Even though it was the last official weekend of the summer, a touch of autumn was already in the air. Earlier in the week I had noticed a smattering of yellow leaves here and there within the trees of town and now, as I was making my way through Bridger, Montana on an early Saturday morning, the bank clock told me it was 39 degrees.
Continuing on up the road and approaching Laurel, Montana, I was thinking about the “regularity” of these trips into Montana to attend the football games in the state’s various small and obscure towns. One of those regularities had to do with where I found my second cup of coffee for the morning—lately it has been the City Brew in Laurel, Montana, just before I jump on Interstate 90 and head east or west.
There were some great games that weekend. Scobey at Wibaux, Harlowton at Joliet, Ft. Benton at Chinook—even the Powell Panthers (my town) were undefeated and on the road in Buffalo to face the equally undefeated Bison.
Nevertheless, I choose to attend an off-the-radar game in Moore, Montana where the winless three-school co-op of Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap faced the Refiners of Sunburst who hadn’t notched a win either.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Driving toward Moore that day, I considered another regularity in these Montana junkets—U.S. Highway 191. I started wondering how many times I’d been up and down its asphalt—maybe three or four times a year over the course of some ten years adding up to 30 or 40 roundtrips. Was it possible?
For me, U.S. Highway 191 begins in Big Timber, Montana—a place that acquired its name from Lewis and Clark as they gathered timbers to build rafts for their float down the Yellowstone River. From Big Timber, 191 is pretty much a straight north-south run with nothing but the foothills of the scenic (and usually snowcapped) Crazy Mountains and wide-open spaces farther north. There are no other communities that warrant a reduction in the speed limit until Harlowton, approximately 44 miles straight up 191.
Making up for the lack of human activity between Big Timber and Harlowton, any given traveler at any given time is likely to see mule deer somewhere along that 44-mile stretch—most likely just beyond Big Timber. I refer to that section of highway as “Deer Alley.”
Years ago when I was on my way to attend a six-man game in Geraldine, I left Powell on a Friday night with a motel reservation in Stanford. I followed a duel-wheeled pick-up truck out of Big Timber that Friday night, but I didn’t keep up with him. Somewhere in the foothills maybe ten miles up the road, I came across a sight I’d never seen—the fresh, fragmented and scattered remains of what was probably a mule deer that could have doubled as a suicide bomber. I attempted to slow my vehicle down as it started sliding on the animal’s spilled blood frozen to the cold highway. Fortunately I managed to maintain control of my car despite the steaming carnage. I half expected to find a wrecked pick-up somewhere off the road, but there were no signs that it had even passed through nor did I ever see it again. From that point, I easily remained wide-awake, driving through the dark Montana night and on to Stanford.
On any given road trip, the music of Mary Chapin Carpenter is a steady diet for my ears. On this particular day, her song “Alone But Not Lonely” grabbed me like no other time in the past. Its cello stirred me while the singer’s soothing voice ached with a question of who I was in my solitude on Highway 191. On that particular day I could definitely answer that, yes, I was alone, but hardly lonely in these wide-open places of Montana.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Harlowton (or “Harlo” as some call it) might seem bleak in its first impression, but I have grown more comfortable with each visit to this football enclave. Whether camping in my truck at the rest stop/campgrounds by the rodeo grounds, or getting my morning cup of joe at the Snowy Mountain Coffee Shop, I seldom just drive through this community. Cruise down Main Street to the old Graves Hotel and you might find yourself fantasizing about purchasing and fixing up that historic landmark. Of course, Harlowton has been a terminal destination as well thanks to the Harlowton Engineers eight-man football team, and few football fields in the state are better illuminated than Harlowton.
Judith Gap Wind Farm awaits you. The highway splits the collection of giant turbines giving the traveler a feeling of smallness. The first electrical power started flowing from Judith Gap in 2005. Some might claim these monstrosities ruin the scenic value of such locations, but given a choice, I’ll take the clean symmetry of a wind farm any day over the chaotic and dirty clutter of equipment associated with a gas or oil field operation.
Past the wind farm and into the tiny town of Judith Gap, a milkshake is in order from the Judith Gap Mercantile if time permits and it’s the right time of day.
For me, something in the landscape… something in the world starts to change as you make your way north from Judith Gap. This is a magical place… a place where the sagebrush begins yielding to the winter wheat… where the light is different because the sun’s angle is lower.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Five miles off the highway between Judith Gap and Eddie’s Corner is the town of Buffalo with its five residents. If you have the time, have a look around this town that once was. It’s about as close to a ghost town short of actually being one. The old bank building and school are worthy of a visit—if nothing else to only stare and wonder.
Officially Highway 191 picks up again on its northern direction at Lewistown, but for me it ends near the town of Moore where it meets Montana State Route 200. This junction is known as Eddie’s Corner—named after the one business that provides round-the-clock meals, gasoline, a lounge and a handful of windowless motel rooms. Although Moore is not far away, it is out of sight, rendering Eddie’s Corner more like an outpost on the frontier.
Before embarking on my return down 191, I often have a meal at Eddie’s Corner following a Saturday afternoon game in the area and listen to the other customers talking about the various football games they attended that day from all over the state. Thanks to Eddie’s Corner, I usually know about the outcomes of two or three other football games before I ever read about them on the Internet or newspapers.
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.