First Time for Everything: Happily lost in Crow Country

We saw many red-sandstone buttes like this one, reminiscent of a few other places in Montana but also unique. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Driving home from witnessing the total solar eclipse in Casper, Wyo., on Monday, I saw my chance to take a backroad-drive I’d been thinking about for months.

When I went down to Wyola last spring, to write a story about the school there (it ran first in the Montana Quarterly, then on Last Best News), I brought along my trusty DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer, 2013 edition.

I didn’t need a map to get to Wyola, which is a mile and a half west of Interstate 90, 10 miles north of the Wyoming state line. I brought it to see if there was anything else in the vicinity I should explore some day. It was this same atlas, after all, that drew my attention to what turned out to be the most spectacular place in Montana.

What caught my eye at once, on Page 88 of the atlas, were the back roads between Wyola and Saint Xavier, a big, looping route through a large swath of the Crow Indian Reservation. I’m not even sure why I thought the drive looked so intriguing, except that most of the route appeared to follow waterways — the Little Bighorn River, Lodge Grass Creek and Rotten Grass Creek.

We left Casper about 1 p.m. — I was with my sister and brother-in-law, Mary Jo and Scott Bennett — and reached Wyola about 4. They were both game for another adventure, having just been present for the life-altering spectacle of a total eclipse.

The route looked straightforward enough in the atlas: from Wyola, head southwest on Little Horn Road until it turns into Willow Creek Dam Road (also known as Highway 463), which runs northeast toward Lodge Grass. A few miles before Lodge Grass, simply turn off onto Good Luck Road, which runs straight into Saint Xavier.

That’s what the atlas said. In fact, we got lost 20 minutes into our afternoon drive. We didn’t see any signs for Willow Creek Dam Road, or for Rotten Grass Upper Road, which the atlas showed as an alternative loop road that would have brought us back to Hwy. 463.

We saw signs for Pass Creek Road, Little Bighorn Canyon Road, Packs the Hat Lane and several others that I was too flummoxed to jot down in my notebook — none of which we could find in the atlas.

When I got home and consulted a Montana road map, which happened to be from 2013 as well, I was not surprised to find that it showed the roads running of out Wyola and Lodge Grass both petering out before ever connecting.

There were lots of junctures like this. You’d come over a small rise and gasp at the scene laid out before you. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Ordinarily, when I write about road trips, I’m pretty careful to detail the route, so other people can take the same drive. This time, I’m afraid, you’re on your own. I don’t know where we were for most of the two-hour, 57-mile jaunt, only that we left Wyola and somehow found our way to Lodge Grass.

By then, continuing on to Saint Xavier was out of the question. It looked like a perfectly easy route, but for the first time in my life I was not prepared to place much faith in my DeLorme atlas. Besides, it was getting late and we were getting hungry.

Mary Jo and Scott were wonderful company, though. They understood that I had been sold a bill of goods by my atlas, so they settled in and enjoyed the ride, come what may. So soon after that total-eclipse experience, maybe we were all hoping to feel some of the awe we’d felt that morning — and we did.

Not that any merely topographical spectacle could compare to a total eclipse, but the corner of the Crow Reservation we passed through was flush with incredible vistas, with constantly changing landscapes and above all with a sense of primeval vastness. We all found ourselves gasping with wonder over and over again.

Except for the narrow roads — paved near Wyola and Lodge Grass, with roads of gravel, dirt and gumbo in between — a few ranches and a few scattered stretches of fence, there was nothing out there but undulating prairie, hills wearing red-sandstone outcroppings like extravagant headdresses, and beautiful oases of greenery along the waterways mentioned above.

At one point we followed a steep gravel road up to the top of a bench, thinking it must be Rotten Grass Upper Road, but the farther we crept along it the less likely it seemed, and we didn’t want to go too far in the wrong direction. So, back down we went, back to the fork in the road near what we thought was Lodge Grass Creek, and followed another road for four or five miles.

We passed through a herd of cattle and then found ourselves on a narrow, poorly maintained road … that brought us to the doorstep of a ranch, beyond which the road did not appear to continue. This was the moment of truth. Either we trace our route back to Wyola and bag the trip or go back up the steep hill, hoping it was the way to Lodge Grass.

We chose the latter option, with some trepidation, but soon it seemed like a real road again, and it took us through some astonishingly beautiful parts of the reservation — until once again the road narrowed and this time looked to be in even worse shape than the one from which we’d retreated earlier.

This time, with fewer options, we barreled on and passed through the middle of a ranch homestead, with the house on our left and a barn on our right. But it wasn’t posted, so we continued on and soon appeared to be on a good public road again.

And then, finally, we saw a sign telling us we were at the intersection of Rotten Grass Upper Road and Soap Creek Road, which let us know where we were on the atlas for the first time in more than an hour, though it seemed as though we should have passed that point much, much sooner.

It didn’t matter by that point. We knew where we were, the road was paved and Lodge Grass had to be dead ahead, and not too far away.

In several areas, the red sandstone was capped by a layer of pale rock. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

The good news is, the trip was by no means a bust. When your plans are as vague as ours were, you take what you get, and what we got was a pleasant, achingly beautiful drive interrupted by a few short spells of worry and doubt.

I hope to make the trip again, all the way to Saint Xavier next time. I know of no better place to heed the words of that travel slogan: Get Lost in Montana.

This is the third installment of an occasional series in which we visit places, in Billings and around the region, that we probably should have visited a long, long time ago, since everyone else seems to have done so already. (So said the note under the first two pieces. The roads we were on aren’t well traveled, but we definitely should have done this drive long, long ago.) Read the first one here.