Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Grains, Plains, Trains

August 1-2

We are traveling on two-lane Route 2, a flat to only slightly rolling road that parallels railroad tracks and is lined by grain fields for two full days. The monotony of farmland is punctuated by tiny towns with European names—Inverness, Kremlin, Havre, Zurich, Harlem, Glasgow—each with massive grain elevators beside the tracks. The towns were created and named by the Great Northern Railroad in an attempt to lure Northern and Eastern European immigrants to take the train west and homestead in a rail town with a familiar name. The tradition seems to be continuing today, as most of the service workers in the restaurants and shops we visited in Glacier National Park and the feeder towns surrounding it were young Eastern Europeans.

It doesn't take too long for field after field of amber waves of grain to get old,
so the least diversion along the road becomes a cause for excitement. We get a kick out of this espresso teepee in the town of Browning, headquarters of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. If only we had known that this would be the last espresso stand we would see for hundreds of miles, we might have actually gone in and gotten a latte, instead of just taking a picture of it.

We stop for just about all the historic markers along the highway, and there are many, at least in Montana. One of significance is a stone obelisk marking Camp Disappointment, the furthest north point of Lewis and Clark's westward expedition. They were disappointed that the headwaters of the Marias River did not go north of the 49th parallel, which would have allowed them to claim more land for the United States. They were also disappointed to find a shortage of game, due, they hypothesized, to recent activity by Indian hunters. We are disappointed to find the obelisk commemorating the site covered in graffiti.

We find the massive penguin commemorating Cut Bank, Montana as the "coldest spot in the nation" untouched by vandals (or, perhaps more likely, freshly painted to cover graffiti). The town's claim is based on data collected from the US Weather Service monitoring station here. For the record, it is a balmy 82 degrees at 10:45 a.m. when we blow through town.

We stop beside the road in Saco (pop. 203) to see the one room schoolhouse Chet Huntley attended. The Saco Garden Club moved it from an isolated spot in the countryside to its highly visible spot beside the highway, and planted a nice little garden next to it. It is furnished just as it looked when Chet was a student there, except a tall chain link fence runs across the back of the classroom, so the garden club can leave it open for visitors without too much concern about thievery and vandalism.

We stop for the night in Glasgow ("home of the Scotties"), midway through Montana. On a tip from our hotel, we have dinner at a restaurant in the Elks Club. It is a local secret--the restaurant does not have a sign outside indicating it is open to the public, yet it is full of a festive crowd who all seem to know each other. It reminds us of home, with people greeting friends as they walk through the restaurant, and visiting from table to table. The food and service are surprisingly good, and amazingly inexpensive.
But, it is clear that we have left the land of huckleberry micro-brews, huckleberry pie, and huckleberry ice cream—after a steady daily diet of huckleberries from Washington through Western Montana, we miss them already, almost as much as we miss those espresso stands.

As we leave Glasgow the next morning, we pass four different farm equipment dealers at the edge of town, and a block-long mass of feed and seed elevators trackside. Then, the road runs as a narrow ribbon through grain fields as far as we can see in all directions. There is scarcely a tree in sight for miles and miles and miles. . .

We stop for a moment to commemorate the 10,000th mile of our great summer odyssey. We are on a dirt road south of Route 2, hunting for the town of Epping, North Dakota (pop.75), home of the Buffalo Trails Museum and the Buffalo Inn Café, which our road trip guide has told us are worth the dusty detour, especially on Sunday, when farm families come from miles around for the buffet at the café. It is Sunday, we see just two local farmers in the café, and one of them is not eating. After trying the buffet ourselves, we know why.

The Museum is another story entirely. Back in the 1960s, Elmer Halvorson saw that downtown was becoming a ghost town, like so many other little dust bowl towns across the state. He decided to turn the abandoned businesses into a museum of the town's lost life,
and put his considerable artistic talent to the task of creating miniature dioramas with exquisite oil painted scenes as their backdrops. He collected artifacts from all the townspeople, as we have seen in so many other local history museums, but he had a special talent for arranging the artifacts in life-like scenes inhabited by characters he sculpted from papier mache. There is a scene of a dentist in his 1950s office operating on a patient who is turning green. We are not sure if the patient's condition is from his forty year old papier mache face becoming moldy, or if Elmer had a grisly vision he wanted to portray in the dentist's chair. We do learn from the scene that dentists stood while doing their work up until the mid-1960s, when "seated dentistry" was taught in schools, and dental supply companies started to make stools for dentists.

Next door to the dental office building, there is a small one-room cabin with a sleeping loft where a local family raised eleven children. Another building has many dioramas of Native American life and practices. We see a General Store filled with stuff pulled out of barns and attics—including a number of items that the curator cannot identify. There is a one-room schoolhouse similar to Chet Huntley's. It is a fascinating little place. But, with a population of just 75 people, and a downtown that consists of a museum and a restaurant that no one would eat at twice, we question the veracity of our tour guide's enthusiastic statement that "Elmer Halvorson saved the town with this museum." It seems to us that Elmer fully chronicled all that died with the town's demise.

As we are driving down the dusty road that takes us back to Route 2, Dick says, "I defy you for the rest of your life to find someone who has ever seen the Buffalo Inn Cafe. And, if they have, ask them if they ever ate there. We have just had an experience no one else you know has had, or ever will."

Well, certainly no one will ever go there on our recommendation.

Back on Route 2, we stop in Rugby (pop. 2,939), the Geographical Center of North America, as determined by a 1931 geological survey conducted by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The stone cairn marking the spot was built by Boy Scouts in 1932,
and moved across the street to its present location when the highway was widened.

The landscape is truly monotonous. We see no reason to ever return to this part of the country (although, don't get us wrong, we do love our pasta and bread, and appreciate the farmers who toil in their big air conditioned tractors here to give us this day our daily bread).

1 comment:

  1. Drive fast to New York and I will have an italian cappuccino all ready for both of you!