I left Missoula and headed out on the first brand-new road of the trip. One of my favorite things in the world is getting to drive a road I’ve never been on before. This one aimed south, more or less, up the valley of the Bitterroot River. I don’t know if the river’s named after the mountains that rise to its east or vice versa, but I can tell you that both are named after a flower called the Bitterroot, which is Montana’s state flower.
Once you get out of commuting distance of Missoula, the towns get smaller and farther apart, and farms and ranches butt up against the foothills. The lower end of the valley is wide and open:
I thought this was a clever way of showing which of the many peaks was actually Trapper Peak.
But as I climbed, and, boy, was Owl (my car — I’ll explain the name later) climbing, the valley narrowed and, after a stop in the cute little Old West tourist town of Darby for a Sunday paper (in this case the Missoulian) — something I tried to pick up every week just so I wouldn’t be completely out of touch — I reached the Continental Divide. And the Idaho border.
Lost Trail Pass, elevation 7014 feet, on the Continental Divide
But I didn’t cross back into Idaho. Instead I turned east and crossed the Divide in a couple of miles at Chief Joseph Pass instead, and then wound my way down into the Big Hole Valley. Or just the Big Hole. I suspect adding Valley, when Hole is a term for a valley in this part of the country, is redundant.
The Big Hole is a much prettier place than the name implies. It’s one of the most unpopulated places in the lower 48 at 1600 square miles and a population of 667, most of them concentrated in the tiny town of Wisdom. It’s also the site of Big Hole Battlefield
, a national historic site where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians stopped to rest on their flight from the US Army, only to be ambushed at dawn.
I visited a number of battlefields on my Long Trip, mostly back east, and mostly of Civil War vintage. This wasn’t the first Indian war battlefield I’d visited (I’d been to what used to be called Custer Battlefield and is now known as Little Bighorn several years before). I don’t know if saying how I really feel about visiting historic battlefields will come across as sentimental and stupid or not. Or even if it’ll come across as slightly woo-woo. So maybe I’ll skip my feelings on the subject for now.
It was a pretty place, I’ll say that for it. A lovely place for a picnic along the stream. The site where the Nez Perce camped was marked with tipi poles, and there were several markers up on the hill showing where the Army crept up on them. Apparently I left my camera in the car when I walked the two trails that day, though. But I did take a couple of pictures of the valley itself from my car.
Very Old West.
That afternoon I drove through tiny Wisdom, and east towards Yellowstone, which I planned to reach the next day, and immediately ran into more road construction, out in the middle of bloody nowhere. Six miles of it, if the sign was to be believed. It seemed longer.
I dropped down to the town of Dillon on I-15, where I’d planned to find a motel room for the night, only to discover that due to the Labor Day weekend rodeo, there was not a room to be found. Nor was there in the next town to the east, Twin Bridges. At the next town, Sheridan, I scored the last empty room in town, found myself an excellent chimichanga at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and went back to my room to crash, only to discover Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was on TV.
A rather disconcerting but enjoyable end to a long but good day.