, cyclist, inventor, entrepreneur, original-thinking architect, and nice fellow.  He was that and more.  We had a great chat and a fine breakfast.  Last stop before the airport was a quick detour to Cousin Betty’s to meet her beloved Dwain, just back from a week of backcountry adventures on his ATV.  Jim had met Dwain previously (he has a daughter in Oregon), but I had not, and it was fun to yak with him, albeit briefly.


On the campus of Montana State University: “Old Main,” and the College of Engineering; below, Main Street, Bozeman


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Dwain and Betty

At 11:45, Jim dropped me at Bozeman airport.  Kisses and hugs, and hugs again.  It had been, as Jim predicted months ago, an epic trip.  Better than epic.  As we approached the terminal, he said it was one of the best weeks in his life, and I agreed.  Through the years, we’ve not been as close as we should have been, but that week we were close.  I waved goodbye with tears in my eyes.

Bozeman airport was teeming with tourists.  At the security checkpoint, I spotted a last “you’re in Montana” image: signs noting that bear spray was prohibited beyond the screening area!  The flight to Chicago was seriously late, and I missed my connecting flight to Washington.  The experienced traveler always has a Plan B, and after we took off for O’Hare I mapped it out: a United flight into Washington Dulles.  Thanks ro onboard wi-fi, I fixed up a standby ticket on United.  Sprinted across the vast ORD terminal complex and made it to the United gate 20 minutes before departure, but there was a snag (long story, about travel privileges for employees of other airlines) and the gate agent could not give me a seat.  Plan C was executed: two hours in the Admirals Club until it closed at 10, then 6 hours of sleep on a bench outside the club entrance (I slept fairly well, raincoat over me to darken the light), back into the club when it opened at 4, a bit more sleep, a shower, and a 6:55 flight home.  A minor bump at the end of a wonderful journey back.


* Montana writer William Kittredge coined that apt description in a 1989 anthology of stories and essays from the state.


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The icy waters of Memorial Creek give new meaning to “chilling”!


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