MILES CITY, MONTANA—Alone on the range, where the buffalo no longer roam, deer were no where to be seen, and a lone antelope glumly stared at me from behind a barbwire fence. After turning right at Harlem, Montana, where I topped of Blue’s tank, for most of the 200-mile ride south to Billings through the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation on MT 66, US 191, MT 19, and US 87, was a lone blue speck on the two-lane asphalt cutting through fields of greenish brown short grass toward the Little Rocky Mountains.
The traffic consisted of 11 RVs, five cars, two pickups, and one motorcycle. All of them boing the other way. The landscape is, for the most part, without tall features, except for the odd lone tree, a hardy outlier that’s made its way away from the streams and creeks where its kind congregate in these parts. Every 5 or 10 miles I passed what I assumed was a ranch. The only hint was the mail box on post next to a gravel road that disappeared over a hill to the east or west. I saw no people, other than those in the 11 RVs, five cars, two pickups, and one motorcycle (I counted) going in the other direction.
Flying low over the undulating terrain, I was struck with an aviation malady, automatic rough, where odd sounds and vibrations metaphysically amplify and become dire problems that will leave the hapless pilot stranded in the middle of nowhere, days from any help or rescue. Whether in an airplane or on a motorcycle, it’s your subconscious reminder to pay attention. Or to focus the mind elsewhere, once assured all is will mechanically.
Humming along at the 70 mph limit, the road was mine, and I wondered at what speed the first inhabitants of this lands traveled. Surely a horse cannot sustain an all-day gallop like Blue. Then again, horses can live off the land, and Blue needs dead dinosaurs from time to time. Although he was still three-quarters full I topped him off at the general store in Grass Valley, about a hundred miles south, there 91 octane was only $4.09.
Completing my business at the Billings airport, one of the guys was talking to showed me a two-lane out of town that took me by Pompey’s Pillar. The road took me by the National Monument that bears the only surviving physical evidence or Lewis & Clark’s passing. On July 25, 1806, William Clark scribed his name into the soft sandstone. There’s an interpretive center, but I know the story, saw Ken Burn’s documentary, and read the books. Instead of paying $7 a vehicle to see one man’s graffiti, I jumped on I-94 and headed toward North Dakota.
Worried that the North Dakota oil boom was still occupying most of the motel rooms at exorbitant rates, I pulled up short at Miles City, a charming little town of 8,400 and the seat of Custer County. Wandering Main Street in search of dinner I ambled into the Montana Bar & Steakhouse. Having had enough alone time this day, I sat booth in the bar rather than in the vacant dining room. At 1630, people were more interested in drinking than eating.
It was an opulent cowboy bar, complete with horns and stuffed critters staring down at you from their mounts just below the pressed tin ceiling. But there were so many things wrong with this picture. Rock & Roll was filling the room with sound, competing with the beer amplified laughter of boisterous boys. For awhile, ball caps outnumbered cowboy hats two to one, but parity reigned halfway through my half-pound Montana Burger, with cheese, bacon, and a hard fried egg on it, and a cup of delicious wild rice and mushrooms.
All the servers and bartenders were female, and they all displayed ink. One TV was tuned to the Weather Channel and the other to ESPN. No one seemed to be watching either of them. Most of the men wore jeans. Those with boots were generally older and wrapped their torsos in western-style shirts under the Stetson. The younger ones went to sneakers and t-shirts. But there were two khaki and polo shirts, one tie, and runner guy, in a poly-pro shirt, shorts, and those lightweight New Balance “barefoot” shoes. No one paid attention to the stranger stuffing his face, but the bartender wished me a safe trip when I paid my bill before hitting the road for the Super 8 at the edge of town.