The Last Best Place

Is that even proper grammar? Old West grammar maybe. Nonetheless, that is what the state of Montana has chosen as their motto, so who am I to argue? In a fairly recent revelation, I decided that four months is far too long to spend in just one place. Well, technically three places, if you add Waskesiu and Prince Albert. Four, if you count Disneyland, and why wouldn’t you? It’s the happiest place on earth! Most ruthlessly profitable, anyway. Anyhow, I decided a mid-summer trip was in order to keep the travel juices flowing and avoid getting too out of practice at sleeping in crappy locations. With Laynni opting out, citing summer being short and busy as it is, I decided the time was right for a bit of mountain biking in our wild and rural southern neighbour – massive, mountainous Montana. I knew there would also be many opportunities for great hiking, and for some reason – ridiculously selective memory, most likely – I even got the twisted idea in my head that I might enjoy some camping.

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My trip started with the two things essential to any good trip – a hangover and meal at the DQ in Rosetown. Having only left Saskatoon at around 4 pm (as draft coordinator I was bound by fiduciary duty to stay until the end of the Euro 2016 final) I only made it as far as Shaunavon on day one (yes, that Shaunovan), where I first began to suspect the folly of voluntarily choosing to share public campgrounds with the seething masses of mid-July. Shaunavon’s only tenting sites are directly in the centre of town next to a tiny park and somewhat dangerous-looking playground. Here, in this idyllic location surrounded by streets and a few caragana bushes, ten cramped sites were crowded into an informal cul-de-sac roughly the size of a decent living room. A cursory drive through the little loop drew the shocked eyes of all tenants and felt a bit like I had just ridden an elephant through someone’s walk-in closet, and quickly revealed the complete lack of vacancy. It took a bit of doing to make my escape, however, as the street was riddled with unsupervised children unsteadily ramming into curbs, dogs and each other on various types of wheeled contraptions. Eventually I fought my way free, somehow without dragging any of the less agile rugrats under the bottom of my CRV, then gratefully shelled out the cash for a room at the comparably magnificent Inn of the South (free ice!), and eagerly bolted across the border in the morning.

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Camping

My close call in Shaunavon apparently having taught me no lingering lessons, on day two I rushed straight out to the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness (known affectionately as “The Bob” according to my guidebook, although the term sounded unaccountably smarmy the one and only time I tried to use it in casual conversation), and the fairly primitive, but undeniably scenic, Mortimer Gulch campground about half an hour west of the little town of Augusta.

It had been quite some time since I had camped, let alone camped in a remote mountain location, which is the excuse I’m going to use to explain how long it took me, first, to set up my tent, then unravel the mysteries of my little gas camp stove. I.e. How close can plastic rubbermaids be placed as windbreaks before they start to melt? At what point do I give up on boiling water and eat my Kraft Dinner crunchy and dry? What exactly was wrong with that hotel I passed half an hour back? I eventually succeeded at all these pursuits, however, which left me relaxing in my recently purchased camp chair and pondering the other great mystery of camping – What am I supposed to do I do now? – when I was suddenly startled by an ominous rustling from the nearby bushes, a disturbance that quickly revealed itself in the form of a large, furry brown head and, soon after, an equally large, furry brown body. Despite my fair share of history with these “relatively harmless” species of bear, being regular guests in the ditches and golf courses of Waskesiu, the extremely minimal proximity of this encounter combined with the unexpected nature and overall remoteness of the location all led to an unnaturally rapid increase in my heart rate and, possibly, just a hint of piss in my pants. I quickly stood to make a hasty exit, a move which may have been misinterpreted by my surprise guest judging by the way he suddenly made a disturbing noise and bolted back into the bush. Unfortunately, only about 30 feet away he stopped, likely realizing that of the two of us, he was the one with preternatural strength and a variety of teeth and claws that could effortlessly shred me into oblivion, not the other way around, so maybe he didn’t need to be the one running after all. So he reared up on his hind legs, probably just to get a better view of what was transpiring back at camp, but at least possibly as a precursor to an ornery and deadly charge, which fully convinced me that there was absolutely no place I’d rather be at that moment than securely locked inside my vehicle. My absence soon convinced the interloper that the time was ripe for a more thorough examination of the rest of the site and its faint smell of a processed, vaguely cheese-like substance, but finding nothing more useful than that, soon lost interest and wandered off. Of course, not before I courageously ventured a couple short steps from the safe haven of the car to take a photo, but still long before his middle of the night rambling and snuffling through the bushes uncomfortably close to my flimsy tent led to a nervously restless sleep. I can’t say for sure it was the bear again, but despite the great arguments they make in Game of Thrones, it seems pretty unlikely it was the large dragon it sounded like.

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So that was my “backcountry” experience, and after a few days in an actual hotel in Helena I found a middle ground at a KOA campground in Dillon. Running water, a store, showers, laundry, even a pool (although I quickly decided that finding a way to wedge myself in among the seemingly hundreds of children revelling in sugar-highs would not result in the relaxing afternoon I had in mind). Welcome amenities and a convenient location close to a number of places that not only had food, but would even be willing to cook it for me, bring it to me, then even clean up the mess after I had left. It was a version of utopia, to be sure. Had grouchy old Joe RV not shown up on day two with his 400-foot rig, dragging a flame-covered ATV behind, with a monstrously large pontoon boat then attached to the back of that, along with his three giant (of course) beagles who celebrated their vacation tied to the bumper barking at anything that moved. Luckily, with just a few hundred kids and dogs around, that only came up every, oh, nine seconds or so…

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Mountain Biking

Biking was to be the main theme of this trip, a chance to get out on some scenic mountain trails in different and exciting new locales. As great as the trails around Waskesiu are, not to mention a couple spots around Meewasin, the majesty of the mountains adds a different dimension to any outdoor pursuit. And the trails I chose certainly didn’t disappoint on that front. The two and a half-hour hard, but beautiful, climb up and back along South Cottonwood Trail in Bozeman was a particular standout, eclipsed only by the incredible 45 looping minutes along Mount Helena ridge, relishing the gentle prevailing downslope and astonishing views in all four directions. Sure, the initial 200-metre climb straight up from the parking lot to the ridge was, how do you say, murderous? But I didn’t actually vomit, except maybe a little into my mouth a couple times. Then the steep finish down from the ridge at the end got a bit rough and technical for a while, at least until I overcooked it on an unexpectedly soft corner and found myself briefly airborne – an alarming development, to be sure – although one I still look back on rather fondly in comparison to the violent and painful landing. But I only bruised my leg, knee, forearm, shoulder, and scraped my helmet, so I guess you could say I escaped relatively unscathed.

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On the whole, the trails were as impressive as I had hoped, but much more difficult than I had imagined, especially considering the way the bike maps, and local biker, routinely undersold the experience by describing ten kilometres uphill on a nearly unmanageable rock-strewn path as “easy to moderate” and a “gentle climb”. In the end, however, some great (i.e. intensely painful) workouts, amazing views, a satisfying sense of accomplishment, and I only ended up falling and putting my hand through a rotten log just the one time. Even more importantly, my decade-old hardtail bike somehow managed to hold up through it all.

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Hiking

As is typical of all our trips, I ended up doing just as much hiking as anything else. It is just too easy to find great hiking trails to kill a couple hours, especially in Montana. Right from the start, in “The Bob”, it was clear that not every terrain was going to be conducive to biking and that going by foot would occasionally make more sense. In the morning following my erratic and uneasy camping experience I, not shockingly, woke up early, ate some cereal out of a margarine container (I thought of some things while packing, just not most things), then set out on Mortimer Gulch Trail. Spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and, in something that would become a theme throughout Montana, I never saw another soul all morning. Sure, I took a few wrong turns, spent a bit of time swearing about the almost willfully antagonistic manner of Montana trail marking (“Ok, this is a pretty key fork in the path, what do you say we put the sign equidistant between the two trails and make sure there is nothing that could even remotely be construed as an arrow? That’ll show the bastards.) but, overall, it was still a tremendous find.

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At the tail end of a long, scenic driving day I detoured farther off-road into the Pioneer Mountains to stretch my legs on the Sawtooth Lake Trail – more terrific scenery and, once again, not another person around to sully the experience (or potentially save my life in the case of emergency).

Near Bozeman, I joined up with a guy from Michigan to climb to Sacagewea Peak – a tough climb along a rough, rocky trail past a surprising amount of lingering snow to an incredible panoramic vantage point at just over 3,000 metres above sea level. As an added bonus, a family of mountain goats was waiting for us at the top, either because they love the spotlight of tourists with cameras or because they live there, hard to say.

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One final hike down near Big Sky was to Lava Lake, a more gentle climb over a longer distance, with the payoff being an idyllic mountain lake surrounded by massive rockslides that made for some entertaining bouldering, a nice secluded lunch spot, and some welcome privacy to play the old fan favourite – “how far can I pee, if a woodchuck could stand and pee?”

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Scenery

No surprise, really, but outstanding throughout. From dramatic mountains to pastoral farmland to craggy canyons and surprise coulees emerging from seemingly featureless plains like a ragged appendix scar, it was always noteworthy, not to mention a great excuse for a bathroom break. The back way to Great Falls through Shonkin Sag (in old west jargon I believe this described a cowboy’s scrotum after a long day in the saddle) featured lots of crumbling old buildings and dark, looming clouds. From Helena to Dillon the numerous highlights included McDonald Pass towards Missoula, Pintler Scenic Byway, Highway 579 south from Anaconda to Wise River, then Pioneer Scenic Byway to Dillon. Even during the long 11-hour slog home through Central Montana there were nice glimpses of the Little Rockies and the Charles M. Russell Wilderness Area. Not to mention two dogs humping in Malta.

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Cities

Well, I feel like I’ve already sufficiently covered Shaunavon, then there was Augusta, on the cusp of the Rockies, which could most succinctly be described as two streets, three angling shops and the kind of RV park that could easily be mistaken for a Woolworth’s parking lot.

Helena, the tiny state capital with less than 30,000 people, featured a lot of trendy pubs, usually with new, routinely confused, bartenders, and a good variety of restaurants. The bike culture was the main draw for me, with not only an impressive network of trails surrounding the town but even a free shuttle service that takes bikers directly to the trailhead (alas, not up the inevitably killer opening climbs). It also has a surprisingly picturesque church, and a main street that has stubbornly stuck with the old western name of Last Chance Gulch. While there I stayed in what I assume was one of the cheapest hotels in town, the $50 Budget Inn Express (like there’s normally a slower, nicer one) with a widely varied group of fellow tenants – a number of other bikers, a band who was there to play a concert in the park behind the building, and a whole lot of older, fairly weathered-looking men and women whose main aspiration in life, from what I could tell, was to spend eight to ten hours per day sitting in lawn chairs in the parking lot smoking cigarettes and crushing bottles of vodka while displaying as little joy as possible.

Dillon was a quiet, relaxed little place with a strange mix. On the one hand, they had a Best Western and a McDonald’s, on the other their main Brew Pub only served food if you ordered delivery from other restaurants and made last call at 7:30 pm. This despite the fact they had a live band playing led by a singer that had once been a member of Fleetwood Mac and briefly replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath. I was only able to track down one short bike ‘n hike to Dillon Town Overlook, partially because the info centre never actually opened its doors from the time I arrived Friday afternoon until I left Sunday morning.

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On the way to Bozeman I stopped off in Virginia City, something akin to a Disney version of an old West town, but with better ice cream than I expected from watching “Deadwood” on HBO. Bozeman itself, on the other hand, was more modern and energetic than any place I had seen in Montana to that point, or since. Missing was that whole “old west, we’re proud of our past and happy to keep it part of our day to day lives, plus traffic lights still kind of freak us out” vibe. No, Bozeman is more of a vibrant university town where a seemingly younger population shopped, buzzed to and fro on their bikes, and drank boisterously on pub terraces. Usually wearing very little clothing, although that may have had to do with the 35C heat wave taking place while I was there, and maybe just seemed more noticeable after all the jeans, fishing boots, plaid jackets and trucker hats I saw further west.

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Due to high summer demand (besides being a popular outdoor recreation destination in its own right, it also owns the closest airport to Yellowstone National Park) Bozeman has a bit of a skewed accommodation scene, with the cheapest hotels, when a room was even available, starting at close to $US150/night and all the best campgrounds being located well out of town and away from the action. They do, however, boast one hostel which, based on roughly seven minutes of internet searches may be the only one in the entire state. Treasure State Hostel is conveniently located right downtown (on Main Street, of course) and would be the first hostel I’d stayed at in, oh, I can’t remember for sure, but obviously long enough to have forgotten why I stopped staying in hostels. Not that this wasn’t a nice place. It was extremely well organized, had some great lounging areas, excellent wifi, a manageable kitchen, clean bathrooms, etc. Even their otherwise mediocre DVD collection yielded a couple gems (thanks to the diligence of a bored German girl I finally watched Reservoir Dogs again for the first time in years). No, the part I seem to have outgrown some time ago, outside of special instances like on the Camino where everyone has a shared purpose and follows a similar pattern, is dorm living. They actually had some private rooms, which were unfortunately already full, and a few shared dorms that did not, I’m told, come with a woman “in between housing” who had strewn all her worldly belonging around the tiny room already crowded by the presence of two sets of bunk beds. In fairness, there wasn’t much room left on her bed because of all the stuffed animals, and who occasionally spent the evening drinking a 40 of vodka directly from the bottle.

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Throw in the two guys who showed up just as we were turning off the lights one night, then proceeded to take an hour and a half to move in what, presumably, was every possession they had ever acquired in life (you really couldn’t have left that cardboard box of towels in your car?), the one-night backpacker who set new standards for night farting, then the morning the guy above me hit snooze three times, then eventually just left his phone behind to go off, and off, and off, while he cleaned himself up in the bathroom (or somewhere, I never did track him down running around the halls in anger in my underwear, he just suddenly reappeared a while later, and apologized in an offhand manner), and the downsides quickly became abundantly clear. Then, of course, there was all the usual snoring (have I ever mentioned how important ear plugs are, I mean, other than those 100 times I mentioned it?).

On the plus side, like most hostels this one was quite social, with plenty of interesting people with interesting stories (and bizarrely interesting bathroom routines). I met a couple people to hike with and, more importantly, drink with, leading to a long – but fun – day that slowly petered out as we either drank ourselves sober, or had it foisted upon us by the interminably dull conversation we ended up stuck in with a guy who seemingly knows a lot about Russian cigarettes. Hostels, can’t live with them, keep forgetting it is usually better to live without them.

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Stand-Out Bars and Restaurants

El Vaquero Tacos and Bullman’s Wood-Fired Pizza in Helena

Classic Café in Anaconda

Beaverhead Brewing Company and Sparky’s Garage in Dillon.

Western Café for breakfast, the Garage for happy hour, and Ale Works for serious drinking in Bozeman.

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Random Weirdness

Overheard in the Swift Current Co-op in response to a question about Giant Tiger: “It ain’t but a hunnerd yards over yonder”.

My first meal in Montana was at the Club House in Fort Benton, where the French Dip turned out to be about as bad as I should have expected but, on the bright side, I was called either “Honey” or “Hon” numerous times. As it turned out, this folksy term of endearment would continue throughout my time in Montana, in all varieties of eating and drinking establishments along with, rather uncomfortably, one rather dodgy public restroom.

After stopping for lunch on my way through Anaconda a guy ran over to my vehicle to give me suggestions on driving routes and bike rides in the area… just to be nice. Thanks to prodigiously relentless touts and scam artists the world over I had to fight every instinct telling me he was after something, and to avoid my natural reflex – hand up, followed by a brusque “no, gracias”.

In North America we have come to expect our protected wilderness areas to be well taken care of, so much so that it took me an entire week to even notice of the fact I had yet to see a single piece of litter on a trail.

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Feeling fairly confident in my Americanisms, I was all ready to call the “bill” the “check”, only to learn that, at least in southwestern Montana, they actually call it the “ticket”.

I almost went to a demolition derby in Dillon, but ultimately couldn’t bring myself to pay the $15 just  for a good story and minor damage to my ear drums, and instead settled for listening to a few hours of “demolition music” booming from across the tracks. Apparently the best music to destroy a car to is Guns ‘n Roses. Which probably should have been obvious.

We can be as smug as we want about Donald Trump and his Travelling GOP Circus, but the embarrassing contrast between northern Montana’s silky, wide highways and those war zone remnants we call roads in southern Saskatchewan suggests that, at the moment, it’s probably a wash.

In Conclusion

Great visit, even better scenery than expected, even if the mountain biking trails dealt a humbling blow to my ego at times. If the unthinkable does transpire this November and it turns out to be my last American visit until next decade, well, at least I will have my time in Montana to look back on fondly…

Hillary Clinton! The Lesser of Two Evils!

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