Montana Route 200 is the longest state highway in the United States. It runs just over seven hundred and six miles across the state. We entered Montana on it east of Sandpoint, Idaho and left at Fairview near Williston, North Dakota. The scenery changes so much, it is hard to believe it is all in one state.
While still a student back in the 1960s, I worked for Congressman Jim Battin from the eastern district of Montana. It was the second largest district in the United States. Alaska, with just one Congressman, was and still is the largest in size. The eastern Montana district was larger than each of the states of Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Since 1993, only one Congressman represents the entire state of Montana, making it also the largest district in the country by population.
One of my duties was to read local newspapers and write letters of congratulations or condolences for the Congressman to send as appropriate. I also stuffed our newsletter into hundreds of envelopes. It was not an exciting job, but that was a different era when even the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, or the new Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, was likely to walk into the office to chat with the boss.
It wasn’t Senators I was remembering now, but the names of all those small towns. One of my regrets this trip is that when we decided not to go to Glacier
National Park, we missed Cutbank, Montana. I clearly remember reading an article back then in the St. Petersburg, Florida Times “Yes there is a Cutbank, Montana.” It seems the author couldn’t believe there was any place where the temperature could drop so quickly.
That author should have been with us when we left Missoula and went down the Bitterroot River valley past the coldest spot in the Continental United States. Near Rogers Pass at a mining camp in 1954, they recorded minus seventy degrees.
We had lunch in Great Falls by the Missouri River and took a picture of a statue of cross between a rainbow trout and a buffalo which was donated to the city’s riverside trail by local residents. Great Falls was named for the five falls in a ten mile stretch portaged by Lewis and Clark. They are now hidden by dams.
Charles M. Russell is one of my favorite painters. The Congressman had a Russell on his office wall. So it was natural that we would stop in at the
C. M. Russell Museum to see both some of his art and also look at his studio. A “western” artist, he captured cowboys and Indians in amazing detail. But unlike Remington, he had actually lived the life. As a disaffected teenager from a wealthy St. Louis family, he had spent two years working with a mountain man and then went on to work as a cowboy. He married a beautiful young woman seventeen years younger who not only had great faith in him but also a great business sense. She persuaded him to visit New York where she promoted his work among the big galleries.
It seems the fields in eastern Montana must be measured in square miles rather than acres. As we crossed the Judith Basin, we drove mile after mile by grain fields, much of it winter wheat that had already been harvested. Also in the basin, those areas too dry, unfertile or rough for farming had gigantic ranches where antelope played among the cattle.
Folks in Lewistown recommended Harry’s Place for dinner. Who would expect a small Montana town restaurant to require reservations? But they only had seats left at one high table. Prime rib was the special on Friday night. We ordered the extra small which was supposed to be six to eight ounces. It covered the plate and had to be ten ounces at a minimum. They also had a great salad bar, homemade soup, corn fritters and excellent fries, both regular and sweet potato. Our server was a young man from Louisiana who told us he had grown tired of the crowds back home and wanted to come to a town where stoplights were unusual.
Taking a detour from 200, we drove back dirt roads to visit the gold mining town of Maiden. In the 1880s, Maiden was the largest town in central Montana. By 1900, it was a ghost town. Alie spotted one of the old mines, but I saw nothing driving down Maiden Canyon because I was totally focused on avoiding fallen trees and places where the road had washed out. Indeed, the road was finally gone and we continued for a while down the stream bed.
There was a little more left of Maiden’s contemporary town, Gilt Edge, so I took a few pictures. From there, using a map we picked up in Lewistown, the car’s GPS and a hand-held GPS, we started searching for Fort McGinnis. At one point, the GPS had us ford a small stream (giving me the satisfaction that it was a good thing I had traded Alie’s beloved Acadia for the Jeep), but while everything indicated we had found the site of the fort, there was nothing there but pasture. We did see more antelope.
With the exception of a brief area of twisty road through badlands (Alie with incredibly bad timing had chosen then to drive to give me a break) the road was straight. As we approached Sidney and Fairview, the last Montana towns on 200, there were once again huge wheat fields.