Monday, September 10, 2007

The Wild, Wild West

Away out here they got a name
For rain and wind and fire
The rain is Tess, the fire Joe,
And they call the wind Maria

--Allen J. Lerner (Paint Your Wagon)

Musselshell River near Roundup, Montana
Taken 9/9/07

Up around dawn, I wanted to get my blog posted, but was afraid of running the computer on battery power alone. OK, use the car’s battery to power the computer, the way I did last night, I thought. Turning the key in the ignition produced nothing more than the awful grinding sound one hears when the battery is dead. Great, I thought. Here I am, two miles out of Roundup, Montana, where my cell phone doesn’t work and there’s only one other car in the campground. To make matters worse, I hadn’t seen a soul in the vicinity of the other car, so I really wasn’t sure what to do. Well, I said to myself, you can’t wander off and leave everything out in the open, so at least get stuff packed up.

Once the tent was down and the car repacked, I noted that while I’d been very careful to lock the car the night before, I had left the driver’s side front window completely open. All those folk who were joy-riding through the campground at 1 a.m. could have taken everything I had: computer, camera, food, non-working stove, everything. But they didn’t. Wondering if there was enough juice to raise the window, I turned the key again and the car started. Didn’t know that car batteries could recharge themselves. Oh those crafty Swedes.

Since I was packed, and since the stove refused to light, I ate a breakfast of cold pizza and sliced peaches, then bid farewell to my campsite on the Musselshell. And by the way, we’re in cowboy country now, and I really wasn’t sure that the kilt would go over at all. Before departing, I put on a pair of 501s and what I hoped would be a provocative t-shirt, “Real Men Cuddle.” In my experience, women all love the shirt, and their husbands give me dirty looks—especially after the wife has elbowed her husband’s kidneys and pointed me out.

Driving through Roundup, a very pretty, very clean town, by the way, I began to think that maybe the kilt would have been ok. The first store I saw on Main Street was “Goddess Gifts.” Hmm, doesn’t sound very redneck to me. In front of the Musselshell County Courthouse was a statue of three children walking on a log. While I was shooting the statue and the courthouse, a man in a wheelchair rode by and greeted me. Sounded more like an aging hippy than an old cowboy. Oh, well, the Levi’s were on for the day. And man were they uncomfortable. This was the first time in 5 days that I’d worn anything other than a kilt.

Click to enlarge and watch the geese rising from the pond
Taken 9/9/07 in Musselshell County, Montana

Heading east on US 12, I crossed into Rosebud County (Number 29), heading for Forsyth, the county seat, the Yellowstone River, and I-94. The landscape drew me in as the first ten years of my life were spent in this part of the country, and it felt like home. The cloud formations were impressive too. You don’t see clouds like that on the northern California coast. Stopping to take a picture of a tree on an island in a goose covered pond, I passed the “Posted” sign. The gate was open. If they wanted people to stay out, they should close the damn gate.

I had placed my GPS receiver on the dash, and it told me I was approaching Vananda. Now while Vananda is on the map, I’d never heard of it, so I was curious. Then I saw a few “fixer-uppers” as we call houses that are falling down, and a huge building out in the middle of the prairie. I had to check out the building, and fortunately there was a dirt road leading to it. The Vananda School. Hard to imagine that there was ever enough of a population to require a school that size.

Vananda School, abandoned
Taken 9/9/07

After leaving Roundup, I had driven through Melstone, past Ingomar, and through Sumatra. Sumatra today consists of one house that is barely standing. Melstone looked like it held maybe a hundred people—if all the homes were occupied. Ingomar was about the same size, but off the highway. That was it for the hundred mile stretch of US 12 between Roundup and Forsyth. This part of Montana is rapidly reverting to open prairie land.

Prairie Skies
Taken 9/9/07 in Rosebud County, Montana

Although I could see nothing to the south but sandstone bluffs, the GPS unit was showing a broad stripe running parallel to the highway. I surmised that it was showing me the Yellowstone River, but that was just an educated guess. The Yellowstone is Montana’s third largest river (after the Clark Fork and the Missouri). It flows north out of Yellowstone Park, then turns east at Livingston, to flow past Billings, Forsyth, Miles City and Glendive, eventually joining the Missouri just across the state line in North Dakota. Sure enough, I turned a bend toward the south, and there was the river of my childhood.

Immediately after crossing the Yellowstone, I saw a sign welcoming me to Forsyth and telling me to turn left if I wanted Main Street. Of course I wanted Main Street. Twenty years ago I had the idea of doing a photo essay book on the 56 County Courthouses of Montana. I started the project, but time and events got in the way and my Montana Centennial Courthouse book never saw the light of day. Rosebud County had one of the courthouses I had missed. And boy, what an edifice. According to the Historic Landmark sign by the front doors, there was quite a controversy surrounding the building of this monument to civic chutzpah. The people wondered if they were getting their money’s worth and took the county to court. The court ruled in favor of completing the structure, and today, even while the dome is being repaired, the Rosebud County Courthouse is a perfect example of why I wanted to do the book in the first place. I had been captivated by how even the smallest counties had opted for grandiose edifices when erecting their courthouse. This one fit the bill. And, appropriately enough for Rosebud County, there is a beautiful stained glass window depicting a rose in full bloom above the front doors, and the grounds are planted with rose gardens.

I had hoped to get to Miles City before filling the tank, but as distances are vast and towns few, I decided to fill up at the Forsyth Town Pump at $2.939 per gallon. East then toward Miles City, with another 45 miles of interstate. I pulled off at the rest area near Hathaway (well, that’s what my GPS unit said—personally, I didn’t see any town), and checked the maps. I did not check the local history signs, which was a mistake. Apparently they talk at length about our old friend Jedediah Smith. That guy was even more peripatetic than I.

Pulling off the interstate in Miles City, seat of Custer County (Number 14), I pulled into the parking lot of the local 4Bs restaurant. 4Bs is a Montana institution, and while there are better restaurants, I have a soft spot in my heart for the chain. The first restaurant I remember eating in was a 4Bs in Deer Lodge, Montana. Missoula, the corporate headquarters for the chain, used to have 4 of the restaurants. Their tomato soup is wonderful, by the way, and that’s what I ordered along with a grilled cheese sandwich. As I was finishing my meal, I asked the waitress where she would choose to eat if she wasn’t coming to the 4Bs. She recommended a couple of other places, and when I asked why, she said “The food is better.” I then asked if I would find the Courthouse easily, and she gave me directions. A man sitting at another table told her that she should have given me a different set of directions, ones that would have directed me to his place of business. I stopped to talk with Eric Brandt, gave him one of my misprinted business cards, and he invited me to stop by his shop and he’d print me up some new ones as a “Welcome to Miles City” gift.

The Courthouse was, indeed, easy to find, and so was Brandt’s business. The man is a one-person Chamber of Commerce. Every question I asked about Miles City elicited a full and thoughtful response. When I asked what I dare not miss, he immediately told me to go to the Range Rider Museum on the western edge of town. Looking at his watch, he told me I’d have two hours before they closed. He gave me directions and also a few other suggestions, as well as several websites to check out concerning Miles City. He also told me that on a per capita basis (in Montana we always use per capita bases), Miles City has more parks than anywhere else. Three things I know: 1) I have to go back and spend time in Miles City. This is a fascinating town, and contrary to what is happening elsewhere in eastern Montana, Miles City appears to be thriving and growing. 2) I have to visit the Range Rider Museum. I did drive over there, but (sorry Eric) I chose to take a few photos and then drive on. Two hours wouldn’t do it justice, and now I have a strong reason to return. 3) I have to write up a travelforaday page on Miles City. The town is impressive with a very large historic district full of monumental churches and neatly kept up mansions, most of which have Historic Landmark signs by their front doors. I have to say that thanks to Eric, I now have a much different view of Miles City than I’d had previously. I also have 100 beautifully printed business cards. By the way, Eric’s business is not a print shop. He told me that he doesn’t do cards as a rule. Rather he is an IT expert and sells and repairs computers. From what I saw, next time I replace the desktop, I’ll be calling Eric. You might consider doing that too! I’ll be happy to give you his contact info should you ask. The business is Brandt Information Technology Consultants, 911 Main Street, Miles City MT 59301.

Back on the highway, after photographing the First United Methodist Church of Miles City, I took the US 12 exit and turned east toward Baker. According to my AAA camping book, there was no campground near Baker, the seat of Fallon County (Number 39), but there was one seven miles out of Plevna. It had been raining hard off and on ever since I left Miles City, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to camp in the rain, but turning on the radio to KFLN, the AM station in Baker, I heard that there was only a 20% chance of precip overnight, so I drove down a red-rock road to a great little campground and fishing access site on South Sandstone Reservoir. Sitting in my car waiting to see if the rain would stop, I caught up on reading some e-mail, but chose not to send any as the speeds I was getting were incredibly slow. What a concept, and what does it say that I am sitting facing a reservoir, a million miles from anywhere, and I’m complaining about the speed of my internet connection? We’re really spoiled these days.

The rain did stop, and I got out the gear, set up the tent, and by 10:00 was in bed. There were a lot of frustrations in getting camp set up, but this morning, as I look at the sunrise over the reservoir, the frustration all fades away. It’s been a glorious trip so far, and I’m really looking forward to continuing on.

More tomorrow (assuming that I can still find an internet connection, of course.)

Did I say we were in cowboy country?
Taken at the Range Rider Museum, Miles City Montana

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