ctsprinterlife: OTR 8.0: Mississippi Part One

TransAmerica Trail (TAT)

The TAT is a 4200 mile transcontinental route comprised largely of dirt and gravel roads. The trail is the creation of Sam Carrero, an avid off-road motorcyclist with a passion for exploring and tackling challenging terrain.

Sam began the process of mapping out this coast to coast off-pavement adventure in 1984. It took him 12 years to put the route together. The route utilzes only publicly accessible roads and trails, however, it is not intended for standard vehicles or standard motorcycles. Many portions of the route require 4WD and high clearance and significant portions are single lane only at best.

County Road 738
County Road 738

We had a blast driving the Mississippi portion of the TAT. Several nights of rain made some portions of the trail muddy but still passable. The notorious County Road 555 was partially washed out (see video below) and after a driver/navigator consultation we retreated to find a road in better condition and then rejoin the TAT!

County Road 555
County Road 555, Lambert, MS (pop. 1296 – size 544 acres)

The Mississippi portion of the TAT is relatively short at about 300 miles but it provided us with a fun overlanding experience and the opportunity to travel through some very rural areas of Mississippi. The majority of the trail takes the traveler through large swaths of pine forest, some farm land and the occasional cluster of homes and a small church.

This part of Mississippi is known as the Pine Belt. When we think of the timber industry we tend to think about the massive timberlands of the West and forget that Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are still major producers of timber. Timber is the second largest agricultural commodity in Mississippi (poultry is number one).

Another observation from our trip across the state on the trail is that there is significant poverty in rural Mississippi (Mississippi has the highest poverty rate of the fifty states and DC). While we only passed through a small number of rural communities, we saw that people are living in very impoverished circumstances. A number of these small communities appear to be segregated and that the most impoverished of these communities are inhabited by Black residents.

The photos below are from a small town that we crossed through while traversing the state. The town has a population of approximately 448 people and is predominately Black (85%). The poverty rate for Blacks is 52% and for males 60%.

The balance of this post will provide a brief recap of our experiences in the towns we visited that are not along the TAT.

Corinth —- home of the slugburger

Corinth is a handsome town (pop. 14,000) in the northeastern corner of Mississippi and was our jumping off point for the TAT. We had planned on visiting Corinth even before our decision to tackle the TAT. The town is steeped in Civil War history (First Battle of Corinth and Second Battle of Corinth) and has 18 structures or locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But alas, the charm and history of Corinth had not driven our desire to visit the town — we must confess it was our (well, honestly, for just one of us) obsession with eating a Northeast Mississippi specialty – the Slugburger. Additionally, we needed to try the Slugburger at Borroum’s Drug Store and Fountain because Borroum’s has the best Slugburger in Corinth. Borroum’s is the oldest drug store in Mississippi and still operated by the same family (the business was started shortly after the end of the Civil War when Jack Borroum arrived after being released from a Union Army prison camp).

What is a Slugburger, you ask? Slugburgers are a mixture of ground pork, soy flour, and spices. The mixture is flattened into a patty and deep fried in vegetable oil. The patty is placed on a hamburger bun with a garnish of mustard, onion, and pickle. Developed during the Great Depression when money and meat were both scarce, slug burgers were made with a mixture of beef and pork, potato flour as an extender, and spices, then fried in animal fat. Mrs. Weeks, credited with creating one of the first, found the “burgers” were a way to make meat go a little farther at the family hamburger stand. Selling for a nickel, sometimes called a slug, the imitation hamburgers became known as Slugburgers.

New Albany-or-the crash

We popped off the TAT to visit New Albany and cycle the Tanglefoot Trail. The Tanglefoot is a 44 mile paved bicycle trail that was formerly a line of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad (which still operates today as a subsidiary of the Rock Island Rail). As an historical aside, the railroad was founded by Colonel Willam Clark Faulkner, great-grandfather of author William Faulkner. The line was conceived as a way to move timber to the Gulf. The trail is named after the steam locomotive Tanglefoot which was used during the construction of the line.

The Tanglefoot is an award winning trail – noted for the scenery and small towns that can be visited directly from the trail. We set out from the trailhead in New Albany heading due south. The ride was delightful – forest, farm fields, numerous creek crossings and lots of wildlife.

Unfortunately, our delightful ride became less so when the smarter, wiser and better looking member of this partnership crashed after getting sideways in some loose gravel at the edge of the trail. Maria managed to finish the remaining 15 miles of the ride but was unable to walk on her own power once off the bike.

Fortunately, after a visit to the local urgent care and a consultation (and more xrays) with an orthopedist the next day in Oxford, it was determined that Maria did not have a fractured patella, just a severe contusion. So we purchased crutches, swallowed some pain meds and got back on the road two days later. Ten days later we were back on the bikes! Phew!

Oxford —- or everybody loves ole miss

We were fortunate in one sense that Oxford was a short drive from New Albany and is home to the University of Mississippi School of Medicine and Specialty Orthopedic Group. After Maria received the good news that there was no fracture, we decided to stay in Oxford for several days and let Maria begin her recuperation.

Oxford worked well for us as our time there allowed Maria to get rest and stay off her feet for several days. So, perhaps needless to say, we spent most of our time in Oxford drinking coffee and tea, drinking beverages other than coffee and tea, and dining. The good news – as home to Ole Miss – there are plenty of choices from a culinary perspective.

We would say that while the town is very attractive and has plenty of dining options, we found Oxford more touristy than we expected and we are of the opinion the hype about how cool the town is overstated. Perhaps, we just missed it with Maria being less than one hundred percent.

Taylor grocery — “eat or we both starve!”

While we were in Oxford, a number of folks we met recommended the quick trip to Taylor to dine at Taylor Grocery. Taylor Grocery is billed as the best catfish in the South, and we would not argue with that claim. The building was erected in 1889 and we are pretty certain that not many improvements have been made to the property (part of the charm – see photographs below). We also had the good fortune to meet the owners, Lynn, Debbie and Sarah Margaret Hewlett. Lynn joined us at our dinner table, making sure we sampled most of the menu items—we had a great evening! We have included our note to Sarah below. For more information on the storied history of Taylor Grocery click on the link: https://taylorgrocery.com/


Hello Sarah—
We had the great pleasure of dining at Taylor Grocery this evening (3/31/22) and wanted to send our appreciation for the hospitality and outstanding meal.
From the moment we met Lynn on the porch playing his dobro, we knew we were in a special place. We ordered an appetizer and catfish dinners from our friendly and helpful server; and we also received complimentary sides of gumbo, rice and beans, and fried okra. And we managed to eat chocolate cobbler, too! Everything was delicious.
On our way into the restaurant, we were chatting with a local gentleman who inquired about our van. When we went to pay for our dinner, we were so surprised to hear that he had already taken care of it-Mississippi Hospitality!
We are from Connecticut and have been traveling throughout the US in our van six months annually for the last four years, and Taylor, MS will always hold a special place in our hearts. Hopefully, we will we back again.
With our kindest regards to all at Taylor Grocery,
Maria & Stephen

We hope you found this post from the first leg of our exploration of Mississippi interesting. Our next post regarding Mississippi will chronicle our time in the Mississippi Delta.

Be seeing you!

ctsprinterlife: OTR 8.0: Alabama Part Two

Florence

From Birmingham we made our way northeast to the town of Florence. Florence sits on the Tenneesee River and is located in the northwest corner of Alabama in the Shoals. Florence is also home to the University of North Alabama (UNA),the oldest university in Alabama.

Florence is a beautiful town with many well preserved historic homes and buildings, including some grand buildings on the campus of the university which sits in the middle of town.

Florence was not in our original travel plans, but when we mentioned to some folks we met in Birmingham that we were going to Muscles Shoals they recommended a visit to Florence (right across the river).

Rosenbaum House

Rosenbaum house

You may recall from previous trips that we are fans of Frank Lloyd Wright structures (see previous post Falling for Falling Water). An added bonus of visiting Florence is that is the home to the only FLW design in Alabama.

We were fortunate that the Rosenbaum House was open for tours while were in town and that we had a very knowledgable volunteer guide. We spent about an hour inside the house and then did a walk around to view the outside of the home.

Construction of the Rosenbaum House began in 1939 and was completed during 1940. Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum and their children were the only people to reside in the home. After Stanley passed away, Mildred continued to live in the home until 1999. She could no longer maintain the home by this point and none of her sons wanted the home. Fortunately, the City of Florence acquired the home that year and has worked to preserve the home – making repairs to the roof and other areas – that were much needed when the family sold the house to the city. The city did a wonderful job restoring the house.

Rosenbaum House

This house is an example of what Wright called a Usonian House. Usonian Houses were intended for Middle Class Americans – simple but stylish and affordable – also small. That is not how things worked out in many cases. Most of his commissions were for wealthy families such as the Rosenbaums. Additionally, as with a number of the other homes Wright designed, he also designed most of the original furniture in this home.

Another feature of the Usonian House was that it was designed to grow with the family. In the case of the Rosenbaums, they had four sons. Wright designed a significant addition which was completed in 1948 and included dormitory style space for the boys, a larger kitchen and a guest room.

Dormitory Addition for the Rosenbaum Boys

For more information regarding the Rosenbaum House: https://www.wrightinalabama.com/

Muscles shoals sound studio

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

The Muscle Shoal Sound Studio (MSS) opened in 1969. The studio was founded and owned by the Muscle Shoals Rythm Section also famously known as The Sawmpers. The Swampers had established a reputation as super-tight R&B and Funk studio session musicians.

Between 1969 and 1978 the Swampers played on 200 albums. Seventy-five of those album went Gold or Platinum. Some examples of the groups that Swampers recorded with include: Boz Scaggs, Rolling Stones, Lulu, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson and the Staples SIngers.

The studio was abandoned in in 1978 when the Swampers moved to a larger studio in Sheffield. Incredibly, while the studio was occupied by several different businesses and then sat vacant for many years, all of the studio equipment remained intact. The studio was purchased by a non-profit that now gives tours. The studio is once again being used for recording utilizing all of the original gear. For more information on the history of the studio and the Swampers: https://muscleshoalssoundstudio.org/

The shoals: Best food and coffee

Odette https://www.odettealabama.com/

306 Barbecue https://306bbq.com/

Turbo Coffee https://turbocoffee.co/pages/about-us

Our next segment will take us across Northern Mississippi, primarily on dirt and gravel roads. We will pick up the trail south of Corinth, Mississippi and attempt to follow it to the terminus at the Mississippi River. We will jump off the trail at regular intervals to visit some of the tiny towns scattered across this area of the state. Also, in keeping with our visit to Muscles Shoals Sound Studio, we will be visiting Clarksdale while in Mississippi – the epicenter of the Delta Blues.

Be seeing you!

Street Art from the Road: OTR 8.0: Part Two: Clarksdale Music and Art

Muddy Waters, Clarksdale, MS (1913-1983) Midnight at the Crossroads by Devin Gerard Liston @devin.liston

Clarksdale, Mississippi, undoubtedly the epicenter of the Mississippi Delta Blues, is also a treasure trove of Street Art reflecting the musical heritage of the Delta. While we were visiting primarily to hear live blues music and experience the local juke joints, we could not pass up the opportunity to photograph the many portrait murals of blues legends.

The musicians that were born in this area are among the greatest blues practioners and pioneers of all time. Many of them emigrated north to Detroit and Chicago for factory work but ultimately found fame there and were able to turn their passion for music into their full time pursuit.

Just a few examples of the musicians who were born in this area or contributed to the development of the Blues here include: Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Robert Johnson, Kingfish Ingram and Sarah Moore. Click on the link to see a roster (and biographies) of the many famous blues musicians that were so much a part of the blues scene here. https://www.cityofclarksdale.org/music-culture-history/

John Lee Hooker, Tutwiler, MS (1917-2001)
Leo “Bud” Welch, Sabougla, MS (1932-2017) by El Care Barbie @elcarebarbie
Sam Cooke, Clarksdale, MS (1931-1964)
Delta Roots by Hayden G. Hall @haydenghallart
Portrait of Dr. Vera Mae Pigee by Charles Coleman @ccolem20
Clint Eastwood as the Outlaw Josey Wales by Christopher Keywood
Plow Mule Blues by Church Goin Mule Marshall Blevins @churchgoinmule
Don’t Stop Me From Flying by Likmi Soberana @lik_mi
Rebeka Skela @sanguineskills
Woman of Rock by @erre.erre
Homage to Howlin’ Wolf Wilson by Gerson Fonseca @monstrucion.3
Midnight at the Crossroads by Devin Gerard Liston @devin.liston

We hope you enjoyed these photographs of street murals from Clarksdale. We could have spent another day photographing more murals, but the road was calling and we always heed the call of the road.

Be seeing you!

ctsprinterlife: OTR 8.0 Alabama Part One

OTR’s only previous experience in Alabama was a couple of days driving across the northern portion of the state in March of 2020 as we were returning home prematurely due to the impact of the pandemic. So we were excited to come back to Alabama and spend some additional time exploring.

Graces High Falls

Little river canyon national preserve (LRCNP)

As we were preparing to leave Chattanooga and looking at potential points of interest on our way to Birmingham, we discovered LRCNP. The LRCNP was a great find – it provides a scenic drive along the canyon rim and a number of hikes on top of the canyon as well as down into the canyon.

Hawks Glide Overlook

The Little River flows across the top of Lookout Mountain and has carved a canyon as deep as 600 feet along the way. A river flowing across a mountain top is unusual but has helped keep this area much as it has been for centuries. There is no development within the canyon. The drive to get to the mouth of the canyon is an eleven mile steep, winding and narrow affair which limits the number of visitors to the day use area.

Little River

If you find yourself in Northeastern Alabama for any reason the LRCNP is a terrific place to spend a day driving the rim and taking a hike. https://www.nps.gov/liri/index.htm

Birmingham

We were interested in visiting Birmingham to better understand the history of this city that was so critical to the advancement of civil rights in America. However, our first stop in Birmingham was a visit to the city’s botanical garden.

We knew the gardens would not be at peak this early in the season but the grounds were still beautiful and provided us with a peaceful afternoon walking the paths.

Sloss furnaces

The following morning we commenced our tour (after fika at Seeds Coffee) of the city. We started at the Sloss Furnaces. The Furnaces is a historic landmark which both represents the industrial might that made Birmingham so prosperous and the racism that made Birmingham so notorius.

Sloss Furnaces

Birmingham is known as the Magic City due to its rapid growth and prosperity. Birmingham was just farmland until the mid 1800’s when it was discovered that the three items needed to make steel – iron ore, limestone and coal were all abundant in the area. Combined with the arrival of the railroad, the path forward was set.

The Sloss Furnaces operated from 1872 until 1970, helping to make Birmingham a prosperous city with culture and arts for the white residents. Black workers made up 70% of the workforce but provided 100% of the back-breaking labor in the mines and the furnaces. All managerial positions were held by white workers. The city was not so magical for African-Americans who were paid low wages for working in intolerable and unsafe conditions. To make the situation even more obscene the companies utilized “convict labor” in the coal mines and paid their wages to the city. Ninety percent of the convict laborers were blacks and many were falsly arrested on vagrancy charges, jailed and then leased to the city. This practice continued until 1928 – that’s right – 1928. So much for emancipation.

The workers at Sloss as well as the other furnaces were strictly segregatedBlack workers had separate showers, time clocks and entrances. The segregated workplace was not abolished until the 1960’s when the civil rights movement forced the company to abolish the policy.

The Sloss Furnaces as a physical artifact of our history are a superlative piece of history showcasing the rapid and impressive technological advances of the United States. It is an outdoor museum like few others and we think it merits a visithttps://www.slossfurnaces.com/

Birmingham civil rights institute

Martin Luther King, Jr – Birminghan Civil Rights Institute

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institue (BCRI) was opened to the public in 1992. The BCRI is part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. In addition to serving as a museum chronicling the civil rights movement in Birmingham, it functions as a research and educational organization .

BCRI

The museum staff has laid out the story of the civil rights movement in a compelling and dramatic fashion. There are many significant artifacts on display but it is the videos, photographs and recordings of the actual events that give life to the history. We found ourselves struggling emotionally a number of times as we watched and listened to the events that demonstrated the cruelty of the segregationists and courage of people fighting for equality in the face of jail, physical harm or even death.

16th street baptist church

16th Street Baptist Church

The 16th Street Baptist Church is across the street from the BCRI. We took a tour of this church that figured so prominently in the fight to end segregation in Birmingham. This church was a central rallying point for the protests that took place in Birmingham.

As a result, white segregationists targeted the church and on Sunday, September 15, 1963, segregationists placed dynamite under the steps on the side of the church. The explosion killed four young girls and seriously injured another young girl.

The 16th Street Baptist Church is still an active and robust parish. The tour of the church is conducted by members of the parish. They are knowledgable and engaging. Several of the elder tour guides were parishioners at the time of the bombing. If you are visiting the BCRI most definitely walk across the street for a tour at the church.https://www.nps.gov/articles/16thstreetbaptist.htm

Fika with fiona: Best of birmingham: Seeds coffee

Seeds Coffee: https://seedscoffee.com/about/

We will be publishing a second post covering the remainder of the Alabama portion of OTR 8.0 in the near future.

Be seeing you!

OTR 8.0: Virginia (but first, Maryland)

Headwaters Presbyterian Church, 1890, Headwaters, VA (pop. 113)

Cumberland, Maryland

Savage Mountain, GAP

With a cool but dry forecast in front of us we decided to delay our arrival in Virginia and head to Cumberland for a couple of days to take advantage of the forecast and do some cycling. Cumberland is the terminus for two exceptional bike trails. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland providing 150 miles of cycling. The trail roughly follows the course of three rivers from west to east: the Monongahela River, the Youghiogheny River and the Casselman River.

The C&O trail begins in Washington DC and follows the C&O Canal for 185 miles to its terminus in Cumberland. Based on a recommendation from some local bicyclists we rode west on the GAP. While the GAP has a better surface than the C&O, riding west is all uphill out of Cumberland. Of course the ride back takes about half as much time.

The scenery along the trail is spectacular as the trail ascends into the Laurel Highlands of Virginia. We definitely plan on going back in the future to ride additional sections of the trail.

Skyline drive

Skyline Drive sits within Shenandoah National Park (SNP). The road winds its way (north/south) along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. Skyline is the only through road in the entire park. Additionally, you can only enter or exit Skyline Drive in four places. We accessed the road at the Northern entrance in Front Royal.

Driving South – Skyline Drive

While the highest elevation on the road is 3680 FASL the views are none the less spectacular. You are witness to broad green valleys reaching across to more ridgeline, and are able to view the Shenandoah River meandering through the valley to the west.

We had hoped to camp overnight at Great Meadows, which sits approximately 51 miles south of the northern entrance at Front Royal. We would then complete the remainder of the drive the following day. We also planned on hiking from the Great Meadows that afternoon. Alas, the campground was gated and we were unable to camp on the ridge.

We also had planned to hike to Lewis Fall from the campground. We still wanted to hike so we pushed on to a trailhead about five miles further south based on a recommendation from a park rangers.

The Rose River Trail is a loop trail that descends from a trailhead at Fishers Gap. The Rose River is just 8.8 miles in length but flows down from one of the highest points on the Blue Ridge until it converges with the Robinson River.

After descending to the valley floor,the climb back up to the trailhead was steep and a bit arduous as you regain the 1000 feet of elevation lost on the way down. The sights and sounds of the multiple waterfalls and cascades that are your constant companions on this hike more than compensate for the effort.

Highland County

After finishing the hike we made our way south completing the drive and heading west to stay in Staunton (pronounced Stanton). We had stopped in Staunton in March, 2020 on our way back to Connecticut after the pandemic cut short that trip – looking for coffee and food. We found an excellent coffee shop and roaster (Crucible Coffee) and an excellent restaurant (Table 44) that were both still operating. We have fond memories of our stop in Staunton as we had limited option in March 2020 – the excellent news is that our memories had not failed us and we again had a great dinner and excellent coffee and tea before heading west to Highland County.

The trip west to Highland is a spectacular ride on Route 250. The road is a twisting up and down affair as you climb up and over the crest of Shenandoah Mountain.

Hankey Mountain Highway -Route 250

Highland County is the least populated county in Virginia. While the county is 416 square miles the population is a mere 2200 people. The economy is dominated by agriculture – mostly in the form of beef cattle as the mountainous terrain and narrow valleys are not conducive to growing crops at scale.

Eastern Continental Divide, Allegheny Mountains

The Western border of the county is formed by the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains (see photo above of Allegheny Mountains as viewed of Shenandoah Mountain). The Allegenies at the western edge of the county also form the border with West Virginia. There are just three communites in the county; McDowell, Montery and Blue Grass. You may find other places designated on maps but they are just remnants of towns.

Beulah Presbyterian Church

We are drawn, as you know, to more remote locations to enjoy nature and solitude but must confess that part of our motive for this segment of OTR 8.0 was the Annual Highland County Maple Festival. The Maple Festival has been taking place for two weekends in March for the last 52 years.

Maple Dounts

What can we say – donuts, pancakes, pretzels, etc. – all made fresh by local residents with pure maple syrup from Highland County. The money supports local churches, civic organizations and businesses. More importantly it is all gosh darn delicious and the people are happy you made the trip up to ”Little Switzerland” from down in the Eastern lowlands!

The Curly Maple, Monterey, Virginia (pop. 130)
Blue Grass Mercantile, Blue Grass Virginia (pop. 144)
Episcopal Church of The Good Shepard, Blue Grass, Virginia

We enjoyed touring the valleys of Highland County and chatting with some of the local folks we met in the towns (even if one of them called us Yankees!) but we knew it was time to move on when we awoke to snow and howling winds.

Be seeing you!

P.S. As you may have noticed if you follow our blog on a regular basis our posts are not published on a strictly chronological basis.

Butte…..the Big Hole

We spent two hot days in Butte as we traveled south from the Sweet Grass Hills. Butte is a town we wanted to visit more from a historical perspective than because of its beautiful scenery or recreational opportunities.

Headframe, Orphan Girl Mine, Butte

Butte’s origins are exclusively related to the mining of silver and copper. The land area that is now Butte was nothing more than a scattering of mining camps on “the hill”. Of course, once silver and copper was discovered in 1870 the boom was underway.

The town grew exponentially for a number of years until a fire in 1879 leveled the town. The town was quickly rebuilt using only stone and brick which is why so much of the Uptown Butte (downtown) area remains intact today.

All of the photos above are from the Orphan Girl mine. We toured the mine and were able to walk down (with a guide) to tunnels about 150 feet under the surface. The mine ultimately operated at 3000 feet under the surface.

The mine operated from 1875 until 1950 and produced 7.6 million ounces of silver as well as lead and zinc. In 1965 the mine was repurposed as a mining museum and opened to the public for tours. The mine is also utilized by students at the Monatana Technical University School of Mines and Engineering as a hands on laboratory for their Mining Engineering students. The campus sits adjacent to the Orphan Girl site and the school has its own entrance into the mine from within the campus.

While the Orphan Girl produced primarily silver, it was copper that drove the growth and prosperity of Butte. The introduction of electricity on a widespread basis created an insatiable demand for copper wiring. World War 1 added to the demand as military rifle ammunition used copper jackets.

Mine Elevator

Butte, unlike many other mining towns, continued to prosper well into the 20th century owing to the massive deposit of copper and the demand for copper for use in modern electronics. Over time the various copper mines were purchased and operated by the Anaconda Mining Company.

In the aftermath of all of the acquisitions, Anaconda sought to reduce expenses through the 1930s and 1940s which led inevitably to labor disputes and costly strikes. Ultimately, during the 1950s the company responded by beginning to strip mine for the copper.

Berkley Pit

All of silver and copper in and around Butte had been conducted as underground hard rock tunnel mining until 1952. The area around the mines were dotted with neighborhoods and small towns. The strip mining completely destroyed the area as people and businesses were forced to relocate. The photos above and below are of the flooded portion of the Berkely Pit.

The strip mining continued until 1982 by which time the pit was 7000 feet long, 5600 feet wide and 1600 feet deep. Two entire towns, Meaderville and McQueen as well as much of the east end of Butte were ultimately consumed by the pit.

When the mine ceased operations, the water pumps were shut down and the pit began to fill with heavily acidic water, resulting in the leaching of heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the water in the pit. The water level is currently at 900 feet.

Not surprisingly, the pit was declared a superfund site and is the largest such site in the United States. The site has been remediated and a water filtration plant is in operation to remove the metals and toxic chemicals that continue to leach from the sides of the pit.

The land adjacent to the Berkely Pit is still rich with copper – yes – strip mining for copper resumed in 1982 right next to the Berkely Pit. Let’s hope the environmental regulators have stayed on top of things with this mine.

P.S. We took the photos of the Berkely Pit from the viewing stand on top of the pit. Just three dollars per person to see the largest superfund site in America in person – yep, the pit is a tourist attraction – exit through the gift shop!

Berkely Pit, 1972, Courtesy Montana Standard

Mining is the reason for Butte and is still a major part of the local economy. The Berkley Pit will always be there as an ugly reminder of the decision to switch from tunnel mining to strip mining in order to lower labor costs. In the end, labor costs were minor in comparison to the initial cost of remediating the pit and associated ongoing costs.

Butte certainly has a colorful history as a mining town and a tough legacy as the location of the largest superfund site in America. A lesser claim to fame is that the longest continuosly running brothel in America was located in Butte, closing – you guessed it – in 1982 when the Berkely Pit shut down.

There is beautiful country and plenty of recreational opportunities all around Butte. Butte proper is not an attractive city but worth a quick visit if you have an interest in seeing and better understanding local history and the impact of large scale mining.

Be seeing you!

Southwest Montana

Pioneer mountains scenic byway

Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
Wise River

The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a spectacular drive. The route follows a paved road from Wise, Montana to its end near Dillon, Montana. The Pioneer Mountains have an eastern and western range. The drive winds through the meadows between the ranges providing incredible views all around. Interestingly, the two ranges are very different in appearance. The eastern range has tall, jagged peaks (think Grand Tetons) while the western range is more rounded. These are big mountains with several peaks above 11,000 feet.

We were not familiar with this range before a gentlemen in Shelby told us about this drive – thank you! This is one of the biggest ranges we had never heard of before. The range is within national forest – largely unspoiled – just mountains, forests, meadows and the the byway bisecting the range.

About 25 miles along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway we came to a five mile dirt road that climbs up to the site of the ghost town of Coolidge and the defunct Elkhorn Mine and Mills. The road is fine for 2wd vehicles if it is dry.

Photo Courtesy of Western Mining History

The former mine and town sit at an elevation of 6601 feet. The mine produced zinc, lead and silver from 1875 until it was decommissioned in 1899 when the ore load was considered to be played out. The Elkhorn was the last mine in Montana to produce silver.

Work to reopen the mine under new ownership began in 1918. The tunneling work brought people back to Coolidge and a school and post office were established. The town even had electricity – no small feat at that time in such a remote location. Unforunately, by the time the tunneling was completed and the mine was actually ready to begin producing in 1923, silver prices plummeted and the mine went bust.

Subsequently, a dam collapse wiped out several sections of rail line and the town lost rail service marking the beginning of the end. The school and post office closed soon after.

The remains of the town are mostly collapsed at this point – not much to explore in that regard, but we think it is worth the visit – the scenery from the mine site is gorgeous and you walk away with a real sense of the what conditions must have been like when the mine and town were operating.

Bannack….Gold rush

Bannack School House and Masonic Lodge

After completing our drive on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Highway we continued south through the Grasshopper Valley to visit the ghost town of Bannack. The town sits on the bank of Grasshopper Creek and was founded in 1862 after gold was found in the creek. The town is named after the Bannock Indians that inhabited this area at that time – the spelling with an a instead of an o was the result of a clerical error in Washington.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition first documented the creek in 1805 and named it Willard Creek. When the population swelled in 1862 after the discovery of gold, the miners renamed it Grasshopper Creek due to the abundance of grasshoppers in the area.

Bannack Methodist Church, 1877

In addition to the influx of miners (many from Colorado) prospecting for gold, the town became a haven for Civil War deserters and outlaws (in part due to its remote location). Within a year there were approximately 3000 people inhabiting Bannack. Almost all of the inhabitants were men. The handfull of women in town were mostly “saloon girls” who worked in one of the four saloons.

Saloon and Barbershop

As the population continued to swell (10,000 people at its height), the outlaws took full advantage of the opportunity to relieve miners of their gold. Miners frequently went back and forth between Bannack and the mining camp at Virginia City. By this point the outlaws had organized into several large gangs and routinely robbed and in some cases murdered the miners.

The town hired a sheriff (Henry Plummer) to stop the violence but he turned out to be the leader of the largest and most violent of the gangs. Dang!

As this fact became well known, folks of Bannack and Montana decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Montana Vigilence Committee. Between December 1863 and February 1864, 24 men suspected of crimes were lynched by the Vigilantes. There were no trials! One of the most notable of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was suspected of being a gang leader. Montana State Police still wear a shoulder patch with the numbers 3-7-77. The numbers supposedly represent the dimensions of the graves of ths suspected outlaws killed by the vigilantes. Three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep…and now you know.

As with many gold rush towns, the bust comes just as quickly as the boom. By 1870, the easy gold was dredged out of the creek and the population began to quickly decline. Bannack’s population dropped from almost 10,000 to just a few hundred by 1870, only eight years after its founding.

The town carried on until the 1940s due to several small gold booms, but they were not enough to sustain the town. The majority of the remaining population moved on during the 1930s and by the 1940s the one room schoolhouse and the post office closed. The town was effectively non-existent, although a small number of residents hung on into the 1970s.

Today Bannack is managed by the state of Monatana as part of Bannack State Park. The state has done an excellent job preserving the remaining structures as they were but is not restoring the buildings

The history of this short lived town is deep and fascinating. The town physically has over 60 structures remaining – the majority are open for exploration.

If you enjoy western history, Bannack is a fun and interesting place to visit. The Grasshopper Valley is beautiful but remote, so give thought with combining a visit to Bannack with other destinations in southwestern Montana and perhaps Idaho.

Darby rodeo

Bull Riding

Friday night rodeo is a weekly event during the summer in many ranching towns in the west. Kids begin competing at age six. Most high schools have rodeo teams and there is a collegiate circuit as well. Towns take great pride in their rodeo stadium.

The video below is of Cole Trexler, age 18, Montana high school all-around rodeo state champion. Cole will be riding at the collegiate level this fall. His brother Cash, 14, is also a budding rodeo star. He is the high school state champion bull rider. We met Cash and his mom. She told us that Cash “sat” his first horse at age three!

Cole Trexler, Covering on his Bronc

The Senior Professional Rodeo Association was in Darby for the weekend while were camping up the road a piece in Victor. On a gorgeous Friday evening we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls compete in bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing (cowgirls only). The senior circuit is for cowboys and cowgirls forty and over.

The local rodeo is a big deal. The whole town turns out to support the riders. It is also deeply imbued with patriotic and christian themes. The opening ceremony includes prayers for the safety of the riders as well as the servicemen and servicewomen who protect our freedom. The prayers are also for our political leadership – that they make the hard decisions necessary to protect our way of life.

Bitteroot valley

Bitteroot Mountains

The photos below were taken at the Little Smith Creek Ranch where we camped for several nights. We were the only campers at the ranch during our stay. To say that the setting was idylic is an understatement. The ranch is located at the base of the Bitteroot Mountains on the western edge of the valley and our view to the east extended across the valley to the Sapphire Mountains. Plenty of deer wandering by as well. Wow!

Biking and hiking Bitteroot

Kootenai Creek

The Little Smith Creek Ranch, while remote with spectacular scenery, is only minutes from a good number of spectacular hikes into the Bitteroot.

The photos above and below are from our favorite hike. The Kootenai Creek Trail follows a fast flowing creek with waterfalls and pools up to the North Kootenai Lake – a distance of about ten miles to reach the lake, and no – we did not make it all the way to the lake!

Soothing Sound of Rushing Water, Kootenai Creek, Bitteroot Mountains

Clark fork of the columbia river

The Clark Fork of the Columbia River is a 310 mile long river originating as the Silver Bow Creek in Butte. It carries water from a substantial portion of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Basin, which makes the river an excellent choice for white water rafting.

We ran a number of rapids which were mostly class 3. Early spring produces the biggest rapids -class 5- due to snow melt while by August most of the rapids are class 1 or 2 due to the reduced flow of water.

I am not sure if it was due to our senior citizen status or not but we had three guides on our raft! Regardless, were glad to have the two additional paddlers when we went into the bigger rapids.

Fika and art: Missoula style

After our stay in the beautiful Bitteroot Valley we drove north to Missoula. We had hoped to do some more bicycling in addition to river rafting but the heat was too much for us to manage the cycling side of the equation.

We did stay for a couple of days and spent some time at two local coffee shops and visited the interesting (but small) Missoula Art Museum (MAM).

Southwestern montana…hidden gem

Southwestern Montana did not originally factor into our initial planning but after conversations with several Montanans we decided to vector to the region and we are pleased that we did. The southwest corner of Montana is well known to fishing and hunting aficionados, but it’s not found on the standard tourist itinerary.

We had a piece of the planet to ourselves (well, at least regarding other humans) for stretches of time as we drove through the Pioneer Mountains and the pristine Grasshopper Valley. We will definitely return to the area for a more extended stay in the future – lots of hiking, ghost towns and backroads to be explored and dispersed camping under the dark sky.

Be seeing you!

Montana Prairie…Sun, Heat, Wind and Beauty

After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)

Missouri River, CM Russell NWR

Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.

We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.

This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.

We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.

The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.

Auto ROAD, CMR

american prairie reserve (APR)

Bison at American Prairie Reserve, Sun Prairie, Montana

The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.

The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).

We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.

We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.

Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.

The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.

“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880

When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.

The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.

In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.

The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Theerefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.

Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.

The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills

We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.

The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.

Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.

The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.

After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.

The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.

The Buttes of the Sweet Grass Hills

We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).

Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.

West Butte
Whitlash Community Presbyterian Church

Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?

About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.

We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.

Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.

Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.

First Peoples Buffalo Jump

We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.

A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.

Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.

The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.

Thoughts on the Prairie

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.

Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.

Be seeing you!