Exploring Montana: Delphic ruins a biblical mystery on a Tuesday afternoon


By Ed Kemick

I had several excellent reasons for taking a Sunday drive on Tuesday.

One was that I had been noticing more and more signs of the coming of fall in the past few days. Wondering how in the hell I had let another summer slip away so heedlessly, I knew I needed to take in some sights.

It was also a beautiful day—blue skies, loads of snow-white clouds and temperatures hovering around 70—which was the second reason. The third was that I had been fighting a kind of cold-mixed-with-allergies since Sunday and was too woolly headed to do any real work, like writing or editing.

The final reason, and here I could see the hand of supernatural forces pushing me out the door, was that no one was returning my phone calls. I figured the surest way to fill my voicemail box with messages was to get myself out of range of cell phone service.

I must have had a subconscious inkling of where I wanted to go because it took me all of two minutes’ looking at my DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer to decide I would take Highway 87 north to Old Divide Road, follow Fattig Creek Road northwest to Delphia and then West Musselshell Road to Musselshell.

From there I would return to Billings via South Musselshell Road, Hawk Creek Road and CA Road, the one that runs past the Shepherd Ah Nei Recreation Area, then into the Heights on Shepherd Road.

I had been on Old Divide Road before, but obviously I had never taken the right onto Fattig Creek Road, because I was on it for only a few minutes when Bull Mountain Coal Mine No. 1 came into view.

During all my years at the Gazette, I had never written a single story about the Bull Mountain mine, and while I had a vague idea where it was, I realized Tuesday that I did not know for sure until laying eyes on it. I was almost embarrassed by my ignorance, but it is a big world, is it not?

I stopped for a few photos and continued on my way, and just as I did so one big fat raindrop splashed audibly on my windshield. I was on gravel and it seemed inevitable that there was gumbo ahead, but I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to really rain. It’s not that I could read any signs or had any special knowledge; it was just a vague dumb hope, and on I went.

Most of my previous experiences in the Bull Mountains had been in those areas swept by various fires over the past 25 years, leaving them nearly denuded of trees. But once I got past the mine, I found myself in fairly heavily timbered hills interspersed with lovely meadows, most of them hosting dinner parties of grazing cows.

A few miles past the mine, I took a short walk up a wind-carved sandstone knob and enjoyed an expansive view of the country all around. It really was about as fine a day as you could ask for, and I was glad I had decided to get out of Dodge for the day.

Not far from that knob, at Brunner Mountain Road (private), I saw a most interesting collection of signs. One sign informed me that Dillow’s Retreat was 2.1 miles ahead; another said Wolves Ridge was 1.6 miles down the road.

And one said this: “Joshua 24:15 KJV, 462 paces.” I was going to look up the biblical passage but my phone said “no service.” This was the first time I had looked at it since leaving Billings. I wanted to know what that passage said, but I was also relieved to be out of touch.

As for those “462 paces.” I knew that some Bible believers put great faith in certain numbers or combination of numbers, but I had no idea what “462” meant. If it was simply distance, I figured it a little more than a quarter mile, there being about 30 paces in 100 feet. I drove about that far down the two-track road, wondering what I was getting myself into. Nothing, as it turned out, but I still wondered.

Having presumably dodged a confrontation with avenging angels, I went back to Fattig Creek Road and continued driving through some of the finest ranchland I’d ever seen: endless valleys and meadows hemmed in by pine-covered sandstone bluffs. Almost every ranch house was attended by decaying log homesteads, barns or outbuildings, suggesting multiple generations of ranch families.

Most of the turns off the main road were onto private roads with fanciful names: Steep Road, Curlee Road, Rocky Top Road, Buck Rub Road and Hidden Springs Road.

Upon arriving in Delphia, I was not too surprised to find that Delphia was not there. An old station on the Milwaukee Road, there is nothing left of Delphia now but an abandoned grain silo, an abandoned store and a house that may or may not have been inhabited, plus a few nearby ranch houses.

Who knows what hopes there were for Delphia when it was new? Its founders, who named it for that locale in Greece where the wise went for more wisdom, and the gullible to have their palms read, were unlikely to have foreseen this melancholy fate.

And then on to Musselshell along West Musselshell Road, which hugs a dry, chalky, almost monochromatic hillside on the right, high above the river valley on the left, lush with water and fall colors this time of year. More beautiful ranchland and then into Musselshell through the back door.

“Names on the Face of Montana” tells me Musselshell is where it is because the early herds of Texas longhorns crossed the river there. How it has hung on all these years since the end of the cattle drives is another mystery, but there is something special about that isolated little burg. Its imposing, elegant brick schoolhouse says something, too.

South of Musselshell, few sights detained me. The rain, true to my halfwit’s intuition, came only in light, scattered bursts, but the horizon looked downright ominous, so I sped along as fast as I dared. A rainbow on my left was faint but resilient, hanging in the sky for 15 or 20 minutes, but little else caught my eye, and I came up on Ah Nei Recreation Area much sooner than expected.

By the time I reached home, I had gone 139 miles in almost exactly four hours, which is a reasonable pace for a Sunday drive on a Tuesday afternoon. And as soon as I got to my computer, I looked up Joshua 24:15, King James Version. Here’s what I found:

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Hmm. I have no quarrel with the Amorites, nor with Joshua and his people, so I chose not to choose. Maybe if I had walked 462 paces in another man’s shoes…

This article originally appeared on Last Best News.