Montana’s vastness strikes me as the needle on the car’s speedometer inches up to eighty-miles-per-hour, a speed I never hit on the east coast because of speed limits and traffic. The wildflowers along the highway blur into broad, impressionistic brush-strokes. Barbed wire fence posts flick by as fast as frames on a movie reel. And, yet, the mountains on my left haven’t so much as moved over the last half hour of driving. And, because of their size and distance, they will hang there in suspended animation for the next hour (until I turn north in Livingston).
I feel comfortable in this vastness, even after spending the last three years buried in Maine’s dense forests, driving on roads that look the same, mile after mile. Don’t get me wrong, Maine is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. When I press my foot against the accelerator in Montana, however, I find myself surprised that anyone could ever fall asleep behind the wheel and die on these roads. Over every hill, there is something new to see!
These images are a small part of what I see as I drive between the grassy plains of Pompey’s Pillar and rocky peaks outside Stevensville, Montana.
Sit back, roll down the windows and take it all in.
Pompey's Pillar, MT: My trip starts where this sandstone column rises 150 ft. over the grassy prairie about 25 miles east of Billings. In 1806 William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition carved his name in the sandstone after climbing to the top to survey the landscape. He wrote in his journal about the jagged mountains he saw on the horizon. Those peaks are the Beartooth Mountain Range 80 miles away. I hope to be there before the end of the day.
Pompey's Pillar, MT: Long before Clark named the pillar for Sacagawea's son, it held special meaning for the people of the Crow Nation who called it, "The Place Where the Mountain Lion Lies." The bluff is a place of great spiritual power to the Crow whose oral histories tell of vision quests at the rock by several prominent Crow leaders.
Pompey's Pillar, MT: Captain Clark wasn't the first nor last to graffiti this rock. These stairs lead visitors to where they can see Clark's signature among petroglyphs dating back before the horse was introduced to the American Indians in the 1700's through etchings made by railroad workers in the late 1880's. If you look closely, you can see the masts where motion-detectors and video cameras stop modern-day defacers from leaving their marks.
Outside Billings, MT: Billings lies in the Yellowstone River Valley, surrounded by sandstone cliffs on both sides. This photo, taken a few miles up-river from Billings, shows the landscape that gives Montana its moniker "Big Sky Country."
Outside Billings, MT: There's no shortage of patriotism in eastern Montana. Political signs often linger, fading in the sun, for years after the elections have decided their candidates' fates.
Pictograph Cave State Park, Billings, MT: This site served as a shelter to the area's American Indians for over 3,000 years, both in the caves (one of which is visible behind the tipi) and, after the introduction of the horses, on the banks of Bitter Creek in tipis.
Farm outside Billings, MT: A tractor kicks up a plume of dust as it crosses a dry field. The Yellowstone River Valley is fertile, yet challenging to farm. Less than 14 inches of rain fall on this field each year.
Red Lodge, MT: The facades on the buildings in downtown Red Lodge have a polished look that illustrates the crossroads that the town has passed. At one time this town eeked out a living on timber, mining and agriculture. Now its biggest growth sectors are tourism and real estate. It's hard to find a town more removed from its past.
Red Lodge, MT: The flags of dozens of countries hang along the streets in preperation of the Festival of Nations, one of the most meaningful ways Red Lodge struggles to keep hold of its past. The festival is a celebration of the influx of multi-national immigrant labor that dug its mines and tilled its fields. The festival includes traditional food and dancing.
Natali's Front Bar, Red Lodge, MT: Natali's is definitely the kind of place you throw your peanut shells on the floor. I arrived a little too early for a drink. The door was open, but no one seemed to be around to explain why there were hundreds of $1 bills pinned to the ceiling.
Montana Candy Emporium, Red Lodge, MT: Made out of an old theater, the Montana Candy Emporium is filled with old-time kitsch, cool cruiser bikes and buckets of local, hand-made candies. I felt like, well, you know...
Road into the mountains, outside of Red Lodge, MT: Red Lodge is the gateway to the Beartooth Mountains. Here' the road splits. Primitive single-lane jeep roads like this one climb to the right to the 10,500 ft. Hellroaring Plateau. On the left, Highway 212 switchbacks its way 5,000 ft. up and over Beartooth Pass. On the other side is my next destination: Yellowstone National Park.