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Observations From the Road (The “Jeez, Montana is a Big State” Edition)

Montana Landscape

On Friday morning, as we began our second week on the Not All Who Wander Are Lost tour, Claire and I drove the 20 miles up from Fort Peck to Glasgow, Montana where we reconnected with U.S. Route 2.  Now mind you, we had driven two-and-one-half hours in Montana the day before just to get to Fort Peck – which is in the eastern part of the state.  So imagine our surprise when we clicked on the Google maps direction finder to head west to Glacier National Park from Glasgow and the young lady on the smart phone who has become our traveling companion says:

Go west on U.S. Route 2 forever.

Well, I may be exaggerating a bit.

It was actually something like 259 miles. But after a long day of driving through Montana’s plains along the original Hi-Line (New York City’s High Line is late to the party), it seems like forever. This Hi-Line refers to the northernmost route of the Great Northern Railroad and U.S. 2, near the Canadian border.

But, as always, six plus hours in the car gave us a great deal of time to make additional observations.  So here we go – with the “Jeez, Montana is a Big State” edition of Observations From the Road.  (Not to be confused with editions #1, #2, and #3 from this same cross-country trip.)

Round bales have definitely won the Hay Bales War – We have seen at least 3 million bales of hay today – probably 5 million when you add in the North Dakota bales from yesterday. In that whole time, we passed two farms – TWO – that used the old rectangular shaped bales of my youth.  Those must have been “heritage” farms, or else the farmers were just better at keeping their old hay-baling equipment working. You can’t spit in Northern Montana this week without hitting a bale of hay. Actually, truth be told, it looks rather pretty.  And I’m sure the livestock will enjoy it when the snow is five feet deep this winter.

Dinosuers on the Montana Landscape

This is what happens to public art when NEA funding is cut – Just outside of Glasgow, when we were still fresh and not hallucinating from the drive, we slammed on the brakes as we passed a collection of dinosaur sculptures alongside the road. After taking several pictures, we drove on and then saw the sign for the shop where you could purchase one of these for your own backyard.  As you can guess from the scale of the picture, your backyard better be pretty large.

Lunch Box Cafe in Havre

Small town cafes are the best – Today, as part of our “no chains” tour, we stopped in the Lunch Box Cafe in downtown Havre, the largest city on the Hi-Line.  The cafe has dozens of sandwiches, each with a clever description.  (One had Montana in the name, and the menu noted that “It had to be good; otherwise we would have called it the North Dakotan.”)  The little warning above was part of the menu. Claire and I chuckled throughout the entire ordering process.  (And yes, the sandwiches were good, as they bake their own bread.)

Urban areas don’t have anything on Montana when it comes to multi-modal transportation – I began to notice all the ways people get around in Montana after we passed the first dozen or so bicyclists on Route 2.  Most of these were clearly serious cyclists going cross-state (or perhaps cross-country) – many on recumbents.  (I especially liked the guy who had added a bug-shield window to his recumbent.  Very useful, as the windshield on our rental car can attest.) However, in addition to bicycles, we passed several Amtrak stations (and one Amtrak train that clearly had a lot of passengers). Vans and buses were also plentiful, especially on the reservations. And finally, long freight trains were a dime a dozen for the hobo-inclined. I have to say the last (and only) horse and buggy we saw on this trip was in the Amish communities of Wisconsin, outside Spring Green.

Traffic fatalities in Montana occur in the most random places – Speaking of getting around…in Montana, the state marks traffic fatalities with small white crosses.  (I guess you are out of luck if you are Jewish or Muslim.) But we began to notice that they occur in the most random of places – like on stretches of road that go on for miles without a curve. So – as Claire and I are want to do – we started speculating on how these fatalities occurred.  Claire, of course, quickly Googled the question, and found this information on the Montana DOT website. It turns out that these crashes happen in places where you least expect it because Montana has one of the highest alcohol-related fatality rates in the nation per vehicle mile traveled. In addition, inattentiveness, carelessness, and driving speed accounted for over 50% of the crashes in the past 10 years. Just so you know, we haven’t been drinking and driving (despite all the beer references, as we’re usually in for the night or the other person drives after one of us has a beer).  On the speed front, I haven’t been able to drive 75 mph legally since I was a teenager driving before the oil crisis, so sticking to the speed limit works fine for me. And we are staying very attentive (as you can tell from these snappy observations we make along the way).

First glimpse of the Rockies

Not much to be said for the first view of the Rockies from the road that Claire’s beautiful photograph doesn’t already say – Claire was driving probably 70-80 miles out from St. Mary’s (the gateway to Glacier National Park) when she exclaimed, “There are the Rockies.” We had to pull over and take this picture.  I can’t imagine the feeling that must have hit those who came on horseback, or by boat, or by wagon. However, we have some sense of the awe from Meriwether Lewis’ account of May 26, 1805:

“In the after part of the day I also walked out and ascended the river hills which I found sufficiently fortiegueing. on arriving to the summit one of the highest points in the neighbourhood I thought myself well repaid for any labour; as from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time these points of the Rocky Mountains were covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view. while I viewed these mountains I felt a secret plaesure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri; but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I felt in the 1st moments in which I gazed on them; but as I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am compelled to believe differently.”

Buffalo herd in Montana

Somehow our first sighting of Buffalo didn’t bring out the same awe in Claire – We passed this Buffalo herd outside of East Glacier Park this evening, and Claire asked me to turn around so she could get a picture.  We did, and she did…and then she posted it to her Instagram account with the description: “What did the daddy buffalo say to the baby buffalo when he left for school?  #bison. (Groan)

Finally, I’ve decided that the Mark O’Connor/Pinchas Zukerman version of Ashokan Farewell is the perfect soundtrack for large portions of the Montana landscape – Somewhere along the road today, my favorite version of the beautiful and haunting fiddle tune Ashokan Farewell from the Mark O’Connor album Heroes came up on my iPhone playlist. Zukerman begins this version with a fairly straightforward yet incredibly deep statement of the melody, then O’Connor adds a verse that sounds like a country fiddler who has died and gone to heaven.  After the simple yet beautiful guitar lead by Russ Barenberg, O’Connor and Zukerman duet – with Zukerman hitting the final notes that will take your breath away. It fit our mood today, and I hope you’ll enjoy the video from the album. It is a nice, mellow way  to end this post.

More to come…



  1. David

    Following you along on this trip has been fun. The images you and Claire have taken are amazing – i loved the sunflowers, and the church from a few days ago. I also am really excited about this new (to me) version of Ashokan Farewell. It’s a piece I often listen to on my porch on lazy afternoons. This version will now enter the rotation.

    Looking forward to the rest of your posts!


    • DJB says


      I’m glad you are enjoying the posts about our trip. We’re both having a great time – on the trip and in telling our friends about our adventures. Also glad you like the Ashokan Farewell I posted. I’ve always loved the tune, but this version is my all-time favorite. O’Connor is an amazing violinist, but to hear it as a duet with a classical violinist is just transformative.

      Thanks for the comment…some photos from Glacier to come later today.


  2. Mary says

    What a golden opportunity you have for long, uninterrupted conversations you have with Claire. That is rare with adult children. I know you treasure the time……as will she.

    • Thanks for the note, Mary. You are right – I am treasuring this time with Claire. All the best to you and Jim. DJB

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