Driving back to Billings from Great Falls on Wednesday, I took a long detour.
I was in the mood for back roads, for one thing, and I specifically wanted to see the one-room schoolhouse—right next door to a nuclear missile silo—that I’d visited in 1999. That visit was part of the week-long journey I made with photographer David Grubbs, driving from Yaak to Alzada on unpaved roads and then writing up our experiences for the Billings Gazette.
I had it in my mind that the one-room schoolhouse was near Floweree, but I couldn’t find it on Wednesday. It wasn’t until I got home that I figured out why.
The Yaak to Alzada series was printed too long ago to be preserved in the Gazette’s digital archives, and I didn’t dig through my own clip files until Wednesday evening, when I found the articles in question.
It turns out that the school was the Benton Lake Elementary School, 20 miles north of Great Falls, but for whatever reason its mailing address was Floweree, 15 miles east of Great Falls.
But no matter. In the town of Floweree, which I did pass through, I saw the “Slow down” sign posted on top of this story, and it seemed to sum up everything I wanted to do on my drive from Great Falls.
That became something of a theme, in fact, what with the “10 mph” sign in the tiny hamlet of Portage and the “School drive slowly” sign, my favorite, posted outside the Carter Elementary School, as my photos show.
What no photos can quite convey is how good it felt to be out in the wide-open country of central Montana on a perfect June morning. Before I got back on a real highway and started barreling for home, I spent more than four hours driving at speeds that averaged 30 miles an hour, with the windows rolled down, the better to hear the meadowlarks and countless other birds.
I want to acknowledge that I was driving my daughter Hayley’s car, a 2008 Subaru Outback, which she bought just a couple of weeks ago—shortly before my 2012 Subaru Forester and a deer killed each other on I-90 near Big Timber. Or I guess you could say I killed them both, for which I apologize.
I know Hayley’s car had been owned by a Montanan, but I don’t know where in Montana it had been previously. After this trip, we know it has some good, honest, character-building Montana miles on it.Getting up out of the river bottom, the gravel road climbs steeply.
The worst stretch by far was Portage Coulee Road between the Ryan Dam and the town of Portage. It hardly looked like a road at all. The road to both dams was paved, to accommodate maintenance vehicles and visitors using trails around both dams, but Portage Coulee Road looked like a tractor route, with more than a few extremely muddy patches, apparently created by irrigation water, not rain.
At least the surface really was dirt, not gumbo, and the Outback did well, even after lots of mud got packed into the wheel wells. The next road I encountered was smoother, but looked even less traveled.
Somehow, it was known as Old Highway Road, connecting Floweree and Carter, where I wanted to catch the Missouri River ferry. Highway? It was a narrow two-track road with a foot of grass in the middle of it. A better name would have been Sheep Trail Road, or Bouncing Buggy Lane.
My DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer showed that this “highway” paralleled the railroad tracks, or I’m not sure I would have believed it.
And then across the river on the Carter Ferry. The gent who runs the ferry identified himself as Brian. I found him on the internet, but let’s leave well enough alone. I told him only, in response, that my name was Ed.
I’d like to think his last name was Ornery. He saw me coming down to the landing and we waved at each other, but when I got to the buzzer I pushed it anyway, then apologized to him for having done so. No problem, he said, because he wouldn’t have come down otherwise.
Some people just honk their horns, but people park there to fish or explore and when they lock their cars the horns honk, so he doesn’t heed them anymore.
“That’s why the button’s there,” he said. “You don’t push the goddamn button, I won’t come.”
He also said this has been a slow season, for reasons unknown. He’s only been seeing two or three river-crossers a day, “sometimes zip.”
It was a short commute across the river, but the experience is always grand. It seems to me that there is some hope for this world if there are still ferries taking people across the Missouri River.
On the other side of the river, ascending a steep gravel road up out of the breaks and back into wide-open wheat country, I suddenly had the most complete sense of well-being or satisfaction, or just plain happiness. Brian had complained that everybody in Great Falls wants the town to get bigger. He didn’t understand it.
Neither did I, at that particular moment. The emptiness filled me up.
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.