Saturday, October 31, 2009

To be so happy again ...

Maybe it's just where my tastes lie, but it seems to me that a surprising amount of Montana poetry evokes images of long, empty roads and great skies. Here's one such work, a poem called "Once in the 40's," by an Oregon poet named William Stafford:
We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold--but
brave--we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we'd come back some time
when we got rich. We'd leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The best town name in Montana ...

I was looking through a little anthology recently called, The Arts in Montana, and found an essay titled "The Trouble with Town Names." The piece spent a couple of pages pondering Montana's preferences in that department ... and though I didn't really agree with the author's thoughts it gave me an excuse to consider what my favorite town name in Montana might be.

Didn't take me long to decide:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lonely road ...

It's hard to think of an image more evocative of rural Montana than that of a lonely pickup truck, heading out along an empty dirt road through the rangeland. I took this shot a little over a year ago, on the road that heads west from Ringling towards Battle Creek and the old town of Sixteen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Purple-shadowed coulees ...

One of my first posts here was an appreciation of Joseph Kinsey Howard, the Montana newspaperman and historian. Though it's been nearly 60 years since his death, Howard's works remain relevant and well-read ... especially Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome, his landmark history of the state. It's one of my very favorite Montana books, partly for what Howard says and partly for how he says it ... he had a gift for descriptive prose that seems to fit the state perfectly. Here's a sample paragraph from the book, introdicing the Missouri Breaks country in central Montana:
The trails are old wagon roads which get down to the river somehow -- twisting along an old water course or plunging wildly down an extended buttress of a long butte. Scrub pine, spruce, and cedar are scattered in the purple-shadowed coulees and on the hundreds of isolated hills which start up suddenly from the vast canyon floor; the sun, soon gone, rekindles briefly the centuries-old color in pre-glacial cliffs, and a distant mountain range turns violet, then black, against the blue-green sky.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Geraldine sports ...

One more photo from the Geraldine 6-man game today, before we move on to other topics. To me this is exactly how a football stadium ought to look.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Small-town football ...

I confess I'm not much of a fan of college or pro sports. I haven't been to an MSU football game since before a few of you were born, and when people mention the legendary Montana State-University of Montana sports rivalry I invariably just roll my eyes and snort, "It's only a game."

But despite all that, I went to a football game on Saturday.

Montana's still a heavily rural state, and close to half of Montana's high schools don't have enough students to field traditional football teams. Many of the smaller schools play in eight-man leagues, but the 28 littlest schools play something called six-man football, which is a very different sport. The field is only 80 yards long, it takes 15 yards to get a first down, and absolutely everyone is eligible to receive a pass. So the games are fast-moving, unpredictable, and a heck of a lot of fun.

To sample six-man football I drove up to Geraldine, where the Tigers were hosting a co-op team from Richey and Lambert. (The tiniest Montana schools will often bond together to field athletic teams -- otherwise they'd have no interscholastic sports at all.) It's 321 miles from Lambert to Geraldine, and the two schools sent a team of six starters and two reserves. Geraldine has a strong history of six-man football, and they had 13 players suited up ... not bad for a school with a total of only three dozen students. The weather was utterly frigid, and I think I was the only out-of-towner there.

And the game was a blast: constant motion and lots of excitement, the total opposite of the orchestrated military maneuvers you see in major-college ball. The ending was pure adrenaline, with a missed extra point, a successful onside kick, and a dropped pass reception that would have changed everything. When it was over, the favored Tigers had lost a 27-26 heartbreaker ... but the Richey/Lambert boys had something to celebrate on that long drive home.

I'm now a serious fan of six-man football, and I can't wait to go to another game. The playoffs start next weekend, and Geraldine is heading out to play the undefeated Hysham Pirates. It would be fun to watch, but I'm afraid the Tigers are going to get their butts kicked.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Geyser cutoff ...

The term "bucket list" is a popular one these days ... the idea is to create a list of things that you absolutely must do before you kick the bucket, and then get to work on actually doing those things. I think it's a great concept, and I have a mental bucket list that's a mile long.

I decided to head out yesterday to check one of the Montana-related items off my bucket list, and I'll report on my destination tomorrow after I've gone through the photos. This is a shot I took on the drive up ... a rainy day on the Geyser Cutoff Road. A gorgeous and thoroughly-Montana drive, but the Choteau County road crew really needs to dump some gravel up there!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Miles of land without people...

I posted a fragment of a Richard Hugo poem here last summer, but his work was good enough that I think another one is definitely in order. This is the final stanza of "Driving Montana," one of my favorite Hugo poems:
Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sanborn maps ...

For me, maps are perhaps the best form of recreational reading ever ... and that's particularly true of historic maps. So much intriguing information packed onto a single sheet of paper.

And for anyone interested in local history, old Sanborn maps are by far the most intriguing things to browse. Sanborn maps were mostly created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and designed to be used by companies that sold fire insurance. They're an amazingly detailed snapshot of a town, showing the location, size, materials, and use of every single building in the map area -- an unparalleled resource for historians.

Back in the day, Sanborn maps were created for over 200 Montana communities ... including a number of frontier towns that don't even exist anymore. The originals were in color, but you can find black-and-white versions of all of them on the internet with a little digging and password-searching. Once you do, you'll likely be hooked for days.

Here's a small snippet of one of the old Sanborns ... this one showing how a part of the coal mining town of Bearcreek looked back in the summer of 1914:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Autumn ...

It's easy to stereotype Montana as being a place of endless winters and momentary summers ... but if you've lived here you know that this is a state of distinct and remarkable seasons. Springtime is often less than stellar here, but we have great summers, classic winters ... and almost always, autumns that are long and gorgeous.

Of course, up here those lovely fall weeks are often interspersed with the occasional Montana blizzard ... so it could be snowing one day and 60 degrees the next. We had a particularly insane October blizzard this fall, and while all the snow disappeared in a few days, the storm froze the leaves and robbed us of our autumn foliage -- the trees just turned from green to black. That's rare, though; while we're definitely no Vermont, much of the state usually displays some subtle but really lovely fall colors.

As proof, here's a shot I took in fall of 2006, heading up the west side of Logan Pass in Glacier Park:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana ...

Back in 1925, a young man named Eli Siegel completed a long poem called "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana," that was published in The Nation. Only nominally about our state, the poem was in large part a celebration of the beauty of Earth ... it received wide acclaim, and helped propel Siegel to a measure of literary fame.

In part using the Montana poem as a foundation, in 1941 Siegel proclaimed a new approach to philosophic thought that he called "Aesthetic Realism." Siegel described the philosophy as being based on the premise that “The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis." The statement was certainly admirable, but eventually the movement evolved into an often-inappropriate self-help agenda that became thoroughly cult-like. Today, the Aesthetic Realists are a tiny and eccentric fringe group, probably wondering why the Scientologists are the ones who get all the attention.

But I don't think the whole Aesthetic Realism thing really lessens the literary merit of Siegel's Montana poem. It's too long to fully reproduce here, but here are a few sample lines:
Indians, Indians went through Montana,
Thinking, feeling, trying pleasurably to live.
This land, shone on by the sun now, green, quiet now,
Was under their feet, this time; we live now and it is hundreds
of years after.
Montana, thou art, and I say thou art, as once monks said of God,
And thought, too: Thou art.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sun River sunset ...

Here's a photo I took over the weekend ... a sunset shot a bit north of the little town of Fort Shaw. That's the Sun River, and you can barely see the Rocky Mountain Front silhouetted in the distance.

Monday, October 19, 2009

WPA art ...

The federal programs of the New Deal era were noteworthy for the level of support provided to the arts, their sponsorship of a wonderful variety of literary, photographic, and artistic endeavors. The Works Progress Administration, in particular, was responsible for a vast creative output during the Depression years ... and other New Deal programs had the ability to call on the WPA for artistic support.

One such agency was something called the "United States Travel Bureau," established in the Department of the Interior in the late 1930s to help promote American tourism destinations. The Bureau enlisted WPA assistance in the creation of a series of travel posters, including at least three handsome designs for Montana. Here's one of them:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Riding on a Rail ...

Back in 1900, a man named Robert Vaughn compiled a book called Then and Now, or, Thirty Six Years in the Rockies. The volume is a collection of letters and essays describing life in late nineteenth-century Montana ... lots of nostalgia for the vanishing frontier, and lots of politically-incorrect tales of Cowboys and Indians. It's an uneven but entertaining read.

Todays quote is an except from the book, part of an essay by Vaughn extolling the joys of turn-of-the-century travel on the Great Northern Railway... so much more comfortable than a horse and saddle!
Think of the perils, hardships and delays the traveler encountered "then" and the comforts and accommodations he is having "now." "Then" for protection against hostile Indians he had to equip himself with gun and ammunition, "now" for comfort and pleasure he equips himself with Havana cigars, daily newspapers and magazines. And he sings:

Riding o'er the mountains in a buffet car,
Writing loving letters, not a shake or jar;
Leaping over rivers, flying down the vale;
"O bless one, ain't it pleasant riding on a rail."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

P-burg ...

I obviously love a great many of Montana's cities and towns, but I'll confess to a particular fondness for Philipsburg. "P-burg" has a lovely setting, a fascinating history, and a fine assortment of historic buildings ... and only a handful of 21st-century intrusions to spoil the mood.

Here's a shot I took in Philipsburg a couple of years ago, looking up East Broadway on a snowy April morning:

Friday, October 16, 2009

It Happened in Montana ...

I know many of you recall (or still read) the old "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" comic panel ... and you might be interested to know that the Big Sky Country once had something similar. Back in 1940 a Miles City artist named Jim Masterson created a regular newspaper feature called "It Happened in Montana." In line art and text, each comic retold a well-known Montana anecdote, or remembered a moment in the state's history. "It Happened in Montana" was carried in 51 newspapers across the state, and the panels were later published as a series of pamphlets. The original drawings are preserved at the Range Riders Museum in Miles City.

Here's an example of one of Masterson's comics, this one telling the famous story of Hugh Glass, the mountain man:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

History conference ...

I'm heading off to Great Falls again today, this time to attend the annual Montana History Conference. There was a time when I basically lived for events like this, but I confess I'm not really looking forward to it much today ... conference-going historians aren't all that much fun, and I think many of the academic ones have lost sight of what's truly interesting and important in their field.

But regardless, it's an excuse for a roadtrip ... and that's always a good thing. And it also gives me an excuse to post some more Great Falls photos here -- like this rather unusual one. I shot this view of the Missouri River from the tower of the old Milwaukee Road passenger depot, probably my favorite building in the Electric City.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Two boys in a strange land ...

Without a doubt, one of the best published reminiscences of nineteenth-century cowboy life in Montana is We Pointed Them North, by E.C. Abbott. Published shortly before Abbott's death in 1939, the book is a wonderful collection of evocative anecdotes and memories. A few of the stories are quite funny -- such as the tale of Abbott's encounter with a Miles City prostitute, that earned him the permanent nickname "Teddy Blue." Other stories are poignant, none more so than this heartbreaking 1883 memory of a young cowboy's death:
I was in Miles City a second time that fall, and that time one of the boys with the outfit got sick, and I nursed him in a hotel room until he died in my arms. He was not a real cowboy. He had been a bookkeeper for the president of the company in St. Paul, and he came out to Montana for his health. He had t.b., bad. He had been at the ranch a few months when he got so sick the old man brought him in town and left him there, and he said to the rest of us: "One of you ought to stay with him." He looked right at me, and I said I would stay.

He only lived a week, but that week in that hotel room was the worst I ever went through. He kept having hemorrhages, blood all over everything, and I took newspapers and spread them on the bedclothes and on the floor. He did not want me to leave him for a minute. We were just two boys in a strange land, but the people at the hotel were as kind as could be. . . .

After I had been there with the kid a week, Mr. Fuller came down one night to see him and he told me: "You'd better go to bed." I hadn't been to bed all that time, only slept in a chair once in awhile, because he wouldn't sleep unless he could lay his head on my arm. So I went and laid down in another room. About midnight Mr. Fuller came for me and said: "You'd better come in now. He's asking for you." I guess he knew he was going. So I went back where he was, and he wanted to know if I would lay down beside him and let him rest his head on my shoulder. In a few minutes he mumbled something about Ethel, his sister I think, and then he was gone.

It put me right up in the air. I went down to the bar to get a drink. There was a captain there that I knew, from Fort Keogh. He was dressed in civilian clothes, with a hard hat on, and he took his hat off and his coat off and gave them to me and said: "You go for a walk and get some fresh air." So I went out, but I went to a honky-tonk the first damn thing -- trying to get it off my mind.

They shipped him out the next day to Boston.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Biddle ...

I spent a winter in Missoula back in my college years, where I somehow got to know a girl who'd grown up in the town of Biddle, Montana. I don't remember the girl's name, or how we met ... all I remember is that she was from Biddle, which seemed like one of the most remote and desolate places imaginable to me.

After that, I was left with a lingering urge to go see Biddle for myself, though I didn't actually make it there until three years ago. I guess the town is more-or-less what one would expect, but I was thoroughly surprised by the countryside ... it's really quite lovely out there. Hills and trees and big ranches -- definitely none of the stereotypical bleakness that some people associate with eastern Montana.

Here's a shot I took a couple miles east of town, along a gravel county road ... I'm sure I'll post some more views later:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jefferson Valley ...

Today's photo is another in my seemingly-endless series of "road" shots. This is Montana Highway 41, heading south in the Jefferson River valley ... and those are the Tobacco Root Mountains in the distance.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Savoy ...

Last spring I got to spend a little time poking around at the old ghost town of Savoy, in eastern Blaine County. This is a shot of the abandoned schoolhouse up there.

Savoy was one of a long series of towns platted by a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway, after the GN built its line across Montana ... and like many of those towns, it was given a name borrowed from a map of Europe. No one's quite sure why the GN did that, but it sure made the railroad's timetables more evocative. It didn't do quite as much for the towns themselves, though ...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Troop train ...

During the World War II years, the United States military made extensive use of the railroads to transport its soldiers across the country. Chartered "troop trains," each carrying hundreds of men, frequently traversed Montana on each of the state's east-west railroads as part of journeys that often lasted for days. For many veterans of the era, it marked their first -- and perhaps only -- introduction to our state.

Here's an excerpt from a reminiscence of one such transcontinental adventure, undertaken by a young soldier named Donald M. Brown in 1945 and later retold in an essay titled "Journeys on World War II Troop Trains." Brown's train crossed Montana from east to west, following the route of the Northern Pacific ... and for the purposes of this story you should note that back in those days, when you flushed a toilet on a passenger train, the waste was dumped directly onto the ground below.
The total trip was five days and five nights on the train. It seemed to us that the troop train was a low priority on the railroad. We would pull on a siding to let a train of tanks, trucks, or tank cars pass by. There was a lot of war materiel heading west at that time.

Even in late May, the weather was hot on the western plains. The old cars were cooled by ice when we could get some at service stops.

During the journey, we were given little chance to exercise. With 1,200 men stuck on a train for days, we stunk and were out of sorts. We were told we could get off the train in Billings, Mont., but the station management had had enough of troop trains that day and forced us to remain on board. So before we left, word was passed through the train to flush the toilets in each car before we left town. This was our gift to Billings.

Later in the evening, we pulled into Livingston, where we sat for at least an hour. It was dark, and we saw people along side the train with with baskets of cookies, doughnuts, sandwiches, and jugs of coffee. Compared to the cool reception in Billings, this was a welcome surprise. Livingston was not a large town, but they sure treated us well.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Skalkaho ...

One of the more obscure numbered roads in Montana is State Highway 38, which heads east from the Hamilton area over Skalkaho Pass to the Flint Creek Valley near Philipsburg. The term "highway" is actually a pretty serious misnomer for the central third of the route, which is a narrow and unpaved Forest Service road through some really lovely mountain country. The western approach to the pass is long and fairly precipitous, and about two-thirds of the way up you round a narrow corner and find yourself face to face with one of the landmarks of the journey: Skalkaho Falls.

Here's a shot I took of the falls back in the summer of 2008:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Outlook ...

Outlook, Montana is a quiet little place, even by northeastern Montana standards ... only a handful of people, no business district left, the school closed. I was up there back in the early 1990s, and took this photo of the old Soo Line railroad depot there, the tracks looking west towards the forgotten towns of Daleview and Whitetail.

But the depot is gone now, too, destroyed in a 1999 fire that devastated what little remained of the town. Soon the prairie will be all that remains ...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Linking myself to the new country ...

Today's quote is one that my friend Dale showed to me a few days ago, and it's well worth reproducing here. It's an excerpt from an autobiographical 1947 book called My American Pilgrimage, written by a Macedonian immigrant named Stoyan Christowe. The passage is part of a chapter describing a winter Christowe spent working as part of a "section gang" helping maintain the Great Northern Railway along Montana's Hi-Line back in the 1910s.

The chapter was later excerpted in a 1970 anthology titled, Workin' on the Railroad: Reminiscences from the Age of Steam. And as for Christowe, he later became a journalist, the author of several books, and a member of the Vermont state legislature.
I watched the Fast Mail disappear into the unknown West. I felt less alone now, less cold.

"All right, men, rip her up now," Pat yelled in his high-pitched voice.

A new energy seized the workers. The claw bars clamped the spikes with iron fangs and jerked them out like frozen worms. The tongmen slung in the new thirty-three-foot rails with the lightness of sticks. I unclasped the metal hooks of my sheepskin-lined coat so as to breathe more freely, and I took off my mittens that I might touch the steel with my bare hands. And then I felt as if a candle were suddenly lit inside me, glowing within me and warming my body. In crowded St. Louis I had never felt so close to America as I did now in this pathless plain. I knew that as I touched the steel, linking one rail to another, I was linking myself to the new country and building my own solid road to a new life.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rogers Pass ...

A nasty winter wind started blowing in Bozeman Sunday afternoon, and I woke up yesterday morning to find three inches of new snow on my car. With luck the last of it will melt today, but it reminded me of one of the few things I didn't like about Montana ... our winters are way too long.

And way too cold, too -- as illustrated by this sign atop Rogers Pass, on Montana 200 between Great Falls and Missoula:

Monday, October 5, 2009

All the Young Men ...

Back in 1960, Columbia Pictures released a film called All the Young Men, starring Alan Ladd and Sidney Poitier. It was a war movie, set in Korea, and it tackled the issue of racism in the American armed forces. The film has never made it to DVD, and it's relatively little-known today.

But a portion of All the Young Men was shot in Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation and in Glacier Park, and the reason for that is interesting. Since it was a war movie set in Korea, Columbia needed lots of extras to play North Korean soldiers ... and they decided the easiest way to do that was to cast Blackfeet Indians in all the Korean roles, and hope no one noticed the difference! Kind of an ironic move for a film designed partly to address the issue of racial stereotypes.

Here's a photo of several of the film's Blackfeet extras, dressed as North Koreans. The shot was taken by Mel Ruder of the Hungry Horse News during the movie's filming in October 1959.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gold Creek ...

Just a quick photo for today ... this is the wall of an old building in the tiny town of Gold Creek, a lovely little spot in the upper Clark Fork Valley.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The pickup truck debt ...

Today's quote is from a wonderful but underrated Montana movie called Rancho Deluxe, which was made back in 1975. Filmed around Livingston and the Paradise Valley and featuring a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack, the movie is entertaining and scenic and has surprising moments of insight, at least for one cross-section of Montana. As an example of that insight, here's a bit of monologue from the film:
"I've seen more of this state's poor cowboys, miners, railroaders and Indians go broke buyin' pickup trucks. The poor people of this state are dope fiends for pickup trucks. As soon's they get ten cents ahead they trade in on a new pickup truck. The families, homesteads, schools, hospitals and happiness of Montana have been sold down the river to buy pickup trucks! ... And there's a sickness here worse than alcohol and dope. It is the pickup truck debt! And there's no cure in sight."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Unveiling ...

One of the things I'm striving for in this blog is geographical diversity ... but there are definitely a few places I've neglected, one of them being our capital city of Helena. So here's an historic Helena photo I like, from the Montana Historical Society. It's from the 1905 dedication of the equestrian statue of Thomas Frances Meagher that graces the front lawn of the state capitol.

(Meagher was an amazing guy, by the way ... easily the most dashing and intriguing political leader Montana has ever had. We'll have to talk more about him later.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Right here in River City ...

Some of you might remember an old production called "The Music Man," about a con artist who sweeps into a small, hapless town to fleece the place. Well, similar stories occasionally take place in real life, too, except without Robert Preston and all the singing. When it's happened at a community level in Montana the favorite target has probably been Butte, that most hapless of places ... but I think this year's prize for being duped will undoubtedly go to the little town of Hardin.

A few years ago, some Texas promoters showed up in Hardin and told them that their economic woes would be over if they just built themselves a prison ... and so the town did, but nobody bothered to figure out where to find inmates for the place. So the prison sits empty, the construction bonds are in default, and the Texans have gone home. And now another Harold Hill has shown up in town, the head of a mysterious company called "American Police Force" that has promised to open the prison, pour millions into the town, and be Hardin's savior in a hundred other ways. The company has a ludicrous website but no paper trail, and now it turns out that its president has a long history of fraud convictions and personal bankruptcies. But Hardin still has faith. It's going to be fun watching all this play out, and it's going to be a heck of a story ... it's too bad Hunter S. Thompson isn't still alive to write it.

Anyhow, I haven't taken a current photo of Hardin for you, so here's an historic image of the place. This probably dates from about 1920 or so.