By Esha Samajpati
Derived from the Spanish word for mountain, Montana is a state spanning a considerable portion of northwest America, yet only a third of the state is mountainous. While western Montana has established itself as a recreation hot spot, eastern Montana embodies the free spirit of the thirsty, windswept northern Great Plains.
The big Montana sky, national parks, saloons with swinging doors, Native American Pow Wows, rodeos, cowboy poetry readings, square dances and cook-outs summed up my initial expectations. Somewhere along the way, in course of my week-long trip along the northern part of Montana, I began to realize that there’s much more to the state.
Home to wranglers, homesteaders, miners, tribal elders and a little-known community of Hutterites, Montana is more diverse than you would think. Sometime in the early 1930s, the Hutterites fled from religious persecution in Russia and set up colonies in the plains of central and north-central Montana. Fluent in German and farmers by profession, they prefer to keep to themselves.
Expect the unexpected and if you are there in winter like I was, bundle up in layers and you are all set to explore America’s outback.
Roused to a Stampede
I started my day with a visit to the 2,000 year old Native American Buffalo Jump, the Wahkpa Chu’gn (pronounced walk-pa-chew-gun) Archaeological Site located west of Havre, in north central Montana. Discovered in the fall of 1960, Wahkpa Chu’gn is the only buffalo jump in North America with archeological materials exposed in place. Although commonly referred to as a buffalo, the American Buffalo is actually closer to the European Bison.
The Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest forms of hunting practiced by the natives where a herd of buffalo is led to the edge of a cliff and made to jump right off. Different techniques were used by different tribes, but the main objective remained the same. I know it sounds pretty cruel but back then, the buffalo was essential for survival.
Wahkpa Chu’gn is nothing like a museum; it is a real historical site. Surrounded by archaeological excavations, buffalo bones, buffalo skulls and Native American arrowheads, I fancied myself as something of an ancient hunter and decided to try my hand at throwing an atlatl. One of humankind’s first mechanical inventions, it is a stick with a handle on one end and a hook that holds a light spear on the other.
“You probably got a bird,” laughed John Park, our tour guide as I flung the spear as hard as I could. Judging from my past experiences and now this I guess am not much of a hunter. “You got to aim lower in order to jab the lungs of a buffalo,” explained John. Lesson learned.
Diner Food, Football Mascots and Long Drives
Shortly after, we stopped for lunch at Wolfer’s Diner in downtown Havre, just off US Highway 2. Framed black-and-white posters of American icons from yesteryear, booth names like Lincoln Lane, Gasoline Alley and Muscle Car Boulevard, round top bar stools and checkered floors screamed classic 50’s style. Considering how famished I was, it’s a miracle that I waited long enough to take a picture of the juicy burger which came with a side of crispy homemade fries and a tall red glass of Coke.
US Highway 2 runs along Montana’s northern tier (the “Hi-Line”) and connects the plains of eastern Montana with the Rockies to the west. Named after a French town, Havre is one of the many settlements on the Hi-Line that got their start as a railroad town in 1887.
The 1920s and 1930s brought in discovery of oil and gas fields in the area but energy fuels have not been enough to support the economy. Today the city and its surrounding are defined by cattle, grain, wildlife, mountain ranges and wide open spaces.
Over and above the usual fairs and festivals, Hi-Liners take their school sports seriously. It is not unusual for a Hi-Liner to drive a couple of hundred miles to catch a football game. The Havre High School mascot is a blue pony and not easy to miss if you scout the streets of Havre like I did.
If you fancy a journey into the city’s past, you may want to take the underground tour, which is what we did before heading to a luxury campsite. The 100-year-old “underground mall” contains, among other things, a saloon, an apothecary, a bordello and an opium den.
The drive along the northern Great Plains was a delightful blur of golden wheat fields and silvery silos lining the horizon. The rich earthy tones of the landscape added to the drama of an endless sky, a beauty so stark and powerful it may inspire you to put on your favorite CD and drive into the sunset. But as gas stations are few and far between, make sure you have a full tank and bottles of water while traversing Montana’s Hi-Line.
If you are all for roasting marshmallows under a starry sky but would gladly do without the “roughing it” part of camping, glamorous camping or glamping may be the answer to your dilemma. Sage Safaris, owned and managed by Jacob and Sarah Dusek, is one such luxury campsite that will spare you the hassles of pitching a tent.
No cold dips at this campsite either; there’s a wet room with permanent heating and walk-in showers. Sarah is from UK, so the Duseks shuttle between the two countries quite frequently, which accounts for the discernible British accents in the heart of Montana.
“Jacob has built a separate lodge for the kitchen and dining area. Guests can choose to prepare their own meals or avail of a fully catered service. The tents have comfortable beds, wooden floors, a wood stove and furnishings… things you probably wouldn’t expect inside an ordinary tent,” explained Sarah.
At Sage Safaris, activities on offer include game hunting, trail rides, bird watching, hiking and clay pigeon shooting. You could also sign up for an evening of drinks and hors d’oeuvres by the fire pit, which is what we did.
Bottles of local wine (from Mission Mountain Winery) along with a fine spread of cheese, crackers, deviled eggs, figs wrapped in ham, olives, nuts, chips, artichokes and a tray of rich, dark chocolate brownies awaited us in a lodge by the tents.
As the sunrays began to falter and fade, deep streaks of purple flirted with the gold and blue of the vast open sky. It was a relaxing evening away from the demands of daily life and for others, the perfect setting for indulging latent photography skills.
Drag Racing and Dinosaurs
“Montana is home to cowboys, construction workers and drag race drivers,” affirmed John Carnahan, Vice President and Director of Phillips County Motor Sports Inc. (PCMS) in Malta, a town which is steadily gaining a reputation as the “dinosaur capital” of Montana.
Hi-Line Dragstrip, located south of Malta is run by PCMS and they have an average of 75-85 units (cars, pickups, bikes, junior dragsters, snowmobiles, etc.) per race and the final race of the season hosted 100 adult racers and 18 junior dragsters. Half-scale versions of Top Fuel Dragsters, the junior dragsters are driven by kids under 17 in a controlled environment.
During race season, the region is filled with participators and spectators from US and Canada, resulting in a flurry of hotel booking and other associated spending which does wonders to the local economy.
Part of Montana’s Dinosaur Trail, the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and the Phillips County Museum are located next to each other on US Highway 2.
The Dinosaur Museum owes its fame to the mummy dinosaur “Leonardo,” an exceedingly rare specimen deemed invaluable to scientists. Found in 2000, just north of Malta, Leonardo has fossilized skin tissues over 90% of its body complete with scales and wrinkles and even traces of his last meal. Preserved by quick burial and mineralization in a moist environment, such fossils are often called mummies.
Replete with Native American artifacts, a traveling photo exhibit of ranching families from the Yellowstone River Valley and a 33-foot long skeleton of a brachylophosaurus named “Elvis,” the Phillips County Museum houses a variety of fossils unearthed from the nearby Judith River Formation (a geological composition rich in late Cretaceous fossils).
While at Fort Peck, I spent a night at the Fort Peck Hotel which has rightfully found a place on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Built in the 1930s, this old-fashioned place is a favorite with hunters and anglers. As we gathered around the well-stocked bar on a cold Friday evening, owner Carl Mann regaled us with stories of people, both living and dead.
With Halloween around the corner, spooky tales had already started making the rounds, and the creaky wooden lodge provided the perfect setting for an evening of tall tales. Many hours later, as I flicked open my laptop to catch up on work, the free Wi-Fi in my room came as a pleasant surprise.
The Fort Peck Dam is one of the world’s largest hydraulic earth-filled dams. Today, building a dam would set off a chain of political discussions and media interventions but back in the 1930s, when America was suffering from the Great Depression, a proposal to harness energy and power from the free-flowing Missouri River was met with little resistance. The nation was in desperate need of work.
The inspiring story behind this colossal public works project can be viewed on a large screen inside the Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum. After the screening, we browsed through the museum which has a skeleton cast and a life-size model of a tyrannosaurus rex (T-rex) plus a neat collection of fossils found during construction of the dam.
Once described as having “a mouth full of steak knives” by Montana paleontologist Jack Horner (he was the technical advisor to Steven Spielberg for both JurassicPark and its sequel), the T-rex is a prehistoric creature whose feathers you don’t want to ruffle.
Silos by the highway near Havre
Truly a Treasure State
Gone are the war whoops of proud Indian chiefs defending their land and their way of life, the American buffalo has joined the ranks of endangered species, explorers have come and gone, built trading posts and conquered borders, cowboys and outlaws no longer hash it out in broad daylight.
In their place are highways hugging the rolling prairies, Indian reservations, fossil farms, safaris, national parks, dude ranches, restaurants and resorts welcoming visitors from all over the world.
But the past is not forgotten, it is preserved via museums and excavation sites, through books, photos and videos and most importantly, by the people of Montana.
The Lewis and Clark in Montana Trail is a guide to the many landmarks related to the famous expedition.
For dinosaur fans, here’s the schedule for the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum’s Summer Dig programs.
Esha Samajpati worked in advertising in India, before moving to Connecticut and becoming a travel writer. “Even now, when I visit a city, the billboards draw my attention,” she says. “How a city advertises tells me a lot about the place and the people.”