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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.