On the Road Summer 2021 Day 8 Driving Across Montana
Driving Across Northern Montana to Glacier National Park Day 8
It would take nine plus hours to get to Glacier on Highway 2, the more direct and I imagined, more scenic route. The road had been closed due to wildfire activity. Had that continued, I would have had to drop down to I-94 and stay on it until it met up with I-90 west. But Two had just reopened. The game plan was to drive through beautiful deep forests and stop midway, in the small town of Malta.
The drive across northeastern Montana did not enter beautiful, deep forests. In fact, if you are seeking desolation, this is the route to take. Just pure sadness along both roadsides. Sad. The land was flat, little more than dust with scrub. The Indian reservations are enough to tear your heart out. What are we doing? We corralled all these beautiful people up, forcibly incarcerating those we didn’t kill one insidious way or another. I am only guessing that no longer wanting to pay for their confinement, we gifted them the crappiest land around to eke out an existence, shrugged our shoulders and essentially said, “have at it.” No more help from us. Sure, they could survive there when there were buffalo, but seeing as the government and the railroad barons exterminated the buffalo with the dual purpose of starving the natives and convenience the smooth operation of the diesel-spewing iron horses, there weren’t any. The history of the Fort Peck Reservation you will pass through (yet another great name to keep as an ever-present insulting reminder ugly past actions) is even more egregious. Post the settlement allotting the reservation land, homesteaders wanted to set up ranches and pressured Congress to take some of the land back. And they did. Talk about Indian-givers. Anyway, as you’re driving through the best you can think is, well not much I can do. It’s depressing as hell to drive through… as so many of the reservations are. The one after that was the same. Such poverty. Trailers with boarded-up windows to keep out the weather and too many beat-up cars parked out front.
There was nothing to look at but the billboards. The many billboards pleading loved ones to seek help for their addictions. The usual suspects: alcohol and tobacco, and the huge elephant that’s entered seemingly every room now: meth amphetamine. I nodded in appreciation of the sign that read: Commercial tobacco is not part of our heritage. And was slayed by a piercingly sad one with anatomical drawings of a liver and a heart, side by side. The rendering was not professional but instead drawn with painstaking care as a child might. Below the organs was a hand painted message, “Please get help. You are loved and wanted.”
I was already spiraling when my heart froze. I gasped, horrified at the billboard showcasing a super creepy guy with a sleazy smile under a curled mustache. It read, “If I can be a foster dad, so can you.”
Then I came up on a field of sunflowers. A happy break from dark thoughts. Thoughts of Spain and gratitude helped to dissolve the horror of it all.
Then I had a good chuckle. A sky-blue billboard with painted billowy cloud-like angel wings etched in gold advertised The Angels of Head Lice. And their treatment is organic!
Malta has a city park, the Trafton City Park which welcomes campers for a nominal fee. Malta also has a microbrewery. This sounded perfect. I pictured happily hauling out my heavy canvas tote with its bags of food toppling out, my little pieza ignition stove kit and whatever else I felt like in the moment to the nearby picnic table under a shady tree that doesn’t drop its detritus on your food, enjoying a gourmet meal while listening to birdsong, swiftly cleaning up, having a long, sudsy, hot shower and then moseying down, teeth brushed and feeling sparkling clean to the local microbrewery, a safe and pleasant walk a few blocks away. The owners would be excellent brew masters as well as chill, likable people. If not live, the music coming through high-quality speakers would be just what I wanted to hear, making it super enjoyable to have a cold one on the patio as the sun slowly dropped. I could even have two or three if I wanted since I would be walking back along that very pleasant route.
It wasn’t quite what I envisioned.
The park was nice enough, grassy and set back from commercial activity and traffic. It was a bit odd in that it did not have designated sites. You could randomly park anywhere. The places near the water taps were all taken as far as I could determine, but what perplexed me more is that I did not find a shower, though the website had advertised a bathhouse. I guess a bathhouse is technically just for changing clothes. A bathhouse was unnecessary to me at that point. I’d been traveling too long to give modesty a second thought.
The next morning I would be standing smack dab in the road next to my car, on the main drag of Shelby, Montana in the chill of dawn with my new white Badlands t-shirt ripped off exposing goose-bumped naked skin, as I lathered a large coffee spill with soap, then emptied my entire water bottle on it, wringing it out and placing it carefully in the car where it wouldn’t dampen anything else and stood a fighting chance of drying. All of this on the main drag of some fair-sized small town before grabbing another shirt to pull on. Priorities.
In short, I wasn’t stoked with the remaining options in the park. It was still a bright afternoon and the shady sites were all taken. And what would I even do in that hot sun?
I decided to check out the microbrewery and the walking route. A closer look at the map revealed that it was further than I thought and might mandate a sketchy route. So, I decided on a reconnaissance tour by car to determine if there might be a more pleasant pedestrian route before I consigned myself to not getting drunk. The only route held no allure. I would begin by trying to cross an intersection as wide as the Mississippi River with confusing traffic patterns and mismatching light signals, cranes and bulldozers and other rusty yellow equipment, conveyor belt tires grinding up bucketloads of dust, and random vehicles, some in use and some simply littering the scene. The road then led downhill under an overpass. Those are always feel-good places, no? First urine fumes are so strong they shove you back out. But you have to go through, so you contemplate You a running start so you can zoom through fast and not have to inhale. But underpasses are not generally places that you should run through at breakneck speed. Just think of the things you could slip on. Or don’t. Too, the road traffic going both directions was horrid: lumbering construction trucks spewing thick diesel, motorcycles straddling the lanes, oversized campers. Was there even a sidewalk? Driving through this zigzaggy mess I had to focus to dodge oncoming vehicles. Then there was a long light. A very long light. Why do the smallest towns have the longest lights? I took a left down a wide, empty street where U-turns were expressly prohibited. It took me a few passes before I spied the microbrewery ingloriously sandwiched between buildings in a mixed commercial and industrial zone, so the U-turn prohibition that I had to keep violating was annoying. The patio was small and looked somewhat inviting, but the music was so stupid it was insulting. Every last person sitting there was obese and shoving copious amounts of fried food into their mouths. Maybe it’s not always like that, but I just wasn’t in the mood.
As I drove away, I realized that I wasn’t tired. I may as well just keep driving. The sun was still high in the sky. I’d find a place before it got too close to the horizon, blinding me. I started thinking about things I’d need before I got too close to Glacier. The closer you get to a national park, generally the less commerce. So I began a tally in my head while keeping an eye open for a suitable rest area to spend the night. I can be pretty quick at surveying rest areas, zooming past ones that are out of the question.
I was surprised to find a designated rest area in the small town of Chester, Montana. I had another hour in me, but I could stop here for the night. It was thoughtful of their Lions Club to sponsor a rest stop for weary travelers. The bathroom with its gray locker room floor and a rust-stained ceramic sink, though humble, was clean. I felt the heavy Pine Sol cleaner mixed generously with Lysol aerosol disinfectant scrub my microbiome the moment I opened the door. I’m sensitive to strong cleaning products. They register immediately with a pang in my temples. No microorganisms hospitable to the human body could flourish in here. I felt like I could still use my toothbrush after I dropped it. It’s hard to hold everything while you’re trying to wash. I wouldn’t mind having a built-in retractable shelf, maybe from one of my hips. Mothers these days don’t realize how fortunate they are to have baby changing shelves. Why, when I was a young mother…
Between the gender-specific bathrooms was a pleasant little area with picnic tables and a couple trees. Still, the sleeping area was just an asphalt parking lot along the side of the highway with zero visual screening from passing traffic. It felt like shady stuff could easily happen there. When you get in these remote places with long straight highways and trains running through every hour, it doesn’t feel like laws matter. Not pining to be a sitting duck for some late random crime, I pulled back on the berm, pleasantly clean and hopeful my next option wouldn’t be far.
I still wasn’t weary when I came to the town of Havre which had a Walmart. Not my favorite place to shop, but I wasn’t going to find a Whole Foods and a camping store, so I donned my mask and in I went, eying the fellow shoppers warily. I got what I needed and figured it wouldn’t be long until another Walmart where if nothing better appeared in the interim, I could pull out my black silk eye mask and sleep soundly. There are some advantages to sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. First and foremost, you are welcome there. Second, you can get up and go to the bathroom at any time during the night. And third, you can wash your face and buy a can or bottle of cold coffee in the morning if you feel like hitting the road right away. But it was not to be. There would not be another town with a large store. Havre is the only town on US 2 between the Theodore Roosevelt and Glacier National Parks where one can restock.
It was dark and I was tired, mumbling murderously about selfish drivers with halogen headlights when I slid into Shelby. What was that giant structure to my right with its profusion of lights under the sign Port of Shelby? Was it a ship? Maybe I’d overlooked something on the map because I was not expecting a port right there. I made the snap decision to pull over and sleep at the next possible place. My brain was no longer working right.
The parking lot for a nursing home sat across the street from it in a dark area of the block. I was asleep within five minutes of privatizing my vehicle with the black mesh window shades and the snugly-fitting front moon-silver umbrella. In the morning, I quickly pulled down my screening, gassed up, visited the convenience store bathroom and bought a nice hot coffee.
As I pulled back on to the road, I spilt said hot coffee down the entire front of my new white Badlands t-shirt, as alluded to earlier. It was close to 6:30 when, shivering, I stuffed the wet t-shirt in the back of my car, dug around for a clean one to pull on and hit the road again in Shelby. If I could avoid any more delays, I could be cruising through Two Medicine Campground in Glacier National Park scouting for the ideal campsite around 8 am. Perfect.