Off to the Young Mountains
August 18, 2005
Seems I have a problem writing when I havenít been on a ride somewhere, which is why this column has been left unposted for these last freshly-flown weeks. But I got back yesterday from our annual trip into the great western cragginess, and now itís out of the Harley saddle and back into my five-wheeled roller chair with the padded armrests and the comfortable tilting backrest, sitting here in the silence of an old farmhouse on an open grassy hill surrounded by the soft Minnesota forest on the edge of the sort of deep river which moves slowly under the old downtown steel-truss lift bridge which is closed for repairs until November, making our little main drag more quiet than it usually is. This is not Manhattan lying by the Hudson here. Some here sort of like to think it might be, in a small way. Not me. Iím happy itís not, in fact.
Weíve lately taken to riding out west on old US Highway 12, which makes a beeline from Minneapolis to Miles City, Montana, and which slips into farmland a lot quicker than does Interstate 94. I-94 is seemingly hell-bent on becoming to Minnesota what I-95 is to the eastern seaboard; that is, a concrete concourse whereupon no matter how fast you drive you can never quite seem to get out of town. Names change along the way but it all feels like the same place. In taking on the burden of all that quick-sprouting development it has left old two-lane US 12 a real sweet low-intensity ride.
We bikers Coach and myself met at the Whiskey Junction in Minneapolis early on Thursday morning; waiting there was the cheerful Mrs M. in her fast RV. Her husband, a plumbing contractor, would join us out in Montana as soon as his work load would allow. We thundered out to Willmar in western Minnesota where, at Friedaís Cafe, we met our old pal Mr S. for breakfast. He was in a foreign sedan, having given over his 1987 hawg to his son-in-law, who was riding it to Sturgis this year. It was getting toward noon by then and the lunch special was Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, gravy and steamed carrots, for $4.25. Including coffee.
In the city coffee alone costs that much. Who could resist a lunch like that for $4.25? With the special we also had the powerfully tasty blueberry pie with ice cream, and how remarkable to experience an irresistible force like that in a small rural town; it was like a chance meeting with Sophia Loren in, say, a duck blind. (I have to use Sophia as the example here, as I find none of the current crop of actresses irresistible; in fact, from most of them, e.g. J-Lo, Britney and Jen, I would be inclined to maintain a safe distance. The feeling, Iím sure, would be mutual.)
After Willmar the quintessential Minnesota town name the state becomes decidedly more western; more like the Dakotas than like its shadier and cushier eastern side. We cruised the low-rising fields of tall corn and fresh-cut wheat through Pennock, Kerkhoven, Murdock, DeGraff, Benson, Danvers and Ortonville Benson the largest of the group, at 3,376 and then across the Minnesota River and into South Dakota, through miles of the Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, between the South Blue Dog and the Bitter Lake, among pelicans, egrets and kestrels; and cormorants and buffleheads. A billboard there shows a fox with a waterfowl in his jaws and a message: WEAR FUR HELP CONTROL PREDATORS.
The new Road King eats up distance like a train; it even looks like a steam locomotive. Solid black, steel spokes, big headlight. Now if I just go get bacon or bread or a book of stamps, I can take the train. Our first scheduled stop was Aberdeen where on Main Street a place called the Drink Factory, with a checked-plate stainless steel entryway, has a grade-A slick and slippery shuffleboard, harking back to the days when tavern games didnít have screens.
We split into two teams and Mr S., a bona-fide member of a shuffleboard association, set a high standard. He and Mrs M. beat us three in a row, but she had to bail him out a couple of times. He didnít exactly blow us off the board, is what Iím saying. I beat him heads-up last year, in fact, so he had revenge on his mind this time.
From there itís a fast hundred miles to Mobridge, a city named for a bridge, a graceful multi-span steel trestle built in 1907 across the wide flats of the Missouri River by the Milwaukee Road. The river itself is named from an old Indian word meaning approximately ďlittle town of the little canoes,Ē so the river is named after a town and the bridge is named after the river and, coming full circle, the town is named after the bridge.
At any rate, they do a decent steak there and we ate on an upstairs balcony overlooking the river to the bluffs on the other side, where you can make out the burial place of Sitting Bull, the Sioux, and a monument to Sacagawea, the Shoshone. (The spelling of her name is controversial, as is its meaning. She said it was ĎTsakaka-wiasí and meant Bird Woman, which should have been good enough, but others said it was Sacagawea which is Shoshone for Boat Launcher; she also has two burial sites and two times of death, 1812 and 1884, 72 years apart. A history not unlike the muddiness of the river itself. Whatever the facts, itís doubtful she ever expected to have her likeness on the US dollar coin.)
We pass the new casino at the crest of the western bank of the river and head immediately into the high plains. Itís barren and bleak and beautiful, every swell and curve bringing a new mix of light and color, in horizontal swatches. Small towns, McLaughlin, Walker, McIntosh, Wataugon, Morristown, Keldrin, Thunder Hawk and Lemmon, sit in various stages of activity and abandonment, their grain elevators marking the route of the railroad like lighthouses on a coast, one every ten miles. Broken houses and sheds, their paint long stripped away by the wind, ask to be photographed one more time, before they disappear into hard earth; empty garages stare at empty streets, their doors and windowglass remembered only by people in rocking chairs. All so melancholy, so spellbinding to pass through and so hard to picture as a place youíd call home; its stark beauty says those here who possess this land must feel a loyalty to it all the way into their joints.
Highway 12 runs about a mile shy of the southern North Dakota border for 65 miles before it finally gives up and plunges northwest to Hettinger. The terrain is about the same and you wonder why South Dakota clings to it for so long; it must mean 65 more miles of federal funding for them. Following that city come Bucyrus, Gascoyne, Scranton, Bowman and Rahme, and then for a brief time we are in Slope County, a county I had heard was the least populated in the nation. But itís just the least populated in North Dakota. Loving County, in Texas, has the national honors, with 67 people living on 673 square miles. Slope is 14th; 140 living in Marmarth and 26 in Amidon, with the other 501 scattered around 1200-some square miles, the county having six times the density of Loving. (If Slope lost 60 people theyíd jump to 10th on the least populated list and if they gained 100 theyíd drop all the way to 25th. It also holds the highest point in the state, White Butte, at 3506 feet. Now is that fascinating, or what?) My nephew hunts out there.
Six miles past Marmarth we see the big welcome sign and an invisible line slips under my boots and we crack the throttles open, following our long tradition of entering Montana at a hundred miles an hour, fists raised to the big sky. Itís 89 miles to downtown mainstreet Miles City, home to what some would call and few would argue is the purest old saloon in all the West: the Montana Bar. We got there thirsty we always get there thirsty and it still hadnít changed much, like it hasnít since they converted from gas light to electric. They have that big beautiful polished brass cash register and they know how to use it. They say that in the early days more land, cattle, timber and grain was bought and sold across the big private round table in the front than at the bank. The lead longhorn steer from the earliest cattle drive up from Texas looks ominously out over the room, horns wider than a wagon. Little handmade Italian ceramic tiles lie in an intricate pattern on the floor.
Ms N. and Ms R. arrive from Minnesota by Jeep to meet us there, and then we all take off for Livingston. Hard to describe Montana, even though weíve all seen the pictures. There is a primeval peace to it, the burly ranges and the rolling foothills always in sight and always silent; you sense the motion of the clouds against that implacable stillness. Itís always there, whether youíre on the road or not, that feeling of deep time. You see it in the way the sky is always working on the mountains; heating, freezing, raining, sandblasting, snowing them under. The worn-down future of the Rockies can be seen 2000 miles to the east, in the soft green Appalachians. One is grateful to view them out here, young and hard and moody like this.
And we were also grateful to arrive at the Murray Hotel in Livingston, and at our hangout across the street, the Owl, which Iíve mentioned before. Our congenial friends from Florida and New York, Ms G. and Mr & Mrs P., were already there. Itís about to be sold, the Owl, and we have little hope that it will be the same without our pal Dana behind the bar. So we put the best face on it and engaged in wretched excess. Had a jolly time. The hangovers were massive in the morning. On the 1 to 5 hurricane scale, mine was a severe Category 4. Storm surge of 13 to 18 feet. One of those a year is about my limit these days, so Iím set until next summer, hangoverwise. (At this point I should add, on the advice of my Lifestyle Consultant, that the mention of this establishment and the one in Miles City in no way implies an endorsement of the voluntary consumption of alcohol. The author in this case was an innocent victim forced into an unhealthy practice by social pressures and the professional demands of accurate and thorough research.)
And Iím about running out of pixels for this piece, so Iíll have to save the rest of the trip for next week.