Our rough outline for West to East travel has us in the Black Hills of South Dakota in four days. We should travel directly there, but the lure of the Little Belt Mountains is too big. Today is a drive-by, a 280-mile loop through low-slung, rounded mountains of pasture and forest. It’s a day to ponder the lives of the “lariat proletariat,” mid-century sheep and cattle hands and their families who eked out a living here. Ivan Doig describes it all wonderfully in This House of Sky. (Thanks to David McElwee for introducing us to Doig in a Dahl family holiday book exchange.)
Our drive-by begins at 11 a.m., taking us from the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park to Townsend. Then we travel east on U.S. 12 to White Sulphur Springs, which figures in Doig’s childhood. (It’s still a town of many drinking establishments; the springs warm a motel pool.) At a ranger station, an employee suggests a visit to Neihart, Doig’s birthplace. That would extend our day trip until dark. Instead, we travel on U.S. 89 and dip into the Little Belts, about a mile high, driving a few miles north of Sheep Creek before looping back. As we travel east on U.S. 12 along the southern edge of the Little Belts on the way to Harlowton, Judy reads from Roadside Geology of Montana about Madison limestone formation, lignite (coal) bands and the Crazy Mountains. She’s OK with reading from Roadside this afternoon, though sometimes I test her limits. We reach downtown Billings by 6:15 p.m., honoring Montana ranching with a ribeye and filet at Jake’s. We bed down at a nearby Walmart.
Just as we launder clothing and clean The Epic Van on a 12-day cycle, we pick a place for a half day of business every week. Today’s agenda: shopping, blogging, prescription pickup, scheduling a family visit in Illinois and RV dump. We begin at 8:30. I shop for groceries; Judy reminds me to get more mouse traps. She’s bagged two since Idaho; peanut butter was licked off one trap last night. At Walgreens, I learn a prescription called in two days ago isn’t ready, and cancel it. Our RV dump app led us to a wastewater treatment facility without facilities for us. Business half-days often turn out to be close to an eight-hour shift. Traveling southeast on Interstate 90, we turn off at Little Bighorn Battlefield at 4:15 p.m. The visitor center and roads that overlook the 1876 battleground close at 6 p.m. Immediately, a man on a bicycle says hello and really wants to see The Epic Van. We can’t say no. Judy has invited about 200 or so curious folks into The Epic Van during the last five years, but no one was more enthusiastic than Tom Southern, a volunteer historical interpreter for the park service. He was smitten with the functionality of The Epic Van and the dream of full-timing. I predict he will be a road brother soon. Judy and I hurried through the visitor center, bought A Terrible Glory, Custer and the Little Bighorn, by James Donovan, then drove along grassy hillocks and coulees of the battlefield, viewing river plain where 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho camped, and Last Stand Hill, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and about 210 men of the 7th Cavalry were surrounded and killed. A park service vehicle herded The Epic Van and other stragglers out of the park at 6:15 p.m. We saved the day from routine, working overtime to witness history and proselytize for life on wheels.
Our plan was to camp and hike a little in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains near Buffalo, Wyoming, for two days. It’s much too rainy for that, and it’s a bit too cold, mid-50s, for park yoga, even if we found a pavilion for shelter. From the Walmart parking lot in Sheridan, Wyoming, I call The Hub, a senior center with a trendier name, and ask if they have a room or wide hallway to roll out two yoga mats. There are classes in the exercise room until 11 a.m., but we’re welcome to use the space afterward. The Hub is modern and well-appointed with a busy café and a spacious exercise room with large windows overlooking a park. It’s a luxury to have a level floor to move through our hour-long routine. We thank several employees for their welcome and leave a small donation After lunch and a shower in The Hub parking lot, we roll on Interstate 90 to Spearfish, South Dakota, through patches of rain.
We peek at steam rising from Kirkham Hot Springs before leaving for Stanley, Idaho, a likely spot for an RV dump and groceries. At noon, we rush to fill our water tanks at Redfish Lake under a sprinkle and depart as thunderstorm clouds bulge. Pounding rain and hail strike as we travel north on Idaho 75. Wind gusts of 40-50 mph tug at the Epic Van as two Lodgepole pines, about 30 feet tall, snap and fall in front of our vehicle. We skirt them and decide to wait out the storm in Stanley. There’s a flash flood warning and red flag (high-wind warning) until 6 p.m. on the road to Salmon, according to Judy’s weather app. We decide to stay at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness tonight. We tour the visitor center at Redfish Lake, site of the world’s longest, 900 miles, and highest, 7,200 feet, spawning route to the Pacific for Chinook salmon. Less than 100 natural Chinook, and a few hundred hatchery Chinook, made it back to Redfish Lake last month. Once, thousands of spawning Chinook gave the lake its name. On an interpretive nature walk, we walk along a terminal moraine, an indicator of glaciers that formed the lake. A boardwalk leads over marshy terrain, flush with willows and beaver dams. In the distance, 57 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains rise over 10,000 feet. We end our afternoon with a short hike along Fishhook Creek trail, amid Rocky Mountain fir, lodgepole pine and sagebrush. A couple from Idaho Falls leads us to a pocket of calm water on roaring Fishhook Creek, pointing to native fish idling. At 6 p.m., we find a spot at nearby Sunny Gulch Campground. Overnight low is forecast at 37. The furnace is set for the first time this summer, 55 degrees, our sleep comfort number.
Today we’ll be tracing the first 100 miles or so of the Chinook migration route north to Salmon, Idaho, on pavement. At 8 a.m., Judy and I begin a gentle descent in morning fog along the Salmon River. Judy reads the first chapter of The Enchanted Hour, the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. We see a man with coffee mug lounging in a hot spring. We agree that this stretch of Idaho 75 is among the most scenic we’ve wandered in five years. We stop at Sunbeam Dam, the only one ever built on the Salmon. It was partially demolished in the 1930s to reopen salmon travel. We leave conifers, dipping under the cloud layer to a soft brown contours and green fields, then stop at a buffalo jump, a ledge used by Shoshone hunters. (Bighorn sheep also live here on rocky cliffs.) There’s a sign for a farmers’ market in Challis. We grab squash, green beans and fresh eggs. We leave Idaho 75 in Salmon for the road through the Bitterroot Mountains and Lost Pass. At 4 p.m., we arrive at Indian Trees campground, near Sula, Mont., for chair time. On a tall, tilted Ponderosa pine at site 10, there’s evidence of Bitterroot Salish. In spring, as pine sap flows, they stripped away portions of bark, using the tree’s cambium layer for food. Many wide Ponderosa pines in the campground were peeled from 1835 to 1890.
We depart camp near U.S. 93 on the sanitized thoroughfare to Lost Pass, but seek hiking and history on the ancestral route of Nez Perce. I rely on Forest Service ranger stations for local maps, but none were available. We look for road signs on U.S. 93 for the Nez Perce or Lewis and Clark hiking trails. At a trailhead, a map shows where the Nez Perce trail overlaps with a parking spot. We begin our hike at Chief Joseph Pass campground, at 7,200 feet. It’s cloudy and about 60 degrees. We hike on the Continental Divide Trail in Rocky Mountain firs and lodge pole pines, past a network of cross-country ski trails. We reach Gibbon Pass Road, one of the most historic paths in Montana, tread by animals, aboriginals, explorers, fur trappers and pioneers. At an overlook, we gaze toward Indian Trees camp and the road to Sula below. Back at the trailhead, we say hello to Terry, a hunter in camouflage from nearby Darby, Montana. I ask if anyone hunts around the ski area. He nods yes. Judy and I will be buying something bright orange to hike during hunting season. We spend an hour or so at Big Hole National Battlefield, which honors between 60 and 90 Nez Perce killed in 1877, many of them children and women, in an attack by U.S. soldiers and volunteers led by Col. John Gibbon. Thirty-one soldiers and volunteers died in two days of fighting. We travel east on Montana 43 along the Big Hole River toward Butte. Our day ends under steady rain just off Interstate 90, at Headwaters State Park, near Three Forks, Montana.
You know I love The Epic Van. And I love the company that makes it, Roadtrek.
The first year we were on the road, we went to the Roadtreking Photo Safari near Yellowstone. It was a gathering of my kind of people. We still have friends from that first meetup.
Now, three years later, we just finished our second Roadtreking Photo Safari, this one near Glacier and, once again, it was a blast.
My personal thank-you list is looooong. So, here goes. Thanks to: