When Lewis and Clark came through Montana in 1805, they weren’t the first people to see the territory, but they were the first to write down their impressions. Every time they came across a new animal, plant, mountain or river, they were the first humans to describe it on paper. And the contagious excitement of those encounters is the best thing about reading Stephen Ambrose’s book, Undaunted Courage: Meriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, as you travel across Missouri by car today.
For there are still places in the state where you can imagine that you’re seeing what Lewis and Clark saw—or what the American Indians who met the explorers had already seen. Here are seven scenes that stick in the mind after a recent trip there.
Geoffrey Himes, a longtime contributor to Paste, also writes about culture for The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Jazz Times, American Songwriter and other outlets. He recently won his fourth ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award.
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1. Missouri Headwaters State Park
The two explorers and their company paddled against the current of the Missouri River as they followed the stream northwest from St. Louis in search of the river's source. After they worked their way across the river's rainbow arch, portaged around the Great Falls and turned south, they finally arrived at the headwaters, where three smaller rivers merged into the big one. Today you can stand on the gravel banks near the expedition's campsite and understand the captains' puzzlement over which of the newly named tributaries they should follow. They chose the Jefferson, because it headed west toward the thin line of purple mountain on the western horizon. We clambered up Fort Rock, an exposed ridge that provided good views of the whole river system as well as a cave with a centuries-old ochre-painted pictograph of a man. As we reached the joining of the Madison and the Gallatin, it seemed to be snowing, despite the 80-degree weather. The big, fluffy flakes that wafted by were not snow, of course, but cottonwood seeds. When our trio had lunch in the nearby town, we found three forks on our table at the Three Forks Café in Three Forks, Montana.
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2. Madison Buffalo Jump State Park
Madison Buffalo Jump is one of the places where American Indians would stampede bison over a steep cliff; other Indians would be waiting to kill the injured and butcher the dead. Today the bison are too few and too protected to be stampeded in any direction—and the Indians had abandoned the practice, anyway, once they acquired guns and horses. But the horseshoe-shaped cliffs are still there, protruding like the bow of a ship into the big sky and empty sagebrush grasslands. When we were there, the prickly pear cactus was in bloom; the cliff swallows buzzed in and out of their nests on the under hang. The faint circles of old Indian campsites could be discerned, and the wind whistled over the gray-stone walls. It was as easy to imagine oneself as the bison being funneled to the lip of the highest cliff as to imagine oneself as the Indian in the bison hide leading them astray.
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3. Gates of the Mountains
"This evening we entered much the most remarkable cliffs that we have yet seen," Lewis wrote July 19, 1805. "These cliffs rise from the water's edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet ... The river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5 ¾ miles … I called it the Gates of the Rocky Mountains." We approached the canyon from the opposite end on a regularly scheduled boat tour. The boat slid into the canyon through the southern gates, and we were soon isolated between two steep walls of gray limestone that cut off the outside world entirely. Geological uplift and erosion had sculpted the rock into arches, windows and enormous slices of toast. Ponderosa pine clung to improbably narrow ledges. Bald eagles, yellow warblers, cliff swallows, turkey vultures and cormorants flew by. We drifted past Field Gulch where Lewis & Clark had camped July 19 and past Mann Gulch, the site of the deadly 1949 lightning fire that inspired Norman Maclean's classic book, Young Men and Fire.
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4. Two Medicine Lake
The other book we'd recommend for a Montana visit is Ivan Doig's English Creek, the wonderfully evocative story of the 14-year-old Jick and his coming of age in the countryside around Dupuyer, Montana, in 1939. His father is a ranger in the Lewis & Clark National Forest where it butts up against Glacier National Park and the Blackfoot Indian Reservation, a pastureland of steep hills, forbidding cliffs and meandering creek beds for local sheepherders and cattle ranchers. Doig calls his fictional landscape Two Medicine Country, and our first stop in Glacier National Park was Two Medicine Lake. After a lunch of elk sausage and huckleberry muffins at the boat-dock store, we did a three-hour hike along the lake's south shore. The wildflowers were at their peak, and it often felt more like walking through a garden than hiking through mountains. Bear grass, columbine, wild parsley, Nootka rose, orange dandelion, blue asters, bluebells and Indian paintbrush blanketed both sides of the path. The steep climb alongside Aster Falls led to an alpine meadow called Aster Park. From there one can see a spectacular views of the ring of mountains that formed a bowl around the lake below.
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5. Logan Pass
Lewis and Clark crossed the Rocky Mountains via the Blackfoot Route, now known as the Lemhi Pass on the Montana/Idaho border. We reached the Continental Divide farther north at Logan Pass, as we were driving westward across Glacier National Park's spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road. Along the way we saw the Sperry Glacier, a hovering belted kingfisher, a brightly colored western tanager, a moose and her calf and a black bear cub. At Logan Pass, we took the trail, still mostly covered in ice and snow July 3, to the Hidden Lake Overlook. We followed the long string of hikers crossing the snowfield, as in that famous scene from Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush. And when we reached the Hidden Lake Overlook, we had great views not only of the river and lakes below us but also of the high, icy peaks above us. Perched on the nearby boulders were hoary marmots (think groundhogs with thicker coats). Grazing in the bushes, maybe 15 feet away, was a large family of mountain goats with shaggy white coats and dark-black horns. Amid the adult goats were several frolicking young ones.
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6. National Bison Range
Founded by the American Bison Society in 1908 and later turned over to the National Park Service, this 19,000-acre wildlife preserve is home to 350-500 bison and other wildlife. We followed the two-hour auto loop from the visitor center up to the ridge above. Our first close encounter was a huge bison resting by the side of the road. A little farther on, a mother bear and her three cubs were walking through the nearby woods. Atop the ridge, a foot trail led to an overlook and a dozen bighorn sheep were grazing along the path in the high, tan grass just 20 yards away. As we kept driving, we saw another bear and her cub, pronghorn antelopes and more bison. A small group of white-tailed deer was resting near the road with the velvet still on their horns. From another overlook, we could see more than a hundred bison, including many calves, grazing in the valley below. And at our last stop before the exit, we saw five elk wading across a river, one of the two bucks sporting 12-point antlers.
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7. The Sip 'n Dip Lounge
We want to close this trip through Montana with something Lewis and Clark never saw—and never could have imagined. We never would have imagined it ourselves. On the second floor of the O'Haire Motor Inn, we walked into the Sip 'n Dip Lounge, a Tiki bar with woven-wicker ceilings attached to bamboo poles. And there, behind the long, dark bar were windows on a large swimming tank containing mermaids—or a rotating cast of young women wearing tapering skirts and plastic fishtails. In the darkened bar the underwater windows glowed with a blue light, through which the women wriggled and writhed as they swam. The old cowboy sitting next to us at the bar half-believed that the redhead mermaid was flirting just with him. And they weren't the only entertainment. At 9 p.m. Piano Pat made her entrance. An 82-year-old woman with a towering perm of thinning brown hair and flesh sagging from her biceps, she sat in her own cubicle amid three different keyboards. She triggered a rhythm track from one synthesizer and began playing melodic fill on another as she sang old and new country hits in a way that seemed to combine the original melody and lyrics with spoken recitation and words and tunes of her own devising. She'd been doing this every night for 50 years.