On Monday, June 22, Linda dropped me at National Airport at six a.m. I was nearly bouncing in my seat as the Airbus A319 rolled down Runway 19. Everyone onboard was wearing masks, and the American Airlines’ flight attendant read a friendly but firm warning not to remove them in flight. Changed planes at Dallas/Fort Worth and headed north on a packed flight to Bozeman, Montana. An English prof at Montana State University in Bozeman had it right when he described the state as “the last best place” (the title of an anthology he edited), and I was happy to be heading there.
On the 737 north, I was in seat 10A, a window seat without a window. Staring at the plastic sidewall, I was reminded of a flight with Jack 30 years earlier, home to Minnesota. We were sitting in last row of a Fokker jet also in a windowless window seat, so we drew one with the crayons and paper from his little plastic briefcase. As I recall, the scene beyond had a beach and palm trees. On this flight, to make things worse, neither the window in the row ahead nor behind was open. I wondered, nearly aloud, what is wrong with people? We’re flying above the Mountain West, some of the most exceptional natural landscapes in the world, and they want dark? As we descended, I did steal a few glimpses out windows across the aisle: ridgelines and meadows with snow and puffy clouds. The West.
Imagine my delight when we landed; I walked up the jetbridge, and right out the huge windows, not ten miles away, were the Bridger Mountains. It was an emotional sight, for I was in Montana, birthplace of my father; as I mentioned to a researcher at the Montana Historical Society two days later, the state is a place woven into me, that feels part of me, and I of it.
Just as we left the concourse, two soldiers from the Montana National Guard were taking everyone’s temperature, with permission. Nice. At the Hertz counter, the agent offered an enormous GMC Yukon; I had reserved a small Nissan SUV (2,000 pounds lighter, I checked!), and Hertz said they didn’t have any smaller SUVs, nor even a smaller sedan. But in the parking lot there were a dozen of those cars, so I returned, got a Dodge Durango (still big, but closer), and headed west on Interstate 90. I was on the road, and I was pumped, more so as the fuel-burn meter slowly inched above 20 MPG.
First stop was Missoula, 195 miles west. I skirted Butte, the legendary copper-mining town, then past the huge Anaconda copper smelter smokestack west of town. It was mid-afternoon, and I was hungry, so I pulled off the highway at Deer Lodge, to a McDonald’s drive-thru, for a chocolate shake. Time for my first T-t-S with a Montanan, a young woman cashier. “You’re lucky to live here,” I said. She agreed. No one was in line behind me, and she wanted to talk more, about where I was from, where I was going, why I was in Deer Lodge. She told me about the winter, which had extended into mid-June, a blizzard that dropped 15 inches.
I’ve been on a lot of Interstate highways in my life; I-90 in the Clark Fork Valley was one of the most scenic. And in no time I was in Missoula, a mile off the highway, ringing the doorbell of Jim Carlson, who was one of six Jims in my third-grade class in 1959. I saw him a year earlier, at our 50th high-school reunion, and mentioned that I visit Montana from time to time. “Come see us,” he said. So there I was, greeting him with an elbow bump.
We sat in his stunning backyard garden and got caught up. I knew that in 1969, two months after graduating high school together he moved to Missoula and enrolled at the University of Montana, but I really didn’t know much about his life in the half-century since then – nor he of mine. His girlfriend Tess came over. We finished our beer. No one locks their doors in Missoula, he told me. Hopped in Tess’ car and headed across town to Bayern, a microbrewery and restaurant. Along the way, a guided tour of the pleasant small city. Had a nice dinner. Was asleep by 9:15.
Was up early Tuesday, so excited to be on the ground. Borrowed Jim’s bike and rode across the Clark Fork River (named for William Clark, who with Meriwether Lewis explored this part of the country on their 1803-06 expedition) and around the U of M campus, leafy and pleasant. Back home for a quick breakfast and out the door in my car, with Jim as guide.
We headed north on U.S. Highway 93, into the Flathead Indian Reservation, formally the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. The rez looked far better than I expected; and big, almost 2,000 square miles. Down a hill and along the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi. Into Bigfork, in the northeast corner of the lake, for an ice cream. Small, but touristy. East onto Montana Highway 83, south between the Mission and Swan ranges. Jim is an environmental scientist, so was a superb interpreter of the natural and cultural landscape. And we yakked about a lot of other stuff.
Picked up sandwiches in the little town of Seeley Lake, and ate them in a state campground on the lake. Up and then down into the Blackfoot Valley, Jim pointing out the approximate location of the family cabin on a ridgeline to the south. At Bonner, a former timber milling town, we U-turned into the Kettle House Brewery, right on the river, then back home for a needed shower.
Tess came over, and Jim’s younger child Chris, who lives in California, returned from an overnight camping trip. A lively conversation before and during dinner. And what a repast: slow-cooked short ribs in natural gravy, roasted vegetables, yeasty bread. Before dinner, I pitted a big pile of cherries (my right hand was purple at the end, with juice-stained fingernails) for cobbler with ice cream. By the time we finished the meal, outdoors in the garden, it was way past my bedtime, in either the Eastern or Mountain time zone. Wished everyone a good night and clocked out.
Wednesday morning I was up early again, out on the bike for another 10 miles on a pleasant bike path along Clark Fork. Home for a shave and quick shower, two cups of strong coffee, half the sandwich from lunch the day before, and out the door. Jim, Tess, and Chris were still sleeping.
Pedal to the metal toward Helena, but rather than the freeway, I zipped east on Montana Highway 200, up the Blackfoot Valley, then south on another highway, then U.S. 12 over the Continental Divide and down a steep slope to Helena, the state capital, last visited in 1956.
There was ample free parking all around the capitol building. I ambled in, picked up a self-guided tour flyer, and set off. The building had been beautifully renovated in 1999-2000, and was a gem. Also empty, enough to think that I could pop in and say hello to the governor. But at the entry to his large office was a sign that read no visitors during COVID, so I waved to a receptionist and said “Please wish Governor Steve a good morning from Rob from Virginia. He’s doing a great job.”
At noon I met Zoe Ann, the historical society researcher who had helped me a lot with genealogical digging. I brought sandwiches from a nearby deli, she brought drinks and a tablecloth, which we draped over a bench in front of her building. Had a great chat, told her the rough outlines of my family story. I said, “I love this place in part because I believe that some of my dad’s best values, ones that he passed on to me like optimism and persistence, came from his early years here.” She liked that. Then I said, “I’ve been talking way too much; over to you . . .” She was a Montana native, from the eastern part of the state. Three daughters. Lots more. The coolest part was that after her girls left for college, she went back to school, too, accepted at a special program for older women at Mount Holyoke College back East (“The people out there are different, no?” I asked, and that prompted vigorous agreement; yes, different, and not in a good way).
After saying goodbye, I went inside for a quick look at two permanent exhibits: works of legendary Montana artist Charlie Russell and a walk through Montana history (wish I had more time for a story very well told); plus a temporary exhibit on Montana Beer. Woo hoo!
Got in the car and headed onto Interstate 15 north, to the first “roots stop”: my dad’s birthplace, 1914, in the Smith River Valley, east of the town of Cascade. Onto the first of many miles of dirt road. I had researched the location of the land my ne’er-do-well grandfather had rented for several years, but still was not 100 percent certain. I drove back a forth a couple of times, then headed up a narrow dirt road onto a (geological) bench, across Hound Creek from the bench that I reckoned was their home. As I was snapping pictures, a car approached. A woman about my age stopped. She was properly cautious at first, then opened up, and we pretty much agreed that I had found the place. Check and done. Back onto pavement, to Ulm, Montana, then back on the freeway to Great Falls.
Checked into my free (with loyalty points) room at Staybridge Suites, dropped my stuff, headed into downtown to the Mighty Mo Brewing Company, the third craft brewery of the trip. I brought my laptop to do some work; asked my server, a cheerful young woman, if it was okay to work and tipple, and she smiled. Had a splendid New England IPA (NEIPA to beer people), then a superb sour beer, called BB Gun, made with blackberry extract. The kitchen doubled the order of the young guy next to me (also working his laptop), and the server offered me a bowl of mac and cheese with chicken. “It’s free,” she said. “I hate to waste food,” I replied, and tucked into a nice dinner.
Outside, a storm was rolling in, but there was time to drive around downtown, past the Cascade County Court House, then east along the Mighty Missouri, downstream to the first and biggest of the waterfalls that name the city. Snapped a couple pix just as the skies opened up.
Asleep early, determined to catch up, and I did: nine hours, tonic. Up at 5:45, a little work, pot of coffee in the room, down to breakfast; COVID ended the normal buffet, but a kind woman brought me a factory cheese omelet with plenty of bacon and sausage. Plus a factory muffin, fruit cup, and juice, and I was set for what would be a long driving day.
The stormy weather from the night before was mostly, but not completely, gone, and I drove east on U.S. 87 in clouds and clear, 40 miles, then onto a dirt road to Spion Kop, where the family had lived around 1910, before my father was born (1914). Once there was a post office and train station, long gone. Britton family place two, check and done. Reversed course, west to tiny Belt, Montana, then north on Montana Highway 331, and into a Western Great Plains landscape that reminded me of Alberta or Saskatchewan; that made sense, because the border of those two provinces was only about 120 miles north.
Drove down a hill and crossed the Missouri River in Fort Benton, a storied place. After the arrival of the first steamboat from St. Louis in 1869, and before the railroad, the town was a hugely important transportation hub: 75% of the freight headed for the Northwest U.S. was unloaded on the levee. Paused for pictures, then headed northeast on U.S. 87 to Big Sandy, then south on a dirt road, 55 miles to a place the family may have lived: in 1902, Albert Britton filed a homestead claim on a quarter-section (0.25 square mile, 160 acres) in what is now southern Blaine County, but it’s not clear they ever occupied the land, and certainly never “proved it up,” that is, secured title to the free ground.
Thanks to Google Earth and GPS, I found the dirt track that led to the parcel; the path looked marginal in a rental car, even my SUV. It was only 1.1 miles to the homestead, and I considered the walk. Ambled a few hundred yards to the gate on the track. The Gasvoda family, proprietors of the Lone Tree Cattle Company, had posted a no-trespassing sign, so I turned around. Motored about a half-mile south, up a hill, and like the day before, had a perfect vista on the homestead parcel. That land is a last piece of the family puzzle: did they live there 1911-13, between Spion Kop and Orr? I still don’t know, but at least saw the land; at about 3900 feet above sea level, hilly, and miles from any transport route (even the Missouri), it didn’t look like a place to build a viable farm.
Motored on, several miles on the flat; then as I approached the Missouri Breaks, passed a yellow caution sign “Road Impassable in Wet Weather.” The road began to descend, down and down, a steep grade. When the road flattened along the river, I had dropped 1500 feet. Whew. The landscape, often called “badlands,” to me look prehistoric; I sort of expected a T. Rex to jump in front of the car, or a pterodactyl to swoop down and grab the car. The Transport Geek was pretty excited about crossing the big river, not on a bridge, but on one of only three remaining free ferries in Montana. Had a brief chat with the pilot (no steering required, it follows a cable).
Pulled off the boat and onto another 25 miles of dirt road, south to Winifred, Montana, where I rejoined pavement, on Montana Highway 236. South to Lewistown, seat of Fergus County. Stopped for lunch at the Big Spring Brewing Company, soup, salad, and a beer. Headed south and west to Harlowton. Here was a quintessentially depressed Western town. It boomed for decades with the Milwaukee Road (one of several transcontinental railways), but never recovered after the Milwaukee tore up the tracks in 1980.
West on U.S. 12. I had been on it a few days earlier, near Missoula. It was the same highway that ran past David and Katherine Kelly’s dairy farm east of Hudson, Wisconsin; the same Highway 12 that my traveling-salesman dad and I drove, west from Minneapolis many times in decades past.
Rolled into White Sulphur Springs, seat of Meagher County, at 4:20, after 365 miles of driving that Thursday. Whew. Was glad to park the car at the Spa Motel. The desk clerk was pretty cranky at first, but I brought her around with politeness. “Yes, ma’am” goes a long way in the West. Worked my email in a small and very spartan (but clean) room, and at five walked two blocks east to 2 Basset Brewery, last visited with brother Jim in 2017. Found a stool at the bar and (finally) brought this journal up to date.
I asked the barmaid about the eponymous hounds. Sadly, Leroy (born 2012), died in early June, but 11-year-old Stanley is still helping to brew. I had a nice chat with Barry, the owner. I remembered some details about his family, and we had a nice yak. At the end of our conversation, he offered his hand, and I shook it. What a welcome connection:
the first handshake with a stranger since – yes, I remember – a guy at McGill University in Montreal on March 10. No handshakes in 107 days. As he drew my last glass, I gave Barry condolences on the loss of Leroy. “It’s hard for Stanley,” he said, and a tear came to my eye. That moment was emblematic of an intense few days, a journey with happy moments and poignant moments. But after being grounded three months, sitting on a bar stool in a friendly little town it felt like (the joy of mobility)2. Whew!
The three hours at 2 Basset were supremely relaxing, maybe the calmest since leaving home, and it was a really nice time. Under Montana law, micro taprooms must close at eight, so I ambled a block to Bar 47 for a pulled-pork sandwich, then back to my room, totally sleepy.
When I checked into the motel the afternoon before, the desk clerk asked if I planned to use the hot-springs pool. I demurred, and she became insistent, in a friendly way, so I promised to take a dip Friday morning. “We open at six,” she said.
By 6:10 a.m., I was immersed in lovely hot water, said to be therapeutic (or as Montanans would say, “good for what ails you”). Had a couple T-t-S with fellow bathers, a geezer from Missoula whose right-wing pronouncements flew over my head, and a very friendly wallboard contractor from Great Falls. After a good soak, I repaired to my room (ten feet from one of the pools), showered, and called the McGuires. Lois answered, and said she was expecting my call, and, yes, they’d like to meet me. We agreed on 10:30, in a couple of hours, and she gave me their new address. In between, I drove around town, then north to the huge cattle ranch that my Uncle Harold managed for two decades, and back to town.
Lois and Jack McGuire, 84 and 89, are aunt and uncle of Sue, the wife of a fellow I knew in graduate school 45 years earlier. A tenuous connection, to be sure, but I long remembered that Sue grew up in White Sulphur Springs, and had emailed her after our 2017 visit. She replied with contact info for Aunt Lois and Uncle Jack, and I wrote them a paper letter a month earlier (Lois told me that Sue had also called them a few days prior).
I rolled up to their modest house a few miles west of town on the dot at 10:30, and immediately fell into conversation with the oldest True Montanans of the trip. Lois immediately made a connection to my Uncle Harold, telling me she went to Sunday School with my cousin Sylvia Lou. Jack had a clear mind (hope I’m as lucid at almost-90) and a great outlook on life. He grew up on the family ranch, but intended to be a schoolteacher, which is what he was doing when his dad called in 1959 and said he needed him back on the ranch. Jack said the ranch was “under water” back then, but with hard work they turned it around. He’s slowing down quite a bit, but still gets around. The ranch up at Sheep Creek spans about 6,000 acres, with another 3,000 in grazing rights on U.S. Forest Service land. They’re running about 500 head of cattle.
We yakked about ranching life, about the past, and lots more. Toward the end of the long conversation in their living room, Jack mentioned that cattle prices have just bounced slightly above average cost of production, a stark fact that perfectly encapsulates the challenge for the tireless people who produce our food. At about 1:00, Jack suggested we go into town, and he’d like to buy me lunch, so we motored a few miles to the Branding Iron Café (I had been there in 2017). Their sons Tim (retired Army officer) and Kevin (still ranching) joined us for a lively time. Lots more memorable quotations from Jack; my fave was this: “The ones that got out of Meagher County agriculture came back in Learjets.” It was a delightful 4.5 hours. I thanked them, shook hands all around, and hopped in the car.
Pedal to the metal toward Bozeman, the first 41 miles at 75 mph, then way, way slower on a winding state highway along the eastern slope of the Bridger Mountains, 37 miles into Bozeman, a landscape reminiscent of Switzerland. It was great to be back, and the town was, on my third visit, familiar. Motored south and east and was soon hugging my cousin Betty in their split-level just east of the city. We visited a bit, then hopped in the car for an early dinner. The plan was for Cousin Cheryl (strictly speaking, a first cousin once removed; her grandmother Constance was my aunt) to join us for dinner, but she was tied up with family matters, so the two of us had a nice meal (I wasn’t too hungry after a patty melt and mound of Tater Tots with the McGuires). Back home, we visited a bit, and as was the pattern all week, was asleep early.
It was great to sleep with windows wide open, waking occasionally by the lonesome horn of a freight train on the old Northern Pacific Railway main line, just a few blocks away. Up early Saturday, to prep and deliver a lecture to Imperial College London MBAs via Zoom, from the basement. As an intro to the talk, I showed a couple of photos from the week, and gave a shout-out to Cousin Betty, who is an aspiring wildlife artist; this work, of a mountain goat, is a fave:
Betty’s husband Dwain returned from his usual summer venue, way up in the Beartooth Range at Cooke City, Montana, to cut the grass on his big orange Husqvarna riding mower (their lot is three acres). At and after a midday dinner of Montana beef, potatoes, and vegetables, Dwain related experiences at Cooke City; he’s been going up there every summer week for years, mainly to ride ATVs with his buddies. A lot of adventure for an 80-year-old, and he clearly loves being there; lives in a trailer he drives up every spring. Like every Western place with scenic amenity, moneyed people are snatching up land. “Quite a lot of Texans,” Dwain said, “with a lot of money.” One fella from Dallas bought a 50-acre mining claim, $2 million. Whew.
After the meal, Dwain went out to finish the yard, and Betty and I drove south to Hyalite Lake, a reservoir actually, and source of Bozeman’s water. The lake was mobbed with people happy to get outdoors after the lockdown. We drove to the end of the lake and a bit further on, then headed back. Took my first nap in almost a week, nice. Had a light supper, yakked more with Dwain and Betty, and climbed into bed to read. Just before turning out the light, a nice email arrived from Jinny Jensen, widow of my long friend and 12th grade English teacher Bud: “Enjoy your time in Montana! I could just picture you spreading your arms to embrace the landscape and the freedom!” So true.
On Sunday morning, I had a good chat with Dwain, discussing our roles as volunteers, living summers in Cooke City, and winter in Montana. Betty and I hopped in my rental car at 9:15, west on I-90, retracing the route of six days earlier, over the Continental Divide and down the hill into Butte, “the richest hill on earth” – $45 billion in metals, mostly copper, have been dug up since the 1869.
We were to meet Betty’s daughter Jill (who I had never met) for lunch at 11:30, so had an hour to drive around town. The copper is played out, and the town is down on its luck. Much of the urban landscape is little changed in a century, which makes it seriously interesting, a city “preserved in amber.” It was reminiscent of Duluth, Minnesota, which boomed about the same time. Duluth is also a bit beat down, but not nearly as much, thanks to tourism. Both cities are seriously overbuilt.
Jill lives in Phoenix, but was working the summer in Montana, as an interior designer and expert in faux wall painting. She brought her friend Monica and Monica’s niece Heidi, and we had a nice lunch at a small chain eatery on the south edge of town. It was raining when we left the restaurant, so we shortened the second half of our Butte tour, then drove through rain back to Bozeman. More kin to meet: we stopped for an hour to say hello to Jill’s oldest son Justin, wife Katie, and baby Remy, 13 months – the youngest of the many True Montanans I met that week.
It was a delightful visit. We yakked about Katie’s digital marketing job (the company is in Chicago, and she has been teleworking long before the virus hit). Her great-uncle was the legendary Montana leader Mike Mansfield, longtime senator then ambassador to Japan. The kind of man that, sadly, is in short supply in Washington. Justin is a full-time weightlifter, trying to make the Olympic team; he showed me a couple of videos, and I then suggested that he pick me up with one arm and twirl me a couple of times. Really nice young people.
We got home about five. I washed my face and headed out to visit three of Bozeman’s craft breweries and have a light dinner. First stop was the place brother Jim and I visited on our epic 2017 road trip, Bozeman Brewing Company. John, a manager we met then, and again when I visited in 2018, had moved back to Kansas City, but I had nice chats with two servers, and enjoyed a pint of sour beer, called Gose in Germany (for non-beerfans, it’s a brewing style that is becoming very popular). Sour connotes unpleasant, so “tart” might be better. As I was leaving, Amber, one of the servers, brought me a sample of their newest sour, Sprig and Spritz, which was a collaboration with a local distiller. She delivered a lot of detail: the brew aged in wine barrels for five months, then steeped in gin botanicals, and more. Those folks are serious about their beer! Stop 1 was way fun. Stop 2, Union Hall right on Main Street, downtown, was just okay, the place clearly trading more on their central location than their beer.
The last stop, Bridger Brewing Company, adjacent to the Montana State University campus, was the best. A big, lively two-level taproom, noisy with young people (as usual, I was two to three times older than the average tippler). Sat at the bar and enjoyed a pint of their coffee stout; the friendly server (wait, wait: when you’re in Montana, that’s redundant, because all servers, and all people, are friendly!) also let me taste a couple of their IPAs. Enjoyed a salad made with local organic greens and homemade vinaigrette. Drove home and clocked out. Another fine day. I was going to miss Montana, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep.
Up early Monday morning, for a few hours of last visiting with Cousin Betty, showing each other old photos, plus my pictures from this trip. Ate breakfast, yakked a bit more, and said goodbye. Drove around Bozeman, filled the gas tank (overall MPG for the trip, 24.3), and stopped for a takeout sandwich at a supermarket adjacent to the Bridger taproom visited the night before. I sort of collect beer mats (paper coasters), and forgot to get a couple the night before. They were not yet open, but a keg was propped against the front door and I ambled in. I politely asked for a few coasters, and an obliging young fellow climbed under a staircase and grabbed 6. Then he pulled out a gimme cap and asked, “Would you wear this?” “For sure,” I replied, and thanked him profusely. The last True Montanan of the trip.
Drove to the airport, worked a bit, and flew to Dallas/Fort Worth, then east to Washington. It was the only trip of the quarter, and it was wonderful.