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!

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

As we planned a rough itinerary through the Southeast for OTR 8.0 we had not contemplated a visit to Ocean Springs. In fact, we had never heard of Ocean Springs.

However, that was before meeting Cynthia Comsky, the owner of the Attic Gallery in Vicksburg, who strongly recommended a visit to the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. Subsequently, we saw a watercolor exhibit of Anderson’s at the Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel, Mississippi and knew we needed to visit Ocean Springs and the Walter Anderson Museum.

Much to our delight, the museum met all of our expectations and we found the town itself to be a quaint and friendly destination. In fact, we extended our stay to enjoy the charms of the town and the its friendly inhabitants.

Walter Anderson Museum

”Beware by whom you are called sane.” —- Walter Inglis Anderson

Sissy at the Table c.1933 Oil on board

So, of course, our first stop (well, second after coffee – see below on that topic) was the Walter Anderson Museum. The museum is physically attached to the town community center – which is appropriate as its walls are adorned with murals he created (and was paid a meager one dollar). The museum itself is filled with his works as one might expect – however one might not expect to find water colors, oils, wood sculptures, woodblock prints, pencil and ink drawings all by the same artist. His work in each of these mediums is outstanding.

New Orleans Street Scene, c. 1963, Oil on board

Anderson’s personal and professional life was inextricably meshed together. His story is fascinating. He appears to us to be an artist and naturalist of uncompromising dedication, commitment and eccentricity that matched his artistic genius. There are a number of articles that provide excellent insight into Anderson’s life—links to a few that we found interesting: The Many Voyages of Walter Anderson: https://bittersoutherner.com/the-many-voyages-of-walter-anderson-horn-island-mississippi and Realisations: https://walterandersonart.com/pages/about-walter-anderson

Horn Island at Sunset 1960 Oil on board

Last night there was a beautiful sunset. One felt that it had been arranged with taste. So many sunsets seem to be simply wild explosions of color in order to stun people into a state of mute wonder. But this one had variety, vermilion red and purple together, and lilac and gold together against a heavenly clear green turquoise sky. You felt that there would never be bad weather again.” —- Walter Inglis Anderson

Allison Sleeping c. 1935 Oil on board
Shrimp Boat c. 1955 Oil on board

“I wonder how long it will be before nature and man accept each other again. —- Walter Inglis Anderson

Lady in Red c. 1930 Oil on canvas

The identity of the sitter in the painting above is unknown. She sits slightly askew in her chair with her hands folded delicately in her lap. She gazes off to her right – not making eye contact with the viewer. By positioning his subject in such a way, we first notice the shape that the figure makes, almost reducing her form into a series of S curves against a dark background.

WPA Mural Sketch c. 1934 Oil on board

This mural sketch was created for the WPA. This particular scene is a cartoon (or preparatory work) of The Hunt. The closely depicted forms of the hunters, deer, and yellow dog are reminiscent of the cave painting compositions that Anderson saw in France in the 1920s.

“Nature does not like to be anticipated it too often means death, I suppose but loves to surprise; in fact, seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time.” —- Walter Inglis Anderson

Fairy tales


Walter Anderson loved fairy tales and even described them as being “explosive”- having the ability to inspire life and creativity. Anderson drew, painted, and carved classical images of fairy tales and myths throughout his life. Walter Anderson saw the world as a magical place full of wonder and possibility. Classic tales of mythology populated his daily life on the Gulf Coast. Around his home at Shearwater, Anderson would often carve dead trees into the shapes of nymphs and giants. He read stories to his children and illustrated their lives with fairies and mythic creatures.

Most notably, he created approximately 30 block prints featuring scenes from familiar tales to sell inexpensively to the public. Many of these block prints of myths and fairy tales are displayed here, demonstrating the timeless attraction that these tales have for all.

Bright eyed brew company

Be bright

Bright Eyed Brew Company was a massive bonus – the frosting on our Walter Anderson Museum cake – we did not expect to find a first rate specialty coffee cafe and roaster in Ocean Springs.

Bright Eyed Brew Company is owned and operated by husband and wife Ryan and Kathryn Reaux. They started the business in 2016 as a part time venture making and selling nitro cold brew from a cart at the local farmers market. Today their cold brew is on tap at a number of restaurants and cafes in the Mississippi Gulf area, and they operate the cafe selling espresso drinks, tea, waffles and, of course, nitro cold brew.

The Reaux Family

On our first morning in Ocean Springs we stopped at Bright Eyed as the prelude to our museum visit. From the moment we ordered our drinks and sat down in the cafe, local folks began chatting us up – that is what Fika is all about! Three hours later we finally departed for the museum. https://brighteyedbrewco.com/

Hotel Beatnik

Once we decided to visit the museum, we needed a place to stay and there were no camping options close by. We found Beatnik online and booked a cabin. The property consists of four cabins and a swimming pool. As you can see from the photographs below they are not rustic cabins.

The Beatnik is cool—Scandinavian style decor, a heated plunge pool and a five minute walk to downtown. Everything is online – registration, door lock combinations, housekeeping requests. What else could a traveler want? https://www.thehotelbeatnik.com/

St JOhn’s Episcopal Church

St John’s Episcopal Church

This lovely church is a two minute walk from the Beatnik. As many of you may recall we visit many churches as we tour – in addition to the spiritual aspect, we find the history and architecture of churches fascinating. We were most fortunate to meet Drew, a retired insurance agent from Jackson and a volunteer at the church. Drew graciously provided us with a tour of the church and we reminisced a bit about the problems with the National Flood Insurance Program (once an underwriter always an underwriter).

St. John’s was built in 1892, and the original church is still standing—which is pretty amazing considering it sits 1000 feet from Biloxi Bay and is a wood frame building. Drew did let us know that the building is to be sprinklered in the near future – this former underwiter is fully supportive of that! https://stjohnsoceansprings.dioms.org/

We think Ocean Springs is a cool little town. If you are an admirer of Walter Anderson and his work, excellent coffee, excellent barbecue (Pleasant’s BBQ) and friendly people, make a point of visiting if you are going to be in the Gulf Region of Mississippi.

Be seeing you!

P.S. If you have been following along at all you probably realize that we have not been publishing our posts in strictly chronological order. We are planning to get back in sync in that regard and we are working to publish a post on the first leg of our journey through Mississippi as we followed the Trans America Trail through Northern Mississippi.

Bayou Teche: laissez les bon temps rouler

Boiled Crawfish, Janes’ Seafood

After our stay in Baton Rouge we decided to dive deep into Cajun Country. We chose to roughly follow the Bayou Teche south to tour South Central Louisianna Cajun Country. The Bayou Teche runs from Port Barre south for 125 miles before flowing into the Atchafalaya River.

Breaux bridge

Breaux Draw Bridge

Breaux Bridge is La Capitale Mondiale de l’Écrevisse (the crawfish capital of the world). The founding of Breaux Bridge dates back to 1771 when Acadian Firmin Breaux purchased land on both sides of the Bayou which he then connected with a footbridge. The Bayou Teche was the main means of travel in this part of Louisianna at that time. For more information on Bayou Teche: https://www.louisianatravel.com/paddle/trail/bayou-teche-paddling-trail-entire-bayou

Breaux was in Louisiana after being forcibly removed along with thousands of other Acadians as part of the Great Deportation. The British deported thousands of Acadians to Louisiana from the Canadian Maritimes and land which is now Maine. So, if you ever wondered how a portion of Louisianna is populated by a close-knit French speaking population – now you know. For more information on the Great Deportation: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-deportation-of-the-acadians-feature

While poking around Breaux Bridge we met a number of friendly locals. Chief of Police Rollie Cantu greeted us upon our arrival (he was directing traffic) and provided us with information about the town. Kenny Domingue aka the Handle Bar Healer, provided us with the history of the town (first the Spanish then the French inhabiting the area). Artist Robin Guidry, owner of the Pink Alligator Gallery, broke out the wine for us while we shopped (at 11:00AM) and Jacqueline Salser, owner of Chez Jacqueline provided us with all the local gossip and lots of laughs. Lastly, if you thought that after 250 years in Louisiana the Acadians would have stopped speaking Cajun French or lost their accents, you would be wrong.

St martinsville

Eglise Catholique, Saint Martin de Tours, Mother Church of the Acadians, Est. 1765

Many of the folks living in St Martinsville are the descendants of Beausoleil Broussard. Broussard was a leader of the Acadians that fought bravely against the British in Acadia (now Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick). Once it became clear that the British would be victorious, he led a group of Acadians south to safety in the area that is now St. Martinsville. Broussard is revered in Acadian history as a hero in the fight against the British.

St. Martinsville has one of the most beautiful town squares we have seen – anchored by the Saint Martin de Tours Catholic Church and the Presbytere. Interestingly, if you note in the sign below explaining the reason for the five flags hanging from the porch, the last government that is acknowledged is the Confederacy.

Today the economy of St. Martinsville is highly dependent on tourism (the town sponsors a half dozen festivals per year) while still keeping its agricultural roots with a sugar cane crop and crawfish farming. For more information about the history of St. Martinsville: http://www.stmartinville.org/ourhistory.html

New iberia – Avery island

Avery Island is home to world famous McIlhenny Tabasco Company. The company was founded in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny. McIlhenny was given pepper seeds which originated in either Mexico or South America. He planted the seeds and the rest is history!

The company is still family owned and managed 154 years later – which is quite unusual in an economy where larger corporations usually devour and homogenize unique brands and products. The ingredients and process are not secret but the family’s knowledge is not replicable.

The self-guided tour is fascinating, taking you through the various buildings where the peppers are ground and then mixed with salt to create the mash. (Avery Island is a salt dome and rock salt was mined there beginning in 1791, making it very accessible). The mash is then filtered to remove the skin and seeds, vinegar is added, and finally the sauce is put into white oak barrels for aging. The aging process can take up to three years – the process is quite similar to wine making. For more information: https://www.tabasco.com/tabasco-history/

Jungle Garden

Avery Island is also home to Jungle Gardens and the Bird City sanctuary. Edward Avery McIlhenny developed the gardens and sanctuary in 1895. At the time the Snowy Egret was an endangered species due to plume hunters attempting to meet the demand for feathers for women’s hats! Touring Jungle Gardens and visiting the Sanctuary is a nice follow up to the Tobasco Factory Tour. For more information: https://www.junglegardens.org/

From Avery Island we headed southwest to lands’ end at Cypremort Point which sits on Vermillion Bay. We then continued along the Bayou Teche to it’s terminus at Morgan City.

Cypremort Point
Tour’s End – Crossing the Atchafayla River

Cajun Cooking

Crawfish Cake, Cafe Jo Jo’s, Morgan City

We spent two full days slowly making our way south from Breaux Bridge to Morgan City. We had a great time exploring and meeting local folks in the towns and, of course, some dang good food.

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!

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!