Road Trip Part 3: Montana

While this post is nearly 10 pages long- it is the condensed version of my trip so far. This post describes my first week on the road. I will include pictures when I return- it is just too complex to do now. I have posted two full albums of pictures on my Facebook account- so become my friend and you can see them.  

Sunday, August 26:

Today I woke up at about 6:55 am and went with my host to shachris, I was kind of excited to get to the west already, but at the same time kind of sad to leave the community of Minneapolis. After a quick breakfast of some more cookies and grabbing a bunch of leftovers to be eaten later that day I embarked Minneapolis on highway 212 west which would take me straight across Minnesota and South Dakota into my favorite state of Montana. I cruised along the outskirts of Minneapolis and was then plunged into rural America complete with its grain elevators, long straight freight trains and wavy fields of wheat and corn. I passed through small settlements who’s only purpose of existence was due to the fact someone had decided to erect a train depot or grain elevator in the middle of the prairie, which starts somewhere west of Minneapolis and continues straight through to the middle of Montana.

I drove right into South Dakota marveling at the long flat plains that were filled with corn, I noticed that every gas station- even the most rural of them had E-85 fuel. I drove due west on 212 until there came a detour and I had to go around, so I decided to take highway 14 which goes through Pierre, the capitol. Good choice, although I had driven through the prairies many times, they interest me every time. Maybe because when driving west it is the first example of the extreme geography as compared to the east coast. The flatness of the expanse has got to be driven to appreciate and it does get lonely out there.

Just outside of Pierre the land changed, hills began to form and suddenly I was dropping down huge grassy slopes into the city of Pierre, an old dusty western town with not much to it. Almost every town west of the Mississippi is the same, a dusty main street that is wide and has cars parked sideways, a large grain elevator and a couple of tracks and sidings running down along main street. These towns are built of the prairie and are usually visible from miles before due to their outcropping of trees, which are a rare commodity in the great plains.

The large grassy hills continued and then the Nebraska style badland sandstone formations began. Large dusty washbowls and meandering dry creek beds were seen everywhere. The farmland changed from corn to livestock and ranches dotted the landscape for hundreds of miles. The frequency of the towns changed from every ten miles to every 30-40 miles and I was in the west. I drove through Sturgis just to check out the site of the world famous Motorcycle Rally that takes place every summer. I skipped out on the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, having been there years ago and not finding it too special.

I entered Montana cutting through the eastern corner of Wyoming while driving along the same route 212 that I was on in Minnesota. The land was vast and open, nothing for miles and I relished in it, though having just experienced shabbos I was kind of lonely. I stopped at a roadside table for my leftovers and while munching on them I wondered if any other Jews had ever sat at this exact spot. I looked down while I was engaged in learning from this new Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen sefer I had just bought and low and behold a magen david was carved out into the table. I found this totally surreal and unbelievable especially due to the fact that it had been painted over yet continued to be seen through the paint.

I drove over some low high desert mountain passes and started to look for spots to sleep in the low light. After not fining anything worthy I settled on a patch of sand on a road next to the interstate, I didn’t mind the cars too much, but at 3 in the morning when I freight train rolled by 100 feet from me- I realized the mistake I always make, never camp anywhere near an active line and always check if it is. You can literally feel the train shaking the ground if you are sleeping on it.

Monday, August 27:

I woke up bright and early after a real crappy nights sleep, cooked up some oatmeal on my stove and set out towards Billings. Hopped into the visitor center grabbed some free maps and then wandered the downtown a bit. I wasn’t on the trip to be near man made objects so I hopped on the Interstate and then Route 212 going towards Red Lodge. The drive was real flat once again through high desert, but off in the distance I could see the mountains rising real high, I was real excited at this point.

Red Lodge is a beautiful old western town, with its brick store fronts all dating from the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. These towns either die or become tourist traps, there is no in between. Red Lodge is a gateway to the Beartooth Wilderness area and near Yellowstone. One can tell immediately by the presence of out of state license plates and foreign cars that this is not a locals only town. The stores though charming are also geared towards the tourist. I hopped into a book store bought a more detail trail map of the area and then wandered around the historic district.

Not wanting to waste too much time I found the hiking store Sylvan Peak and went in to buy some bear spray and get some tips for good day hikes to acclimatize to the area. I was only about 5500 feet up, but the plateau is mostly above 10,000 which would do wonders for my head if I started out up there. The guys at Sylvan Peak were awesome, we spoke of the grizzly population in the area and of good day hikes and mountain bike rides in the area.

I took one of the guys tips and drove up towards the ski mountain and hiked to Timberline Lake which was simply amazing. I parked on a trail head on this smooth dirt road that snaked through a deep and narrow canyon. I hiked up the trail which gained 2,000 feet to top out at 8,000 feet. The trail was not too steep and offered great views at select moments, rather then east coast style where the only views come at the top.

When the trail leveled out slightly I started climbing gradually through a higher canyon that would take me to my eventual destination. I was kind of freaked out hiking solo in grizzly country, without the proper weapon which I would say to be a .44 or .357 magnum at my side, instead I had this huge bottle of bear spray, a huge high pressure pepper spray. While hiking I sang Jewish songs which because of the way they are structured can be sang over and over again, after all I didn’t want to stumble on some bears of mountain lions.

When I leveled out on this open ridge I came to a smallish lake that was surrounded by short steep cliffs, this wasn’t what I had come for. I kept going walking across rocks of this narrow fast moving creek. Then suddenly I crested the short hill from the other lake and was confronted with one of the reasons I love Montana. Before lay this perfectly clear glacial lake, rising about 200 feet out of the lake was a granite cliff and in back of that was what I would venture to call an amphitheater of rock, on all sides without breaks it surrounded me. The tops had snow patches and I could hear water running gushing forth from under them feeding the large lake I stood in awe before. Not wanting to ruin the moment I whipped out my siddur and davened a very heartfelt mincha, wondering the whole time if I was the first person to ever daven to Hashem on this very spot, thanking him for the wonders he created for us.

I sat all by myself relishing the silent wonder of this beauty and sat with a huge smile and hakoras hatov for all this. I then hiked down and cooked some dinner. Pasta and sauce was the fare, actually there isn’t much variety with me. I have pasta, chili, and rice and beans, and a few of those galil stuffed peppers and eggplant in a can.

I then found a great campsite next to a fast flowing, gurgling brook and set up my tent. My tent was moldy but due to the threat of rain I didn’t want to risk going tentless. I do try and sleep in the open whenever possible, its more convenient to go to the bathroom and a bit more interesting especially when the wolves and coyotes are singing in the night. I slept very soundly that night, all alone in the woods of Montana.

Tuesday, August 28:

I was surprised that it hadn’t rained the night before as I had dreaded. I truly hate waking up inside a tent during the onslaught of rain, fully knowing that you have to rub the sleep from your eyes and brave the cold rain and take down the tent and have it growing mold and dripping all over the back of the car.

I woke up with a clear head and glad to have gotten a great sleep and rid of the pounding head I had gone to sleep with. The day was mostly cloudy, with pockets of blue and sun shining through. I davened, ate a protein bar for breakfast and took down my tent. I hopped in my car and drove up the dirt road a few miles and went to a trailhead that I was told was great for mountain biking. It was called the silver run trail system, the trail lead into this grassy valley that eventually became a thick wooded canyon with a fastflowing stream through the center of it.

I rode my bike up this windy jeep road and marveled at the smooth hill sides that were devoid of any vegetation save for a few scruffy sage brush outcroppings here and there. I love sagebrush and when I realized I could make a bracha on it I did, it smells phenomenal so I figured I could rock me some “boray minay besumins” on some sagebrush. I had this whole idea in me about raising up the eternal sparks of kedusha as a Rabbi by the name of Ari Dreilich in Edmonton had told me last year. In fact I viewed a lot of my purpose of the whole trip, other then having a great time amongst Gods creations, to be this mission of elevating places that had never seen a frum yid before. I do figure that everything has its purpose, so maybe this is mine who knows. So any chance I had to make a bracha or daven off the beaten path I would do it, so I carried a siddur and sometimes seforim in my hiking or biking pack.

I rode up the jeep road until I came to a very narrow path leading into the dense woods. I rode up this as well, cursing under my breath at the altitude and uphill that would not let up. Where was my downhill or flat trail I wandered as I pushed my bike up some very steep hills, I wasn’t too excited about coming down such steep stuff, while at the same worrying a bear wasn’t waiting around the corner for me.

After what seemed like eternity I made it to the top of the hill, which rewarded decent views of the surrounding tree topped hills. I mounted my bike and began my decent on the other side. The trail on the downhill was way more gradual, with huge turns and long straight aways allowing me to really launch off the small jumps in the trail and go real fast. It was an amazing downhill, winding past big pine trees and huge boulders. Several stream crossings splashed water onto me and I had to ride through some mud pits.

At the bottom back at my car I noticed that the weather had turned sour, wind was whipping up huge clouds threatening rain, obscuring the views and making the air quite cold. I decided to forego the hike I had planned. I ate some canned eggplant and decided what to do. I decided on taking a drive towards Cody Wyoming just 60 miles away. I drove into Red Lodge and turned on my phone which had been off for the past several days. I called up the chabad of Montana and asked if I could stay there for shabbos. To my disappointment, the Rabbi said he would be out of town for the next few weeks.

Suddenly my plans were changed, I had planned on being in Bozeman for shabbos, but now I couldn’t. So I thought about other possibilities, such as doing it by myself in a town, right away I realized that labor day weekend prices would be higher and the chances of finding a hotel would be slim. The costs of food, and the loneliness of a shabbos by yourself without friends, family or a shull would be hard as well. I then thought about other chabad houses. It would be either Spokane, Washington or Boise Idaho. Both were about the same distance with Spokane being a bit closer. I settled on Spokane and called up, I was a bit nervous, because I usually have Lubavitcher call up for me, since many of them are weary of having strangers just shack up for a weekend. For some reason I just called without bothering friends to call for me. Luckily the Rabbi was extremely friendly and welcomed me to stay as long as I liked.

I quickly shut my phone and drove towards Cody. About 10 miles outside town I happened upon an abandoned mining complex, for those of you who know me, this brought a welling up of excitement within me. There is nothing I like more then wandering around old industrial complexes, mines included. That is exactly what I did for a few hours mind you, I found some great old furnaces made in the foundries of Erie Pa and just wandered and tried to figure out when it was abandoned and why. Rightway I was able to tell it was a coal mine, and I did not know that Montana had coal. I know that gold and copper are huge in Montana, but coal? I later found out that it was called the Smith Mine and it was abandoned in 1943 after one of Montana’s deadliest disasters.

I drove down to Cody on this gorgeous road that took me past lush farms that bordered up on dry desert fields that were completely flat until they jutted up against huge mountains in the distance. It was the classic western feel, and I loved it. I drove with the windows down, shirt off working on my seatbelt tan line and listened to country music.

I walked around Cody for a short while, the weather had cleared up and I itched to be out of the town atmosphere and back in the rural wilderness setting. I drove towards Beartooth pass, intending on hiking and exploring the area the next day. While driving up the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, I passed some beautiful red rock formations surrounded by lush greenery, reminding me of Utah. I then came across a beautiful jeep road that went up one of the ridges that had red rock on them, so I took my bike off my roof and started to ride up the road, which eventually lead me to this ridge overlooking a huge valley. Unfortunately the road eneded only after about 45 minutes of riding, but it was beautiful and well worth the ride. It ended at a ranch, and parked next to the barbed wire fence that seemed to stretch to eternity, was a truck made entirely of wood, even the bumpers were made of logs.

I drove towards Cooke City Montana, which is near one of the entrances for Yellowstone National Park. I looked for campsites at this point and found a primitive national forest campsite set right next to a beautiful mostly dry river, the river was a wide expanse of gravel and bigger rocks deposited in their moorings by the last springs snowmelt. A small sliver of water churned through a narrow passageway, gurgling its way downward with mighty speed. I set up my tent, since it felt like it would get pretty cold that night. I only set up tents usually if I am in the woods, it is likely to rain or snow, or it will be cold, tents are great for keeping one warm and trapping the heat.

I went to daven mincha in the fading light and had a great view of Pilot Peak, which is a very distinct mountain since its spire is narrow and point straight up. I read one of my books for an hour or so and hopped in my tent. Later that night when I woke up to go to the bathroom I marveled at how bright it was outside and the way the moon lit uo everything around me.

Wednesday, August 29:

Once again upon awakening I marveled at Pilot Peak, it was one of the coolest mountains I had ever seen. I cooked up some Kashi and loaded my car excited about going to hike up on the Beartooth Plateau. The drive up the pass is amazing and I would definitely recommend it to anyone, even if they are not fond of hiking. One need not hike in to the woods to appreciate such beauty. The environment changes constantly and you are rewarded with amazing views that are completely different with every switchback. The road is very challenging due to its lack of guardrails and it is closed in the winter.

I stopped at the trailhead that was recommended to me by the shop in Red Lodge. Island Lake was the name I was told was the perfect high altitude hike, it was supposed to be relatively flat, with the most rewarding views anywhere on the plateau, I was not disappointed. I threw my boots on and filled my pack and hopped onto this narrow sliver of a trail that could be seen rolling through fields and meadows a mile ahead of me. It was breathtaking to say the least, on all sides towering mountains covered in rock and snow met the flowing green fields and thin forests that were scattered about. About a mile or so into the hike I had an epiphany, I could totally ride my bike on this trail I thought, and so I tuned around and got my bike. A good choice, since it offered both beauty and a great ride down some challenging terrain. During the entire ride I kept thinking to myself, I cannot believe I am riding on a trail like in the magazines, down a great trail surrounded by majestic vistas.

Toward the end of the ride I met a National Park Ranger and stopped to chat with him. He works in Rocky Mountain now, but for over 20 years he worked in Yellowstone and still has a house nearby. I chat about the same things with these fellows every time I happen upon them. I love hearing their wildlife opinions and stories, especially on bear and mountain lion attacks. He told me about a study they did at Yellowstone, where this ranger would sit in this fire tower overlooking a very active grizzly section of the park, popular hiking trails also crisscrossed the area, giving the researcher a vantage point of humans and bears. He found something interesting in the study, basically that humans were almost never aware of the bears while the opposite was true of the bears. We spoke of the area and its beauty, he took a picture of me with my bike and the back round and I was off to my car.

I continued up the pass marveling at its height and beauty and snapping quite a few pictures of the surrounding mountains and glaciers on the hills. I then stopped for lunch at this rest area and popped open a can of chilli and ate it with some crackers. Two cyclists were loading their bikes on their truck and I chatted with them about biking the pass, which was a huge ride up and down. They told me that most of the drivers were relatively friendly and those that weren’t, got the finger and some expletives. These guys were old and the pass was huge, quite insane I may say.

I then drove down the pass, through Red Lodge and off to the lowlands eventually towards the northwest corner of the state. I drove north west and drove some beautiful country, huge treeless hills with tall grazing grass and bales of hay. I then hopped on interstate 90 for a bit, jumping over Bozeman, which I have spent many days in before. Bozeman is beautiful, but too commercialized for the wealthy to own their dream ranches. I used to love hanging out their with its beautiful main street, and tons of hot chicks wandering around. Bozeman is home to some of the most gorgeous girls and they are all into the outdoors like you would not believe.

I drove out towards Virginia City, which is this old silver mining town that has been preserved from its heyday. I drove into the actual town as it was getting dark and asked some folks for directions how to get in to the woods to camp. They directed me up what looked like a 4 wheel drive road and what turned out to be. Kind of sucks, because I realized they were screwing with me a bit too late, I carefully came back down the road, which was passable, but clearance was definitely recommended.

I drove back out of town and pulled out at a pull off and threw down my sleeping bag and mat, I didn’t need a tent. The night was clear and mild, when the moon came out, it became real bright. It was amazing, and when the coyotes started howling it was really special. I love the howling of coyotes and wolves, it is always so eerie. For some reason I couldn’t sleep, so I just lay back and looked at the stars and listened to the howling coyotes, and occasional livestock moo. My sleep was not too great.

Thursday, August 30:

I wandered around the wood planked sidewalks of Virginia City, marveling at the old shops and multiple national historic landmark signs explaining what each building functioned as. I am usually not one for tourist districts, but old mining towns get the best of me no mater what. It happens to be that I prefer anything that is in its natural state, and would rather things rot and decay then be turned into sites where people jump out of their rental cars and grab a few pictures before going off to some fast food restaurant for lunch. This is probably why I detest national parks so much, I just don’t like the crowded nature of them, most of them, not all of them are a big mob of people holding cameras and car keys as they rush to the roadside attractions of beauty without going much further then 200 feet away from their cars or RV’s. I also don’t like to pay to see what should be for free. This is why I avoid Yellowstone whenever I pass near, although its sister park to the south is not as bad, I usually stay in Montana, because crowds never come to this state.

After Virginia City I drove north towards Butte with anticipation. The only time I had been there had been several years back and it was getting dark and the weather was crap. Butte was home to the worlds largest copper mine, and in effect has this huge collection of old buildings including a bunch of industrial stuff, mines are still active in the area and there are these huge elevator shafts all over the town. The town to me is perfect, and I wanted to document the downtown, or historic uptown as they call it.

On the way to Butte I stopped at a pull off to eat some food, I noticed a trail leading into the woods and upon closer inspection found it had tracks of mountain bikes on it. Next thing I knew it, I was riding up a sandy trail through a forest that had signs of recent fire damage. I rode up the trail for about an hour until I reached a viewpoint over looking the desert and dry hills all around, I then rode until I hit the Continental Divide trail. I then sat up at the top and chilled, then I rode down. I rode down real fast, singing the whole time so I wouldn’t run into any bears at 35 miles per hour. At the bottom I had this huge euphoric sense from the amazing ride I just did. There were two angels at the bottom of the trail, well almost angels. There were two beautiful girls sitting near my car with their bikes strewn around them. These two hotties were road riding and I sat down with them and talked about our rides. They noted the road bike on my roof, and I confirmed my dual riding types. After I watched their tight bodied selves riding back down the pass they had ridden up I realized that they had in a backward way offered me to come riding with them. I guess its good for my soul I didn’t take a hint, it would have been very distracting to ride behind two beautiful golden girls in spandex.

Right in Butte I stopped at Wal Mart for an oil change and had a chat with the guy taking my information. He said he ground rails in New York a while back, he worked up near Batavia and being that I know the area well we talked of the area a bit. He told me Butte was a real rough town, and that miners in general are a rough bunch.

He wasn’t joking, the second I got into Butte I noticed a few things, a lot of derelicts hanging around and tons of pawn shops. When there are lots of pawn shops that can only mean one thing, poor desperate folks who need money for bad habits usually. I personally like it, because it preserves the town and keeps it from development, the type of development that chases the real folks out and brings in tourists and vacationers.

The “urban” area of Butte is rather large for a small city, further proof of its lost importance. Many large hotels of 10 stories with their old signs dot the landscape, red brick is the dominating feature here and many of the buildings have different style fire escapes, I loved it. Old advertisements are also plastered to many of the sides of buildings, another thing I love to find and take pictures of. I saw a few interesting things which also are a commonality in old mining towns, I saw a building that stated in blocks on the roof “socialist hall” and I also saw a lot of signs of a diverse ethnic community, proof that many folks came for work.

I spent a whole lot of time in Butte and then finally after many pictures and hours I decided to go up to Missoula, my all time favorite town in the west, and I would move there is they had a Jewish community. Missoula is the quintessential college town, and since it stands against a big mountain range with tons of riding, climbing, hiking, skiing and whitewater it makes it ideal for someone like me and the thousands of other outdoor nuts that go to school there.

Missoula has a bunch of main streets and all the stores are organic/outdoors type of places. It is one of the only liberal towns in the entire area, meaning between Minneapolis and Seattle. I tend to like liberal towns best, those towns that everyone has an Impeach Bush sticker on their car and rainbow flags are hanging from peoples houses. Per capita bike shops, used book stores and trendy coffee shops are quite high and it seems as if there are more bikes then cars.

I pulled off the road for gas and when I was finished this guy who looked like a Palestinian got out of his car and noted my yarmulke, his accent said Indian, but his Montana license plates fooled me. Her then told me that he had just spent 10 days in Israel and said it was the best time he ever had, surprisingly he was not Muslim, instead he was a Sikh and he lived in Missoula, but his ex-girlfriend was Jewish and apparently becoming religious and encouraged him to visit her in Jerusalem. I chatted with Indi for about san hour or so and then asked him fro some trail tips in the area.

I then drove up Pettit Canyon and rode the trails there. They were desert style once again, since most of Montana is desert with dry and sandy soil. I rode up and rode down this amazing downhill that wound down the hill with jumps and burm turns, I rode it twice and then went to this swimming hole I was at once years back.

The Water was too cold for a shower, so I asked these two fly fisherman on camping tips, they recommended I go up this dirty road, which turned out to be a real shitty road. I had to drove about 45 to cancel out the huge washboard sections that rattled my car like a pinball machine. Then I made it out ot this beautiful campsite only to realize it cost money. I do not believe in paying to camp and hence I drove back to this old section of the road I was originally on. I camped at a dead end overlooking the Blackfoot River.

Friday, August 31:

I was excited the whole day about shabbos, finally I would sleep in a bed and finally I would take a shower and eat some real food. There is nothing quite like a shabbos spent while on the road, it really makes you appreciate what shabbos should be. I drove to Missoula and wandered around the downtown, and then went to a coffee shop to use the net. I then drove out towards Idaho and eventually to Spokane where I would spend shabbos.

While driving through the last bit of Montana I saw a makeshift sign on the side of the highway that proclaimed this little hamlet I was about to pass through had a used bookstore with 100,000 used books. As if the heavens were calling I immediately got off and entered into this small town with no stores it appeared, in fact I passed it originally and then made a u-turn realizing my mistake.

This ramshackle house that didn’t look like it could physically house 100,000 books, did just that. The aisles were narrow and the lighting poor, but that only enhanced the effect, you see the book store is something that cannot be mimicked in an internet experience. One must experience the musty smells, weird folks and crusty browning pages to really appreciate the aisles of books that were held up very high by some unseen nails. I took several pictures of the store and chatted with the owner for the better part of an hour.

It is funny how when you tell people what you are up to you get one of several reactions. There is the, “wow I wish I could do what you were doing, I wish I could just go.” Then there is the “you better do it while your young or you will never get a chance.” And then the look of understanding and content-ness that so few people have, the look that says, I did exactly the same thing and finally found my way. It seems that my trip always brings out the longing to just pick up and travel that so many Americans dream of doing but never get around to. I finally found a used copy of Travels with Charley, and the second part of Peter Jenkins Walk Across America.

I then continued onto Idaho, Idaho was the first place I was a little weary in wearing my yarmulke and tzitzis so publicly. It may have been my perceptions from the famous Aryan Nation incidents in Haden Lake just north of Coeur D’Alene where I was very near. Whatever may be I walked around the rough old mining town of Wallace and felt the eyes of the rather trashy youths on me. It is very rare that I feel uncomfortable with the whole public Jewish displays. I have worn my yarmulmke and tzitzis publicly in pretty much every part of the country, no one ever says anything, once in a while I hear people say, what’s up with those strings?

I went into a museum in Wallace and it had the last traffic light from Interstate 90 which was removed from Wallace in 1991 when they built their viaduct over the town. Interesting to think that the I90 was not a full interstate until 1991. I drove on to Spokane marveling at the beauty of Coeur D’Alene which is a city surrounded by a huge lake. I drove into Spokane and instantly felt uncomfortable at its size, since I had been alone in small towns all week I was not prepared for four lanes and sunken freeways. Spokane is about quarter million people. I got my hosts some flowers and then drove on up the hill to Chabad of Spokane.

Shabbos in Spokane:

My hosts were extremely friendly and the fresh challah was the greatest thing in the world. In fact everything was super fresh, since nothing was actually available kosher wise in the city. The food and hospitality was incredible as well as their determination to bring yiddishkeit to the city. The city lacks a mikveh and the Rabbi wants to build one, although it will cost $250,000 if he gets the one he wants. For now his wife must use the one in Seattle 300 miles away.

The accommodations were phenomenal and I actually felt wanted. In some chabad houses it seems a bit unwanted when you crash by them. But here I had my own side of the house with a great bed and great shower I couldn’t ask for more. On shabbos I walked around the neighborhood and marveled at the strangeness of Spokane. The cars were interesting, old Hondas from the 70s, next to huge monster trucks, parked right next to a Saab. Then you had dirt roads as streets, and one block over there would be a huge gated community with BMW and Volvo cars streaming in and out.

Check back for the posts describing the rest of my trip.