Tuesday, July 17, 2012

If it's Tuesday, this must still be Montana!

Tuesday we tackled Montana.  Did I mention it was hot?  Windy and 110 in Billings when I got out to get more Coke and gas, felt like a heater was blowing full blast on my legs.  Montana is, well, large.  Which makes sense because it is the fourth largest state!  Who knew?  “They always focus on the top three,” sighed Montana.  It took us all day to cross but the terrain is never boring with Superfund Butte, Rocky Mt. highs, gateway to Yellowstone, and all.  Wishing to see a grizzly bounding up a hillside or a moose dining in a river, all I saw were three white pelicans.  Pelicans?  Apparently they like to change things up, salt water Costa Rica in winter, fresh water Montana in summer where they seek out protected islands in the vast western prairies to give birth to their helpless babes.

Our book on tape for the day was “Witches,” a good Roald Dahl selection which kept us entertained from Butte to Bozeman to Billings.  After 450 miles on I-90, we’d traversed 13 counties, all bigger than the state of Rhode Island with or without the water (http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/how-big-is-rhode-island-anyway-214) and switched to I-94 at Billings for the last little 250-mile stretch to North Dakota.  (Fun fact: you can fit 95 Rhode Islands in Montana.)  As you probably already know but I only just now discovered on Wikipedia, I-94 is the only purely east–west interstate to form a direct connection into a foreign country, namely Canada.  Facinating.  Here, the Rocky Mountain high receded in my rear-view mirror like a John Denver song as the landscape changed from the majestic peaks the state was named for (Montana is Spanish for, you guessed it, mountains!) to simpler sandstone buttes which appear to be the inspiration for those layered candles we used to make as Girl Scouts at the beach. As depicted by these photos which are not from Wikipedia. Although they could be.
Totally engrossed in the dramatic development of “Witches,” we sped right past Exit 23 for Pompey’s Pillar National Monument which, as you also probably already know but I just learned, is a 150-ft high, 2-acre sandstone butte.  Because it’s the only sandstone outcrop on the south side of the Yellowstone River for several miles in either direction, PP has been a landmark for centuries and is one of the most famous sandstone buttes in America.  Can you name another one?  I didn't think so.  The butte (long u) was named by Clark of “Lewis and…” in honor of Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.  Get it?  Of course not.  Clark, apparently the Official Nicknamer of the dynamic duo, fulfilled his duties by calling little Jean “Pomp.”  “I hereby declare this to be called Pompey’s Tower,” Clark declared.  And so it was.  At least, that is, until the official editor of the expedition decided to exercise his artistic license by renaming it Pompey’s Pillar.  All of which is way more information than any of us needed to know about this place we passed right on by.

But before we move on, the reeeallly interesting thing about PP is that the monument bears the only remaining physical evidence of the entire Corps of Discovery Expedition, appearing today on the sands of time exactly as it did 200 years ago, as far as we can tell.  For it was right here on July 25, 1806 that Captain Clark, perhaps not realizing that some day this would be illegal, saw fit to carve his name on the face of the butte.  By then, he was on the second half of his two-year stroll across the country so perhaps was feeling a bit nostalgic and wanted to leave his mark as a momento, fearing he’d never return.  It was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime before I-94 and cars and all. 

Now, mind you, the Native Americans had already given this big butte the perfectly fine name of "the place where the mountain lion lies," which I actually prefer.  I like to imagine the possibilities of how the story might have ended if, say, a mountain lion had jumped on Clark as he was busy defacing our national monument, perhaps even breaking his carving tool.  I know kids who’ve been kicked out of school for doing the same thing, after all.  (Yet another reminder not to try this at home.)  But, as usual, the Native Americans were too cool to correct Clark’s ambition. Or perhaps they were all preoccupied with party planning for Custer’s welcome hoopla which was coming right up just south on I-90 in another 70 years or so, a mere blip on their calendar.

Had we been driving at the end of July on or around the 25th, we might have enjoyed “Clark Days” with the PP Historical Association.  Then we could have “reenacted” Clark’s canoe voyage by floating down the Yellowstone, arriving in the afternoon at the Pillar-formerly-known-as-the-place-where-the-mountain-lion-lies to stroll along the boardwalk where we could view the defacing signature and then enjoy a traditional buffalo barbeque complete with entertainment.  Most of which didn’t actually happen after Clark sharpened his stick in 1806.  But it was only July 3.  We were too early and all this was lost on us anyway as we sped on. 

Seven more large counties later, we arrived at last in the final Montana outpost of Glendive, home of the Dinosaurs.  (We are the dinosaurs, the mighty, mighty dinosaurs?)  In addition to waxing nostalgic about past craft projects as one drives along this striped landscape, one also half expects to see a T-Rex come bounding across the freeway any minute like a Montana-sized deer.   

We kissed the shivering pavement of The Big Sky State goodbye and arrived in the unlikely town of Beach, North Dakota, home of Andy’s maternal Finneman family line and severe thunderstorm warnings.  It was still hot, dry, and windy, which meant that there would be no celebratory pyrotechnics allowed in that entire nineteenth largest state.  Long ago I realized my kids automatically called their east coast aunts “aunts” and their west coast aunts “ants.”  And if you haven’t read “Truman’s Ant Farm” you should.  We found Andy’s Ant Weenie on First Street watching America’s Got Talent at 7 p.m.  Ready for a fun time zone fact?  Apparently it is cheaper for Central Zone time folks to broadcast shows live from Eastern time so they are on an hour earlier and even though these Mountain time folks have to tape them, they chose to follow Central timing.  When Jay Leno came on at 10:30, I assumed it was because these workers of the land are early to bed and early to rise.  (Which, as you know, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.)  But it was this zany time zone thing. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the world is flocking to the fracking just north of Beach in Williston in a modern-day oil rush where vehicles sporting every license plate from North America are being slept in.  Which is what we would have been doing if it weren’t for our Ant Weenie because there are, indeed, no rooms at the inns.


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