A Montana ramble
A rambling by Tom Knapp

Wild. Rugged. Breathtakingly beautiful.

A driving tour of Montana is, in many areas, like a drive through America in the days Lewis & Clark made their famous exploration. Sure, there is plenty of urban environment for those who prefer city lights, but it's easy and oh-so-tempting to lose yourself instead in the wilderness. Even while driving along major highways like I-90, you find yourself scanning the trees for glimpses of elk, moose or bear, the plains for bison and the rocks for rattlesnakes.

There are, of course, places that must be seen. Glacier National Park, which falls squarely into the wilderness category, and Little Bighorn, where Custer's 7th Cavalry met its bitter end, are two of the biggest lures.

Little Bighorn is saturated with the thick atmosphere of history, with scattered headstones standing as grim reminders of each soldier who fell. A mass grave for the soldiers stands at the pinnacle, just yards from the spot where Custer and his last few men made their final stand.

Trails are available for visitors to explore in more depth the details of those desperate hours of fighting, when Custer pitted his hundreds against the thousands of Teton Sioux, and a visitor's center nearby provides the facts and theories in greater detail.

Glacier, comprising more than a million acres of mountainous and forested countryside, is a hiker's paradise, with numerous trails of varying lengths and elevations spread throughout. Do yourself a favor and invest in a guidebook so you know what to expect.

White-tail and mule deer are plentiful everywhere, it seems, and mountain goats were fairly easy to spot in Glacier.

The wildlife is certainly a big draw in Montana. Whether driving or hiking, every oddly shaped bush or rock, every fallen tree and moving shadow becomes, for a fleeting moment, a wildlife encounter. But, plentiful though it is, don't expect animals to be dancing for your attention. One evening, after miring my car in the mud en route to Van Lake, my 3-mile hike back to the main road for assistance yielded only a single deer and a toad.

A lone driver just south of the Continental Divide at Flesher Pass reversed a good 50 feet after passing me so he could chat. "Bear?" He barely masked his disappointment when I told him it was just a photogenic mule deer that had caught my attention. "There are bears here," he said helpfully, before motoring on.

But my self-destructive wish to see a bear in the wilderness -- a grizzly, no less -- was not to be, despite picking trails in prime bear country. Other hikers opting for safety over sightings wore bear bells and made a ruckus to keep bears at bay, alas. Had I another day to spare in Glacier, I'd have considered hiking alone at night after bathing in honey and huckleberries. Alas.

Contrary to myth, there is a speed limit -- usually 70 or 75 for cars on highways, less at night and for trucks. Be aware that Montana is not a destination for people who hate driving, as points of interest are often hundreds of miles apart. It's easy to drive for miles on major highways -- where numerous curves, construction zones and frequent "deer crossing" signs combine to keep you alert -- without seeing another car. And there are plenty of postcard settings along the way: forested and snowcapped mountains, rocky buttes, thick woodlands and rolling green fields dotted with grazing cattle and horses, all good excuses for pulling over with a camera.

On the other hand, travel to some points of interest -- such as the Madison Buffalo Jump, the Pictograph Caves near Billings and countless silent ghost towns -- require driving on rough gravel roads which will definitely put some wear in your car's finish. (Alternatively, you could stay in town and visit the notorious Dumas Brothel in Butte; it's still open for business, but as a museum and gift shop these days.)

Montana is still cattle country and beef dominates most menus. For leaner diets, bison and elk are often a tempting alternative. (The notorious prairie oyster, spotlighted in Montana's popular Testicle Festivals, were less tempting to me.) There are also numerous regional microbrews, including Missoula's tantalizingly named Moose Drool.

But it's the amazing wilderness that will someday lure me back. Montana is wild. Rugged. Breathtakingly beautiful.

by Tom Knapp