Russ Ringsak

Once More Montana

October 1, 2011

After the scenic cruise up the St Lawrence Seaway I flew to Boston and brought the rig back and settled it into its comfy Minnesota nest, and then just naturally drove out to Montana. It was a four-piece expedition, two cars and the Harley named Thanks A Lot, plus a trailer along for the first time, mostly to mitigate that weary 900-mile return ride.

From the Twin Cities we took old Highway 12 westbound to Frieda's in Willmar; the menu is up on the wall over the back counter. Ham & Eggs 2.99, Sausage & Eggs 2.99, Grilled Cheese Sandwich 1.15, Pork Tenderloin Sandwich 2.20; Dinners including potatoes, toast, salad: Chicken or Hamburger, 3.99, Fish 3.50, Shrimp 4.50. Forty-nine items on the list with the most expensive the Frieda's Noon Special at 4.55. The cheapest? Coffee, 25 cents.

Frieda's Menu.
Frieda's Menu.

After a good breakfast we continued the westerly trek past the full and orderly granaries of outstate Minnesota:

Elevators West of Willmar.
Elevators West of Willmar.

And the flooding in South Dakota:

Farmland west of Milbank.
Farmland west of Milbank.

Stopped in Aberdeen for fuel and a short beer and later in the afternoon had to detour 29 miles to get to the motel at Mobridge, where Highway 12 crosses the Missouri.

~~~~

Westbound next morning there was a twenty minute wait at the bridge before we could head into the official beginnings of the high plains country; the tough to farm rangeland where buffalo and jackrabbits, wolves and prairie dogs used to be in charge. Most farm fields we saw that weren't irrigated were given back to grasslands and were doing very well in this Summer of More Rain Than We Asked For. Big round bales all over the place, looked like a scattering of billiard balls. It's been a lush few months in that part of the country and they are no doubt wondering how long the bounty can last.

A few years ago we saw a pair of zebras grazing out here, a shocking sight, but haven't seen any lately. Jared Diamond wrote a must-have book called Guns Germs and Steel wherein he said that if a zebra could be ridden the histories of continents might be entirely different. They are apparently tightly strung and foul of temper and are the bane of any zookeeper. When they bite they don't let go. About what you might expect from an animal whose sensitive kidneys are located very high on the back and whose primary predators are lions.

Our favorite old Handyman's Special west of Mobridge.
Our favorite old Handyman's Special west of Mobridge.

Ninety miles into the day we were struck by a magnificent roadside scrapmetal sculpture of a cowboy riding a crazy mad dinosaur. This was at the Grand River Museum on the main drag through Lemmon, a museum only slightly less dramatic than the creature in front of it. They offer not only the familiar cowboy and Indian treasures but they have the bones of a number of the area's previous families there as well, who of course were a bunch of enormous pea-brained ancestors to the crazed reptile outside.

The sculptor is a young fellow named John Lopez, who has in a fairly short time created an amazing collection of drop dead beautiful metal works, some in scrapmetal and some in smooth bronze, of dinosaurs, range animals, presidents, Sitting Bull, rodeo riders. His latest is a half-fullsize Tyrannosaurus Rex; he has a slim and sweet softcover book of his work titled "In Fields of Iron" which can be found at www.lopez-ranch.net. The book is $23.00 and the website itself is beautiful. Check it out.

If you buy the book and tell me you don't like it I will be even more astounded than I was to come across a cowboy on a Triceratops on the main drag of Lemmon South Dakota. And I figure if anybody at all could ride a zebra it might be that cowboy.

A resurrected saddle-broke Triceratops in Lemmon, South Dakota.
A resurrected saddle-broke Triceratops in Lemmon, South Dakota.

The dinosaur bones on display inside, and which you are allowed to touch, were collected from local ranches along the western borders of the Dakotas. This place will become a must stop.

The author he heads west from Lemmon.
The author he heads west from Lemmon.

Highway 12 eases a bit to the north and skins off some of southwest North Dakota, where they are upgrading the old roadbed. A thick rainstorm rolls in and blackens the sky at Bowman. We duck into a big gas station and load the bike onto the trailer, not only keeping the rider dry and in the car but keeping the hog out of what becomes a 20-mile dark quagmire.

Rain on US 12, mud up ahead.
Rain on US 12, mud up ahead.

The rain quits suddenly and the highway gets hilly and sunny beautiful and it takes you directly into Miles City, the trailhead of those many cattle drives from the days of the open prairie. And still home to the mostly steadfast original (right down to the famous bullet hole) Montana Bar, everyone's favorite, where it is said that more money changed hands at its screened main table than at any of the banks in town:

The Miles City Icon: Bigger than a bank.
The Miles City Icon: Bigger than a bank.

We mount the Interstate there and head west for the Murray Hotel in Livingston, where some friends from New York have flown in for a week. We had thought we'd run from there back east to the Blues Fest in Billings but we gradually turned loose of that concept and ended up sitting around town and taking day trips to places we'd seen before and wanted to see again, like Chico and Wilsall and Big Timber and White Sulphur Springs.

Nothing real stunning like Yellowstone or Beartooth Pass or Glacier National Park or Yaak or even Missoula or Helena. No ride on the Upper Missouri; just an afternoon raft trip on the Yellowstone. Kind of a do-little hang-around go-out-to- dinner thing. Next year we may hit the down-the-road part with a bit more vigor.

Livingston is a good destination and it has a most excellent bookstore, Sax & Fryer, the store a story in itself, run by a local rancher who has seen a lot and done a lot but it takes you years to dig the episodes out. The town is a well known stop for writers and a couple of actors and I'm not one for dropping names. Not so much from virtue but probably because I just don't remember names that well.

Home Sweet Home in Livingston.
Home Sweet Home in Livingston.

And here is why we go to Montana:

Big Belt Mountains from US 89; August 10, 2011.
Big Belt Mountains from US 89; August 10, 2011.

And of course there could be lesser reasons as well, like perhaps a wee bit of shopping:

White Sulphur Springs.
White Sulphur Springs.

But lest the reader should get the idea we are continually hammered on these trips allow me to set your mind at ease. This crowd has been there and done that and are now much more about conversation and banter than they are about hangovers and pain pills. A pitcher of beer will sit for some lengthy stretches in the center of a table and the ice will melt in the mixed beverages before anyone reorders. Not a lot of maudlin moaning and groaning about the good ol' days going on either. I'm learning to enjoy the company of grownups.

Of course there is plenty of juke box action out there and they have all the right old maudlin tunes on them. Don't need to bring your own, it's all right there.


©R.Ringsak 2011

russring at visi dot com

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