After thinking about taking a trip to Montana for about 20 years, I finally went last summer. The original plan was to hike Glacier National Park, but back then it was a very remote and difficult location to reach, and costly in doing so. It was actually easier and cheaper to go to Paris, so I went there instead.
I often thought about visiting the ‘Wild West’ states (defined by historic character and origin not geographic location) these past two decades, but always seemed to fly over them instead, en route to somewhere else.
Late last Spring after reading the newly discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography, Prairie Girl, annotated and released by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, my inner pioneer girl woke up. I loved reading Wilder and Willa Cather as a teenager (by candlelight of course), and have continued to read pioneer journals, logs and stories about ‘Westward Ho!’ and homesteading on the frontier.
The Midwest and West were untamed lands, fertile and unchanged under the stewardship of Native Americans who traversed them for centuries guided by nature’s forces. For these new comers it was an intriguing domain where life’s hardships, heartache and simple joys played out on a new and alien landscape they sought to dominate.
The land and weather were formidable foes in an unforgiving environment with unexpected challenges, changing fortunes and the ever present desperate choice to stick it out or call it quits.
The homesteaders unleashed an era of total disregard for Native Peoples, grasslands, wild animals, and often the mores of civilized behavior, in an all consuming effort to bring everything under submission and control. Survival had no gray areas in its fragility and pace. Many of the sparse origins of tiny settlements grew into the large cities of today.
As an adult imagining a settler’s life back then, it is doubtful my parents would ever have piled my siblings and me into a wagon and headed west. But if they had, I would have fallen deeply in love with the flat open range, rolling hills and vast prairies of tall grasses and flowers. Watching storms roll in from miles in the distance would have entranced me, despite their potential for danger and destruction.
The yearning for never ending views and unbounded space that arose from the captivating pages of books and journals never faded. If anything they nagged at me more each passing year because of the alarming loss of prairie grasslands habitats from over use and development.
Numerous efforts are underway in a nick of time to save and restore these precious landscapes. Projects like Nature Conservancy’s Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas and Montana’s American Prairie Reserve have ‘taken root’ to turn back time.
Such efforts would baffle the farmers and the concept would be totally lost on the pioneers who plowed the sod and toiled endlessly to hold back encroaching grasses like pushing back the tides from a beach. Would they grieve the loss of their backbreaking tilled farmland the way I grieve the loss of lush prairie?
Quit Dallying and Hitch Up them Wagons!
Itching for another vacation and inspired by the pioneers and the prairies they sought to defy, I decided to make the trip out for a look-see of my own.
After researching natural prairie locations, protected prairies, frontier history, interesting communities, terrain, the best views, and pinpointing what I really wanted to experience about the West, Montana rose up as the choicest destination. It had prairies, mountains, open range, ghost towns, historic sites, history, excellent locally sourced food and foodie hot spots, various modes of historic transportation, and night skies packed with stars. Its heart and soul was still the Wild West.
Was it mere coincidence that Montana’s tourism slogan is “It’s Time”?
Montana is a huge state and not one thing I wanted to experience was anywhere near the next thing I wanted to see, rendering it as challenging and expensive a trip as ever, which I fully accepted this time around.
My late planning start gave me a small window of time to travel before the dry heat of summer gave way to winter’s snow, narrowing travel time down to mid-August.
In an effort to lasso everything into one region, a plan evolved to make a vertical loop. Starting at Bozeman in the Southwest (airport), I would proceed up to Sweet Grass Hills in the Northwest, head back down via a different road to Livingston in the Southwest, jump over to Little Big Horn National Monument in the Southeast, and return to Bozeman for departure.
Armed with AAA TripTik (the travel agent’s most unusual and remote locations request), GPS, Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer, some new gear, assorted maps and guides, I was headed for ten days of travel and R&R. It was exciting to be heading out West but a tad daunting to be traveling to remote areas.
As usual, I supplemented my online research and guidebooks by contacting a few locals in my targeted areas for their particular insights and suggestions. I outreached to hiking groups, lodgings, American Prairie Reserve, Bureau of Land Management, websites by locals or folks with shared interests, historic societies, etc.
As expected, each resource supplied his or her own informative take on things, directed me to local experts and more resources, invited me to join a scheduled hike and offered to serve as a local contact. Trip Advisor and City Data once again provided useful contextual info and food for thought, especially regarding atypical tourist locations.
www.bigskyfishing.com hit the nail right on the head with its Sweet Grass Hills recommendation. The author’s description was exactly what I was looking for. My travel plans pretty much radiated out from there. This guy is an excellent guide!
The TripTik calculated a round trip of 750 miles, but I knew it would be more with ‘lost miles,’ backtracking and turning down irresistible beckoning roads. I clocked in over 1,000.
On the map below, my vertical loop is outlined in orange, and the towns where I stopped or stayed are underlined. This corridor hit all of the things I wanted to do and see in the most direct route.
Montana or Bust
Finally, as I knew one day I would, with no sudden turn of events, but more an accumulation of nudges, I made the trek out West to set free a dream that has been lodged in the back of my mind for more than 20 years. Actually more like 40 years if I count when I started reading those early pioneer books. Did I just write 40?