Running on Empty   2 comments

Montana ought to come with a warning label.

It’s big – really big – and mostly empty.  Montana’s is a resource-based economy dominated by mining and ranching.  With its abundant scenic beauty, tourism is also important to the state’s coffers.

Coming in from the east on I-94, it’s also daunting.  Readily seen may be the sign announcing a gas station at the next exit.  Less readily seen is the actual gas station, which might be a mile or five down the road in a nearby small town.  Signs directing motorists to said gas station are merely teasers.  Visits to eastern Montana via the Interstate wouldn’t be complete without charging off the Interstate over hill and dale while chasing for gas, only to end up feeling a bit lost somewhere down a desolate road.

The typical Montanan is nonplussed by this.  It comes with the territory.  They and others living in remote areas of the West understand the importance of not ignoring their gas tank’s fill indicator, knowing where they are and where they are going.  For some visitors coming from the East, that’s a major attitude shift.

Near the tiny picturesque town of Wilbaux, just west of the Montana/North Dakota border, we remembered to take a break, but forgot to take heed of its local gas station.  Figuring that I-94 would have at least as many gas stations as U.S. Highway 2 just south of the U.S./Canada border (our route taken from the West Coast only months earlier had plenty), we fearlessly forged ahead.  At that point, a little over a quarter-tank of gas remained in Donovan’s tank.  Just the same as on our trek across Minnesota and North Dakota, the weather was dreary, chilly and windy.

Battling high headwinds, we soon missed another sign for a gas station – which, it turned out, was either invisible or somewhere down a less-beaten path.  Next stop, for sure.  Forgotten was the additional weight of the trailer and load pulled behind us.

Turning around and going back might have been more prudent.  Who, us, prudent?  Soon spotted below a highway sign was a warning:  Next services – 89 miles.

Being from British Columbia, Paul is no stranger to such warnings.  I, on the other hand, do not take them kindly.  Coming from Wisconsin, where 28 miles is a long gap between freeway exits and services, such a warning is enough to induce a bladder movement, even when there’s nothing left in there to lose.

When Montana says it’s 89 miles to the next stop with gas, food and toilet facilities, they mean it.

Pushing ahead, we held our breath.  Paul’s nervousness increased as the needle edged closer to ’empty’.  We had to find a gas station soon.  Donovan was close to running on fumes.

Finally a gas station sign; I don’t know where.  Maybe Fallon, perhaps Glendive.  At any rate, the gas station was nowhere near the exit.  Getting there required going through a sleepy little town.  Lost and running on empty, Paul dashed into the tiny local post office for further instructions.

This town didn’t have a standard issue U.S. Post Office.  Cute as a button, it was located in a shared storefront, the likes of those used by general stores circa 1900.  Easily visible from inside, our Minnesota vehicle plates gave us away.  Like hovering vultures, staffers awaited his question with baited breath.

Somebody in that USPO won a bet.  Out-of-towners often stop in for directions.  Amused workers check out vehicle plates and place friendly wagers on visitors’ desired destinations.  The nearest gas station is frequently a topic of discussion and usually a sure bet.

We continued down the road into a small town liberally peppered with anti-meth and anti-drug billboards.  Its lonely unattended gas station sat forlornly at the edge of the road.  Another warning about Montana:  credit cards allowing pay-at-the-pump service are not merely convenient.  They are necessary.

Replenished with fuel, we continued on towards our destination, Billings.

Montana is like West Texas – miles and miles of miles and miles with better scenery.  In dire need of an exercise break, we stopped in Miles City, best known for its annual Bucking Horse Sale.  The town appears to be all about the rodeo, but there’s more.  It is one of the legendary Western towns harkening to an era when cowboys drove cattle across open range to Montana from as far away as Texas.  The Miles City Chamber of Commerce boasts that the community was once the largest horse market in the world.

Located near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Tongue rivers, Miles City’s origins go back to the establishment of a U.S. Army fort shortly after the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.  A few years later, the Northern Pacific Railway established a line into the town.  Soon agricultural speculators brought thousands of cattle to the area.  Not long after, Miles City became a shipping point for cattle headed to Chicago for slaughter.

After the demise of cross-country cattle drives, Miles City became a railroad town.  The Milwaukee Road arrived in 1907 and remained a major employer until 1979 when its third bankruptcy resulted in the discontinuation of the railroad’s Pacific Extension.

As we snagged a parking spot on Main Street, the gray skies of the past four days gradually gave way to blue.  Warmed by the sun, Miles City revealed itself as a special place.  Fearing the break from the gray was only fleeting as we embarked on our walk, I didn’t carry my camera with me.

Big mistake.  Really big mistake.  Miles City is one of the great lesser-known gems of the West – still very much a real community populated by real people in touch with its Western heritage and flavor.  This is no Aspen or Telluride.  The city’s rodeo is not a drive.  Visitors won’t find chic spas or plentiful and trendy clothing boutiques, but can’t miss its saddleryThe Custer County Art and Heritage Center is housed in the city’s original water works building.  The Range Riders Museum is located on the outskirts between the Interstate and downtown.

Unlike many other great Western towns, Miles City never became a ghost town.  After growing quickly during the 1920s and 1930s, it was one of the larger cities in Montana until eclipsed by the rising oil refining center of Billings in the 1940s.

Today, Miles City, the county seat of Custer County, is undergoing a renaissance.  Many structures bearing historical markers created between 1880 and the Great Depression have been lovingly restored inside and out to their period glory.  The city is home to a vibrant arts scene and an active historical society.  Civic art celebrating its cowboy and railroad past abounds.  Although Main Street looks neat as a pin, historical preservation is a slower work in progress as we learned later visiting the Montana Bar.

Built in the late 1900s, the Montana and its attached restaurant recently underwent painstaking restoration.  Its proud manager showed Paul and I the original oak bar, ice room (a super-sized icebox converted to storage room), marble tile floors, restored beveled leaded glass panels in its entry vestibule featuring original antique glass and oak partitions, leather upholstered booths and restored octagonal tiles in its bathroom.  Odd drywall, low ceilings and other “improvements” tacked on over the years were removed.  Behind the main lounge is another large room now used for watching televised sports events and playing billiards.  Except for the modern convenience of flat-screen TVs, its original brick walls were restored to period ambiance wherever possible.  A large glassed-in vestibule suitable for small parties  inserted between the main bar and its restaurant was its only truly new room, created as a transitional space between the informal, yet elegant bar and the restaurant’s more formal decor.

Inspired by a treasure trove of uncovered relics, the Montana’s manager was now a passionate sleuth uncovering its history.  Some of it, like the original purpose and uses of the sports room behind the main bar remained an unsolved puzzle – possibly a smuggling point for whiskey-runners moving Canadian rye into the U.S. or possibly as a speakeasy.  No one knew; preserved bullet scrapes in the brick refused to betray their secret.  Clues indicate it was not always an ordinary storage room.

We were welcomed and encouraged to overnight in Miles City, over two hours distant from our planned target, Billings.  Under pressure to reach Blaine, WA before the closure of the U.S. vehicle exportation office by 3:30 p.m. two days later, we seemed barely closer than when we started.  Temptation required resistance.  Reluctantly, we climbed back into Donovan and continued on towards the Front Range of the Rockies to Billings.


Posted July 28, 2011 by noslenca9300 in Montana, Travel

Tagged with

2 responses to “Running on Empty

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Excellent post, l quite agree with your conclusion. However lam having problem subscribing to your rss.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment. Your problem subscribing may be due to the following:

      1. Akismet, the WordPress anti-spam filter, identified your comment as spam. That’s most likely because your name appears in Chinese characters instead of the Latin alphabet. Additionally, my browser contains an app which identifies your URL as being in Taiwan.

      2. Spam filters often send anything written in an alphabet other than Latin to the spam bin. That’s where I found your comment.

      3. I identified your comment as ‘not spam’. However, no comments post to the blog without my personal approval. Ultimately, I think that is why you couldn’t subscribe on your initial tries. I approved your comment and posted it on the blog.

      If you’re still interested in subscribing, go to and try to subscribe again. Hopefully, it will work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: