Monday, September 10, 2007

The Middle of Nowhere

How many years can a mountain exist

Before it's washed to the sea?

Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist

Before they're allowed to be free?

Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,

Pretending he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,

The answer is blowin' in the wind.

--Bob Dylan

My campsite (the tent tried to blow away)
South Sandstone Reservoir
Taken 9/10/07 in Fallon County, Montana

Pulling back onto the red dirt road leading to South Sandstone Reservoir, I turned left at the pavement, instead of right, and drove south. According to my map, this road would eventually lead me to Willard, Montana, and Montana Highway 7, which in turn would get me to Montana’s southeastern most county seat, Ekalaka. Very quickly the pavement ended and I was back on red dirt roads. My GPS receiver told me that Willard was seven miles distant, but GPS units always measure in a straight line, and this road was anything but straight. The topography fascinated me and I stopped a few times to take pictures. Knowing that Highway 7 was east of my position, I was surprised to see a sign directing me to turn south on yet another red dirt road if I wanted to get to Willard. At this point, I began paying very close attention to my GPS unit, because the roads were not at all the way my map showed them. Garmin, however, assured me that I was approaching the “town” and sure enough, after a few more miles I came to a stop sign, a paved highway that crossed my path, and a collection of two or three buildings that make up Willard.

Who says Eastern Montana is flat?
Taken 9/10/07 in Fallon County, Montana

Now I have to insert a note to my friend Rosanna who has made more than her share of long distance drives. Rosanna once told me that in planning an itinerary, she avoided long stretches of straight road because that meant “flat and boring.” Not in Montana, dear. Highway 7 begins in Montana’s other “see how the outsiders pronounce this name” town, Wibaux (Wee-bow), and heads south to Baker. (You do remember how to pronounce Meagher, don’t you? If not, go back a couple of days. There will be a test later.) On this stretch it has a normal amount of curves, but on the thirty-five miles from Baker to Ekalaka, the road makes one slight turn about three miles south of Baker, and for the next 32 miles it is as straight as any road can be. Nary a curve to be seen—unless you count the ups and downs as it passes through the rolling countryside of southeastern Montana. And with the fascinating land forms caused by erosion of sandstone, the view was certainly not boring.

The road ends in Ekalaka. I’m not kidding. Most of Carter County (Number 42) is south of Ekalaka, but if you’re planning on heading south, be prepared for dirt roads and, according to one woman I spoke with, if you’re driving a truck, you’d best have 10-ply tires on it. The mechanic in town told me that most all trucks in the area rode on 10-plies. Even better, the dirt is what in Montana is called “gumbo,” meaning that if it gets wet, forget it. You’re not going to get through. In wet or winter conditions, the only way to get to the county seat from the other Carter County communities is to drive the long-way round, which means going through three other Montana counties, or three other states. Talk about a Sunday drive.

The town itself is a charming place, population 436 according to the sign on the historical museum, with perhaps the prettiest courthouse I’ve yet seen in Montana. That’s not to say grandiose. What I did not see was any new construction, and there were many homes, good looking homes, that appeared to be empty. The population trend since the 2000 census shows a 3.7% decline. The people I met were friendly, as is often the case in a small town, and willing to help out a stranger. The homes were neat and the yards well maintained. Would I want to live there? Probably not. It’s way too far from a good bookstore.

North of town right on the Carter/Fallon County line, sits Medicine Rocks State Park. The eroded sandstone formations grab the imagination, and it’s not hard to see why the native people of the area considered this holy ground. Driving through the park, I was reminded of a parody of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. As in the original, the parody ends with the inscription on the base of the statue, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works ye mighty and despair,” but then adds the names of all the tourists who have felt obliged to add their own names to the plinth. Most of these sandstone formations were “signed,” in one case by “JEHOVAH.” I suppose that was done just in case we had forgotten who carved the sandstone in the first place.

Back on Highway 7, I drove into Baker, Fallon County’s seat, and, of course, looked for the Courthouse. What I found instead was a “County-City Administration Building” built in the mid 1970s. The original courthouse was torn down to accommodate the new building, which makes sense administratively, but is usually a mistake architecturally. The “new” building (it is thirty years old, after all) is well designed, and the complex includes the library as well as the police, sheriff and jail. Around the corner in the old jail is the O’Fallon Museum, where I was sent to see pictures of the original structure. The museum, it turns out, is closed on Mondays.

One of the many bizarre features
Medicine Rocks State Park
Taken 9/10/07 in Carter County, Montana

Twelve miles east of Baker I crossed into North Dakota. There was no sign to welcome me; the only way to tell you’d crossed a state line was that the pavement differed and the speed limit dropped by five miles per hour. North Dakota is one of two states that has no national forests (the other being Kansas). Like Kansas, and South Dakota, for that matter, North Dakota does have national grasslands. According to my map, I was driving through one, but again, there was no sign telling me that. The first town I came to was Marmarth, whose “downtown” was almost completely boarded up. There was one anomalous structure here, the abandoned Barber Auditorium—another very large building that was completely out of place in its current setting. I wondered why such a building had been built in the first place.

You’ll be pleased to know that North Dakota license plates do not designate the county, so I’ll spare you that bit of trivia. And while South Dakota, like Wyoming and Nebraska, follows the same county numbering system as Montana, I didn’t have to learn those numbers growing up, so I won’t pass the information along. I will say that as I cross a county line in those states, I do try to see what the number is for the county. Old habits die hard.

North Dakota did not feel like the West. These were not ranches in the Montana sense, but appeared to be very prosperous large farms. I stopped in Bowman to have lunch (a Rueben with tossed salad at Jabr’s Family Restaurant). There was a notice posted in the restaurant that a fund raising dinner was going to be held at the United Methodist Church. It turns out that a local family, identified only by their first names, had lost several buildings and much equipment in what was described as either a tornado or a high wind that passed through town in August. Yes, definitely farm country, with neighbors helping neighbors, and everyone knowing who Kurt and Kathy were. (Names changed to protect the innocent victims of this “Act of God.”)

Turning south at Bowman, I left US 12 for US 85. I was in search of the Geographical Center of the US, and I had two maps, one by AAA and one by Langenscheidt, which showed two different locations for that spot. (The Germans got it wrong.) In Finland, I had traveled north to Rovaniemi, the administrative capitol of Finnish Lappland, just to say I’d been to the Arctic Circle. It was the same force that drew me to see the marker denoting the center of our country. Yes, this took me off my planned route, but wasn’t the point of the trip to go where I was drawn, not necessarily where the highway maps said I should go?

Stopping in Crow Butte (which isn’t on the map) for a chocolate almond shake, I asked the proprietress which location was correct. She assured me that the AAA map was correct, and that there was a marker at the site. She added that the town of Belle Fourche had put up their own sign, which only makes sense. How much money is going to be spent out on the prairie. Much better to make it a tourist attraction where people can actually buy things.

Still wearing my REAL MEN CUDDLE t-shirt, I was approached by a man who pointed to the words and said, “If it said ‘Real Old Men’ I could wear it.” I assured him that he wasn’t that much older than I, and he told me that he was a ’43 model. When I told him that I was a ’49, he let me know that those six years were important. I was back in the Old West. This ’43 model cuddler was wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, fringed leather chaps—and I don’t mean the kind you see in an S&M bar or on one of the cyclists heading to Sturgis—boots and, I’m not making this up, spurs! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone outside the rodeo arena wearing spurs. His companion had spurs as well, but no chaps. We chatted a bit about the land. “Best damn grass in the country,” he told me, and I replied that the antelope sure seemed to like it. That got him started on a rant. Unlike deer, antelope (OK, I know the proper term is Pronghorn) will not jump a fence. When I-25 was built across Wyoming, herds of antelope died because their traditional paths had been disrupted and they couldn’t get through the barrier fences. This South Dakota cowboy didn’t have one good thing to say for the animal. Too many of them, all bent on destroying his fences. You see, rather than jump over them, the antelope will run into a fence until it breaks it down. And there were more antelope by far than any other large mammal that I could see. From the state line (where there was a welcome sign on each side of the highway) to Belle Fourche and I-90, I saw only two herd of cattle. Antelope, however, filled the prairie on both sides of the highway. Personally, I love the creatures, and find them aesthetically preferable to other wild animals. They taste good too.

Pronghorn, commonly called Antelope
Most common large animal along US 85 in South Dakota
Taken 9/10/07 in Butte County, South Dakota

Just outside the one-building “town” of Crow Butte was an historical marker telling of what was arguably the most bizarre war ever waged—this one between the Sioux and the Crow. The Sioux attacked the Crow, killing men and raping women, and the Crow men climbed to the top of the buttes. The Sioux then proceeded to slaughter the women and children left behind and set up a siege, trapping the Crow men on the top of the arid, waterless sandstone. The Crow warriors eventually died of thirst, but they had their revenge. The Sioux who attacked and besieged them died of disease they contracted from the Crow. Truly a war nobody won.

North of Belle Fourche, I passed a small sign pointing west which said “Center of the US.” Hanging a U on US 85, I turned west on a dirt road and drove the 7.8 miles indicated on the sign to find an American flag and two USGS survey markers out in the middle of a field. This really is the middle of nowhere, I thought.

The Flag marks the geographical center of the US
(you may have to click to enlarge the picture)
Taken 9/10/07 northwest of Belle Fourche, South Dakota

Having snapped the requisite shots, I turned the Volvo around and drove back to US 85, turning south to Belle Fourche. I’d been here before so I knew how to pronounce the name of the town. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason the “r” is silent. Bell Foosh is what the natives say. From Bell Foosh, I entered the Black Hills and found myself lost in Spearfish. I know there was an entrance to I-90 somewhere, but I missed it. I love the Black Hills, and I certainly recommend spending time there. Home to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Crazy Horse Monument, and much, much more, South Dakota’s Black Hills are a vacation destination in their own right. I, however, was getting extremely tired and just wanted to pitch my tent at one of the campgrounds near Rapid City. In the end, I opted for a motel room and a hot shower. Tomorrow I’d decide whether to stay in the Black Hills or press on to Pierre.

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