Up north, down south, out west or back east, America hits the road for Thanksgiving weekend. With TSA goons doing more groping at the airport than a hormone-addled teenager on his first date, more people than ever are driving to their Turkey Day destinations rather than putting up with the increasing hassle and indignity—not to mention the horribly bloated expense—of flying. It's the biggest travel weekend of the year, and according to AAA auto club, 94 percent of those travelers will be doing so in passenger vehicles. That's 39,668,000 people—almost as many as you see on Reserve Street every Friday afternoon.
"It's not about the destination. It's about the journey." So said Jackson Pollock, among others (including the father who forgot to reserve a room at the War Bonnet Inn in Miles City, only to drive 400 miles with his family and discover that the joint was booked solid). A road trip, by its very definition, is the opportunity to experience the landscape and soak up the local flavors in a way you never could from 36,000 feet. Montana has 73,202 miles of public roads to carry you over the river and through the woods, and the Independent is here to provide you with tips and advice for road tripping through the wide-open spaces of our sprawling state, as well as point out several interesting stops along the way. So open up that Montana Atlas & Gazetteer and twist the cap off a fresh highlighter, intrepid reader, as we provide the cure for white meat, er, line fever.
Rules of the road
First off, you're traveling in late November? What are you, crazy? Road conditions are sure to be dicey, and with a series of arctic storm systems blowing through the Northwest this week, you have to be prepared for anything.
Do not give up on your turkey and mashed potato dreams, though. A four-wheel-drive, or all-wheel-drive vehicle improves your chances of arriving at grandmother's house alive. The ubiquitous SUV or Subaru wagon seem to be the most popular mode of transport in our rugged state, so most of us are already equipped. Of course, who's to say it's not possible to cruise from Hamilton to Plentywood in your Mercury Grand Marquis? Enjoy the drive. I'll start looking for you in the barrow pit around, say, Ovando.
Seriously, when the rubber meets the snow, you want to have the grip and assurance of that four-wheel capability. Just know that it might help you go, but it doesn't help you stop. So when the roads turn slicker than a two-year-old's handshake, ease up on the throttle there, Jimmie Johnson. Wildlife, livestock, and the occasional confused medical marijuana enthusiast are a real danger on Montana roadways, so you need to be able to stop in time. And it goes without saying that with so much distance between service stations, especially in the eastern part of the state, you need to be sure you're outfitted with all the regular common-sense stuff like jumper cables, a good spare, extra fuses, tire chains, anti-freeze and road flares. Add a little peace of mind by throwing in a couple of blankets, a working flashlight and some bottled water. Believe me, it's no fun spending the night broken down in a mountain pass rest stop, trying to keep yourself warm by wrapping up in your free Visitor's Bureau state map and eating the owner's manual.
Fuel on the Hi-Line
Heading up to the Hi-Line? Highway 2, which runs across the northern tier of the state, has been called "The Loneliest Road in America," but loads of interesting Montana attractions await if you know where to look. On your way up, take a little detour off I-15 over to Choteau, and turn north on Highway 89. A few miles from there you'll find the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum (120 Second Avenue S., Bynum, 1-800-238-6873; open by appointment in winter), home of the longest dinosaur in the world. The 137-foot long seismosaurus skeleton on display is a replica, based on fossils uncovered near Albuquerque, N.M., in 1979, and it's damned impressive. The Center's Dinosaur Program offers training sessions for amateur archeologists, and they send hundreds of fossil hunters into the field each year hoping to find the next discovery in this dino-rich area.
Further up the road, in Shelby, you can see the story of a couple of other dinosaurs, Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. The tale of their legendary 1923 heavyweight fight is told in great detail at the Marias Museum of History and Art (206 12th Avenue N., Shelby, 406-424-2551; open by appointment in winter). They even have a pair of Gibbons' practice gloves on display. The story of Shelby's oil barons and their misguided attempt at staging a world-class boxing match is a case study in avarice, financial hoodwinkery, and house-of-cards promotion by a bunch of well-heeled jackanapes that would have made Donald Trump look like a punk-ass kid with a lemonade stand.
From Shelby you can go east through Havre, a good place to stop and replenish your road supplies. There's a gargantuan Wal-Mart Supercenter on a hill overlooking the town, like a shining beacon ready to siphon American dollars straight into the Chinese economy. Cruise on into Havre proper, though, and you'll find Gary and Leo's IGA (730 First Street, Havre), a nice, normal-sized, local grocer. Stock up on car-friendly snacks like baby carrots, Pringles chips, sunflower seeds and seedless grapes.
On the subject of food, it's a highly personal choice. Just make sure you have enough variety to keep everybody satisfied. One family may gobble trail mix and Clif bars by the handful, whereas another family might subsist on Corn Nuts and leftover Halloween candy they find stuck to the floor mats. One important thing to bear in mind is that it's cold out there. No one will be rolling down their windows or opening the sunroof, so try to avoid gas-producing snacks like bean dip, granola bars, prunes, yogurt and nuts. You don't want to arrive at your destination with a car full of watery-eyed, nauseous road warriors with scorched nose hairs. But if you can hold in a fart for as long as others can hold their water, go for it.
About three hours east of Havre you'll be ready for some more entertainment. If you want to show the kids something that they'll be describing to their therapists 20 years from now, I suggest the Valley County Pioneer Museum in Glasgow (816 Hwy. 2, Glasgow, open Tuesdays in winter, 1–4 p.m.). They have some legitimately rare items on display, from a full mount of the extinct Audubon sheep to an original C.M. Russell watercolor. But what will really blow your wig back is the taxidermy collection at the rear of the museum. Among the hundreds of mounts, you'll see a 62.5-pound buffalo fish, which looks like a goldfish from some Tim Burton nightmare. There's also the head of a very surprised-looking black bear, and at least three two-headed calves. The most shocking mount is a bobcat posed behind a skunk. My guess is that it was supposed to appear as if the cat is attacking the skunk from the rear, but he looks more like he's performing an unnatural act. And from the look on his face, he's enjoying the hell out of it. The skunk appears nonchalant, seemingly resigned to his fate. Somehow I don't think Pepe LePew would put up with being some bobcat's bitch.
Soundtrack heading south
If your journey takes you south toward Idaho or Wyoming, some very weird and interesting features can be seen without wandering too far from I-15. Butte, of course, is ready to welcome visitors with open arms. And then punch them in the face. But after you get up and dust yourself off, make sure you stop by the Butte Plaza Mall (3100 Harrison Avenue, Butte), where you can see a bronze statue of the Auditor, the shaggy canine mascot of Butte's mining industry. The reclusive mutt managed to live for 17 years in the poison-drenched, toxic wasteland near the Berkeley Pit Superfund site. Seventeen freakin' years. Can you imagine? My kids don't even want to sleep on the same sheets for more than a week. Also in the mall is the Our Lady of the Rockies gift shop, where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the 90-foot Virgin Mary who watches over the city from atop the Continental Divide, with her "where'd-I-leave-my-car-keys?" pose.
Continue down I-15 to Dillon, and check out the grave of Old Pitt, the circus elephant who's buried at the Beaverhead County Fairgrounds (2 South Pacific Street). Old Pitt was one of the few surviving veterans of John Robinson's herd of Military Elephants, and she was struck by lightning while performing with the circus in 1943. Her grave is easy to spot. Look for a small tree planted inside a roughly elephant-sized white picket fence. If you're traveling with children, you might have some explaining to do. In the cartoons, of course, if you're hit by lightning you just turn into a skeleton momentarily, and it doesn't kill you—you're just kind of dazed and smoking. Use your own judgment. Try to play some cheery music when you get back to the car.
This brings us to the subject of audio entertainment on the road trip. I always try to minimize the use of video players, iPods, Nintendo games and other personal entertainment systems that shut a passenger off from the outside world. I usually lose that battle, but I feel sorry for kids who sit, heads down, watching a tiny device in their laps for hours at a time while some of the most beautiful and exciting scenery they'll ever see glides past their window. Although I usually lose the argument, I'll never give up trying. Music needs to fill the cabin, to be shared by all (usually—see Road Trip Tip #2). What's better than having the road deliver the visuals, while you provide the music of your choice for the soundtrack? I once made a round-trip run to Denver with a good friend over the span of three days. I'd prepared a dozen CDs of hand-picked music, and it was a big part of an unforgettable, epic road trip. Put some thought into it. Don't be at the mercy of the radio, and take charge of the soundtrack.
Games out east
Perhaps you'll be visiting family in Billings or beyond. My neighbor Joel frequently makes the interminable trek from Missoula to Minot, N.D., some 800 miles. His mom must make some kick-ass pumpkin pie. That particular journey will take you through eastern Montana on I-94, and way out there along the border is the town of Wibaux. They've got a top-notch brewery there, Beaver Creek Brewery, and the Wibaux House provides a detailed glimpse into the life of Pierre Wibaux, the French immigrant for whom the town is named. And a couple of blocks from the Brewery, down Orgain Avenue, sits one of the craziest things you'll see anywhere: Wibaux's Rock Church.
Here's the story: Saint Peter's Catholic Church (312 W. First Avenue S.), which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was financed in 1895 by young Wibaux's father, who feared that his son didn't have a proper place to get right with Jesus. Around 1931, a local pastor thought it would be cool to cover the entire Gothic Revival structure in scoria, a rough volcanic stone common to the area. The result looks like something that belongs at the bottom of an aquarium.
Maybe on the way back from North Dakota you can make a pit stop in Glendive, just west of Wibaux. That's where you'll find a 15-foot tall, 30-foot long Glendisaurus, standing on Highway 16 at Hollecker Lake. The creature, which is apparently supposed to resemble a triceratops, looks like it was designed by the same people who gave us Gumby and Pokey. One theory is that the statue is based on a creature whose bones were found at nearby Play-Doh Flats.
Nothing against eastern Montana, but there's a whole lot of nothing out there. As the miles pile up on your odometer, boredom becomes a serious threat to everyone's sanity. You're going to need some road games to keep your crew occupied, and as Joel pointed out to me, I Spy quickly wears out its welcome east of Billings ("I spy something brown." "Grass?" "Right again!"). One game we like to play is to look for personalized license plates, and guess how many you'll see between two points, like two towns on your route. The rule is it only counts if you can decipher the plate and say it out loud. Some people who pay the extra $35 for a vanity plate are just too damned clever for their own good. I mean, OU812, anybody could figure that out. But what is EZ4NK8R supposed to mean?
Directly south of Glasgow, past Fort Peck Lake, 13 miles from the middle of nowhere, is the little town of Jordan. You won't be going through Jordan, because it is not on the way to anywhere. It's isolated, more than a hundred miles from the nearest airport big enough to handle anything larger than a crop duster. But if for some reason you find yourself there, fire your navigator. No, seriously, I love ya, Jordan! It's the only place on earth, besides the moon, that you'll find armalcolite, a rare mineral that was discovered in nearby Smoky Butte. I'm sure if someone found a profitable use for that stuff, Halliburton would be preparing their own Apollo program.
Hopefully, by Thanksgiving weekend, the Northwest will have received enough snow to allow the ski areas to open their lifts and begin selling their watery hot chocolate and undercooked hamburgers. Hordes of skiers will be heading to the Flathead Valley to enjoy the slopes in Whitefish and Kalispell. Roadside attractions abound along Highway 93 North, but keep your eyes on that road, Missy! Save the uncontrolled spinouts for the slopes.
Polson, at the south end of the lake, boasts quite a few interesting distractions. You've driven past the Miracle of America Museum (36094 Memory Lane, Polson) dozens of times and always vowed to stop there one day. Why not this trip? It's definitely worth an hour or two of your time. It's not every day you see a sheep-powered treadmill. Also, look for the life-sized flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz. Then imagine a few hundred of those fellows filling the sky, swooping down to persuade people to vote for Sarah Palin in 2012.
If you proceed up the west side of the lake, keep your eyes peeled for one of the coolest signs in the area, advertising a fishing guide in Lakeside. His name? Mo Fisch.
The two-lane blacktop that runs up the east side of the lake makes for a bit hairier drive, but it's the only way you'll see the stucco teepee house just south of Bigfork. It resembles the nose cone of an ICBM warhead emerging from a subterranean silo, but the stacks of cartons and junk visible through the windows are a dead giveaway. Who lives there? I don't know. Why don't you go knock on the door and find out, wise guy. Go ahead. I dare you.
Trapped out west
Maybe you're part of the horde heading west to Couer d'Alene, Spokane or Seattle. You might get a kick out of the Trout Aquarium inside the St. Regis Travel Center (55 Mullan Road, at exit 33), about 70 miles west of Missoula on I-90. Some of these fish are as big as a full grown wolverine, and you can get close enough to see the world-weary expression on their scarred faces. Further along I-90 is the 50,000 Silver Dollar Bar (exit 16), a first-class tourist trap in Haugan. The main attraction is the shit-ton of Liberty silver dollars covering the top of the bar and surrounding walls. It's also one of the largest gift shops in the state and, trust me, you'll be a real hero if you show up at your destination with a righteous jackalope.
If you open yourself up to the exhilarating possibilities of a well-planned road trip, Thanksgiving itself will seem almost a letdown. Then, after the last turkey sandwich has been eaten, after your family has spent three or four days deepening the bonds of mistrust and dysfunction, when your burps no longer smell like cranberry and you're eight to 10 pounds heavier than when you left, it'll be time to crawl back in the vehicle and head for home. As you and your crew sail along that winding ribbon of asphalt and you approach the end of your Thanksgiving trip, you'll surely have enough memories and stories from the road to keep people entertained for months to come.
At least until Spring Break, when you can do it all over again.
Ednor Therriault, aka Bob Wire, is a road warrior and the author of Montana Curiosities, an offbeat guide to the state's roadside attractions. He's spending his holiday traveling to Vegas.