From the state capital to the first settlement in Montana, in 132 easy miles.
I guess I should have expected a road through something called the Gates of the Mountains, named by Lewis and Clark no less, to be more beautiful than I thought it would be. But for one thing, Helena’s geographical situation is rather like Denver’s, right where the Rockies start to rise out of the Great Plains. And Great Falls is even further east, along the, well, Great Falls of the Missouri River, which were (they’re mostly tamed by hydroelectric dams now, to the point where one of Great Falls-the-city’s nicknames is The Electric City) really more cascades than falls. So, logically, I should have been driving through flatlands between the two cities.
But no. I had a hard time getting photographs — there weren’t many places to pull over, and while I have been known to aim the camera through the windshield on occasion, a) the windshield was fairly bug-pocked by that stage, and b) it’s not the greatest, or safest, technique in the world. But there was a shiny new rest area at one point, so what pictures I have of a road that must have been quite the engineering feat were mostly taken there. It almost reminded me, the way it was carved through the canyon, bridging and rebridging the Missouri and cantilevered out in places from the cliffs, of the Virgin River Gorge portion of that selfsame I-15 in the far southwestern corner of Utah. Quite spectacular.
And then the canyon walls opened out onto the northern Great Plains and someone laid the highway out with a ruler the last few miles to Great Falls.
Great Falls is a brick city (the third largest city in Montana, which really isn’t saying much) with one-way streets downtown and shady trees and a charming park lining the Great Muddy (the Missouri’s other name) for several miles. With gardens, where the iris were blooming, and a pond with fountains, and lots of big shady trees. And geese. I stopped for a bit and walked around, then drove on along the river out of town until I reached the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. You cannot stumble over a rock in many parts of Montana without figuratively falling over Lewis and Clark. And I can’t say I’m overly enthused about the term “interpretive center.” What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned “visitor center”? But I was charmed by the native blue flax growing even in cracks in the parking lot, and, when I went inside, by the breadth and depth of the exhibits. And I must say, just looking at the prickly pear cactus and rocks over which those men hauled their canoes during a twenty-plus mile portage made my feet hurt.
After that, I only had another hour’s drive to go to reach my destination for the night of Fort Benton. I will write more about this most historical of Montana towns in tomorrow’s post. Suffice to say today that I arrived, ate a delicious hamburger in the VFW hall, which was the only restaurant in town open after 5 pm, and camped that night in a municipal riverfront campground, which was just about all I could ask for.
Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures