Fika with fiona: otr 7.0: the very best!

If you follow OTR, you know that one of the great pleasures of our travels is the discovery (on our part) of great specialty coffee and tea cafes as well as the opportunity to return to previously visited favorites. Fortunately, there are many excellent specialty coffee cafes and roasters across the country.

We have included just seven of the cafes we visited during OTR 7.0 in this post. We visited another half dozen that are quite good but we wanted to showcase just those cafes that we think are exemplary in every regard.

We are confident that you will enjoy these cafes just as much as we did if you are fortunate enough to visit them during your travels. All of the cafes that are also roasters sell their coffee on-line, so if you won’t be visiting any of these cities in the near future you have the option to enjoy their coffee at home.

We would love to know your thoughts if you have the opportunity to visit any of these cafes.

Colorado: Durango: taste coffee

https://www.tastecoffeedurango.com/

New mexico: santa fe: sky coffee

https://www.skysantafe.com/

Texas: amarillo: palace Coffee

https://palacecoffee.co/

Oklahoma: okc: coffee slingers roasters

https://www.coffeeslingers.com/

Arkansas: rogers: onyx coffee lab

https://onyxcoffeelab.com/

Ohio: cincinnati: deeper roots coffee

https://www.deeperrootscoffee.com/

Pennsylvania: PITTSBURGH: Klvn coffee lab

https://klvncoffee.com/pages/about

Be seeing you.

Ctsprinterlife: Mammoth cave national park

The cave

Mammoth Cave, located in southwestern Kentucky, was officially designated as a national park in 1941. The park is approximately 53,000 acres (small by national park standards); its main focus is the cave system which lies under the surface.

Mam Cave, as it is called locally, is the longest cave known to exist in the world at just under 400 miles. The 400 miles of cavern are not linear, but exist on six levels which crisscross and extend out in multiple directions, fitting inside a seven square mile area under the park.

We took a ranger led tour during our visit, venturing down 250 feet below the surface and then through a series of rooms as we gradually climbed back towards the surface to exit the mine.

The park offers a wide range of tours differing in time and the level of physical activity required to complete the tour. We took the Domes and Drips Tour where you are brought through some of the largest domes in the cave system and also to a wetter area where stalactites and stalagmites are still forming.

The lower two levels of the cave are underground rivers – with water draining down from the Green River and the numerous sinkholes in and around the park. In the past visitors could tour the lower cavern by boat but the practice was stopped to protect the environment.

Auto tour

Green River Ferry

A brief History of mam cave

As we mentioned above, Mam Cave became a national park in 1941. What we did not realize until we visited the park and spent time touring the scenic backways of the park was how the park came into being.

Road to Good Spring

The caves were originally mined for saltpeter which was used in the making of ammunition.The caves in the area were privately held and operated by the owners as tourist attractions from the early 1800s until the park became a national park.

Good Spring Baptist Church

There were many people in government, science and business who, for various reasons, wanted to see Mam Cave designated as a national park and thus be protected. The federal government would not buy land for the creation of a national park but would accept donated land for that purpose. As a result, a private organization was formed for the purpose of buying the privately owned land and donating the land to the federal government.

Over a period of several years the required amount of land was purchased (in some cases through eminent domain). There was also a land donation of 8,000 acres made by a single family.

The photographs above and below show the only remaining structures from three of the communities (Good Springs, Flint Ridge, Joppa Ridge) that ceased to exist as the residents moved to other towns outside of the park boundary. Some of the families and their descendants lived in theses communities for 200 years before they were displaced.

The park service has preserved these churches and the adjacent graveyards, providing a peak into life in early rural America. All other structures from these communities were razed when the National Park was established.

The families of the descendants are still able to use the churches for weddings, funerals and other special occasions. The cemetaries bear witness to this use as we observed newer monuments in each of the graveyards.

Conclusion

We enjoyed our two days at Mam Cave. The cave tour was well organized and interesting. We would have to say that from a persective of the cave only that Carlsbad (New Mexico) and Wind Cave (South Dakota) are more dramatic from a visual perspective.

Having said that, Mam Cave offers a number of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as a paved bike path. Additionally, the Green River which flows through the park provides the opportunity for kayaking and canoeing.

If you are a national park fan and have not yet visited, we recommend that you include Mam Cave in an upcoming park itinerary.

Be seeing you.

Ctsprinterlife: OVERLAND adventure

CARSON NATIONAL FOREST

After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.

KML File

The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.

Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.

FR45B

Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.

Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.

EL RITO (pop. 808)

After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!

Abiqui and south

We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.

After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.

Climbing towards Cerro Pedernal

The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.

Be seeing you.

Street art from the road: Amarillo street murals

Hoodoo mural festival

@DAAS

When we visited Amarillo the second Hoodoo Mural Festival had just wrapped up. Five large scale wall murals were commissioned for this year’s festival. We spent a relaxing Sunday afternoon viewing the murals. The murals are all within a very walkable area along Polk Street in downtown Amarillo.

@blankspacesmurals

All of the murals are impressive – not just for the scale – but for the quality, creativity and artistry. Please see the festival website for more information about the festival and the muralists. We have broken the murals down into sections due the large size.

Hoodoo Mural Festival: https://www.hoodoomural.com/#about

We have included the muralist’s Instagram account for the murals shown below.

@malcolm_byers (2019 Festival)

@ d r e w

@blankspacesmurals

Historic Route 66 district

Outside of downtown on a portion of 6th Avenue (Historic Route 66) there are a number of excellent murals that we have included.

@malcolm_byers
@ninawyre
@ninawyre

We feel compelled to include a local Amarillo landmark – Cadillac Ranch – bring your spray paint and have a go.

Be seeing you.

The high road to taos – scenic byway

The High Road to Taos is a scenic drive that connects Taos and Santa Fe. We drove a portion of the route while staying in Taos. Leaving from Taos heading south, the first 30 miles take you on a winding route up and over mountains within the Carson National Forest. The scenery as you might imagine is quite spectacular.

While the views are impressive we found the cultural aspects of the trip even more impressive. The villages, architecture, churches and food reflect the Old Spain of the early Spanish settlements.

Each of the small villages has a Spanish style church – many have been continuosly operating for over two hundred years. We traveled through the villages of Penasco, Chamisal, Trampas, Truchas, Cordova and Chimayo. These villages still maintain the wood carving and weaving expertise and traditions that came from Spain with the first settlers.

SANTUARIO DE Chimayo

We followed the byway as far as Chimayo where we stopped to visit El Santuario de Chimayo. The intial construction took place in 1813. Long before the Spanish arrived Pueblo Indians considered this ground as sacred with healing powers.

The Catholic Church carried forward the belief that the earth under what is now the Plaza del Cerro is sacred and has miraculous healing powers. As a result, the Santuario is a major pilgimage site drawing over 300,000 visitors annually.

The Santuario is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the southwest. The evidence of the woodworking skills of the Spanish settlers is on display throughout the plaza – from the carved figures to the beautiful doors. The plaza is the sole remaining Spanish fortified plaza in New Mexico.

Arthur LowLow Meidna’s Low Low Ride Museum, Chimayo, New Mexico

Ranchero de chimayo

Any worthwhile pilgramage deserves to be rewarded with an excellent meal. Fortunately, while the total population of the small plazas that constitue Chimayo is only 3200 people, one of the best New Mexican cuisine restaurants is located here.

In fact, the Ranchero has been serving food here for 50 years to locals and travelers alike. Interestingly, for our fellow Nutmeggers, the owner, Florence Jaramillo was born in Hartford, Conneticut. Florence moved to Chimayo after marrying Arturo Jaramillo, who was a native of Chimayo. The site of the restaurant is Arturo’s ancestral home.

Espanola

We returned home via Espanola and the River Road (runs along the Rio Grande River).

The Espanola Chamber of Commerce and the McCune Foundation are sponsoring youth mural projects and we stopped in town to see some of the murals. We are glad that we did – as you can see from the photographs these are, without exception, excellent murals.

El Sembrador – Victor Joseph Villalpando

Be seeing you.

Taos

E. Martin Hennings,Thinning Aspens, Undated, Oil on Canvas

Taos: a brief history

The Taos Pueblo has been in existence for 1000 years. The first Europeans to arrive in Taos were the Spanish – who initially maintained friendly relations with the Tiwa Indians who inhabited the pueblo.

Afer a relatively short period of peaceful co-existence the Spanish exerted their might and will over the Tiwa, and as they would do many more times in the west, instituted rule over the indians and imposed Catholicism.

While the Town of Taos was incorporated in 1934, the Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited by the Tiwa Indians since its founding. The pueblo has about150 residents with another 1750 Tiwa living on pueblo lands.

The Town of Taos is a major tourist destination with a myriad of outdoor recreational activities including alpine skiing at the world class Taos Ski Valley. Taos is also a noted art colony dating back to the migration of eastern artists to Taos Valley and the formation of The Taos Society of Artists in the early 20th century.

Rio grande gorge

The Rio Grande Gorge is atypical of canyons this size in that it is a massive rift in the earth with the river filling the bottom after the formation of the rift. The gorge is 50 miles long and 800 feet deep at its deepest – quite impressive!

The river itself is impressive as well. The Rio Grande is the fourth longest river in North America. The river runs from Colorado through New Mexico (470 miles) and then forms the border between Texas and Mexico until it empties into the Gulf Of Mexico. The total length of the river is between 1800 and 1900 miles.

Big Horn Sheep

We hiked along the west rim of the gorge, enjoying the views of the river below, the mountains to the east and west and the Big Horn Sheep dotting the edge of the rim.

El Santero by George Chacon, Wall Mural
Elevation Coffee, Taos

We had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at the Taos Museum of Art at Fechin House. We will share photographs of some of the wonderful paintings and the architecture of the Fechin House in an upcoming post.

Be seeing you.

Moab = Fun and Adventure

A Brief History of Moab

Moab was a sleepy trading post and farming community for most of its history. Its settlement dates back to about 1829 when people traveling north on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail would attempt to cross the Colorado River in Moab and the local inhabitants would sell their goods to the travelers.

A little over 100 years later uranium was discovered in Moab. Uranium was in great demand for use in nuclear weapons post World War 2, so the federal government stepped in and passed laws mandating that all uranium mined in the United States could only be sold to the federal government. The economy of Moab shifted to mining overnight and Moab became known as the uranium capital of the world.

Unfortunately, as must, all booms result in some sort of bust. By 1960 the federal government declared it had all the uranium it needed. Since no one else could purchase uranium the mines in Moab began to close; the last of the mines closed in 1980. The population which had reached 6,000 declined to 1,000.

Arches Natiional Park

Today, the Moab area draws tourists who come to mountain bike, hike, rock climb, drive off road trails and boat on the Colorado. Additionally, Moab hosts two unique national parks – Arches and Canyonlands

While the town is prospering, there still remains the issue of remediating the uranium sites. When a visitor enters town for the first time driving south on route 191, it is hard to miss the large mound of contaminated pilings near the road.This pile consists of the remaining contaminated tailings. Over 16 million tons of tailings were produced from the uranium mills in Utah. The tailings are being removed and taken by train to a permanent disposal location in Colorado. More than 10 million tons have been removed so far under the auspices of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program paid for by the citizens of the United States.

Final note: many of the miners that worked in the Uranium mills were Navajo. There was little regard for their safety. The Navajo workers suffered significantly from lung cancer and other diseases. While the U.S. Public Health Service was aware of the effects as early as 1951, it was not until 1990 that the health impact was acknowledged. To make matters worse, the Navajo were not eligible for financial compensation until 2017.

Biking

Moab is certainly a mountain biking mecca – the good news is that for those of us in need of less demanding terrain, the town has developed a number of bike paths and bike lanes. One of the bike paths runs east along the Colorado River providing magnificent views of the river and red rock cliffs.

Camping with a view…

Camping on Ledge A: Hunter Canyon

Moab and the surrounding area offers scores of camping choices. Everything from in town RV resorts to remote primitive camping. We look forward to “boondocking” in Moab. We generally camp in a different location each night to enjoy different settings as well as the fantastic night sky and solitude.

4WD adventures

Kane Creek

One of the reasons we chose a high clearance 4wd equipped Sprinter was our desire to go places that we would never be able to see and experience without that capability. The Moab area provides a plethora of opportunities to put the Beast to the test. Above and below we have included a sample of several of our 4wd adventures.

Shafer Switchbacks
Shafer Trail

Moab Mural

Our favorite new Moab mural.

@skyewalker_art

Fine art

Artist Thomas Elmo Williams

Our trip from Salt Lake City to Moab usually involves a lunch and coffee stop in Helper, Utah. Helper has been undergoing a revitalization over the last several years and has become home to a number of artists. On this stop we discovered some wonderful paintings by Thomas Elmo Williams. Williams was a coal miner for 14 years before a mining accident put an end to that line of work for him. Williams started his new career sketching fellow miners and still focuses much of his art on the labor of working folks. He has a gallery in Helper.

Coal Miner Memorial, Helper, Utah

We love Utah and recommend that if you love outdoor recreational activities then a visit to Utah should be on your travel list, with a definite stop in Moab.

Be seeing you.

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!