Many roads in Big Sky Country have become familiar to me over years of quick weekend getaways, but my favorites are the less traveled paths I take spontaneously without knowing where they will lead. Oftentimes, a map doesn’t include these roads and there are no signs: this is the best way to explore Montana.
Part of the thrill is wondering whether my adventure may include running out of gas before finding civilization, and contemplating what that experience might be like with a toddler in the car. I was driving my old Explorer on one such excursion back in 2009, a vehicle that could plow through about anything but would guzzle fuel while doing so. My daughter and I were on a winding dirt road through miles of ranchland when I began to wonder whether I might reach a dead end and have to retrace my path on fumes and prayer.
As I topped the hill at this gorgeous point overlooking the Flathead River, I saw a man on a horse, walking another horse. I stopped the car and waited for him to approach.
“Hey there,” I said. “Can you tell me if this road will eventually take me out to a highway, or I do need to head back where I came from?”
He got off the horse and looked at my map, showed me where I was in the midst of blank spaces on the page, and told me where I would eventually come out. Then, looking into the back window where he saw my daughter, he said slowly, “What are you doing way out here?”
“I just want to see Montana from the backroads,” I replied.
“Me too,” he said. He was a trucker from Lewiston, Idaho, got laid off, and decided to buy two horses and pack them for a journey through the countryside up to Glacier. All the while we were chatting, one of the horses stuck its long nose through my window for a sniff inside the car and some friendly strokes on the nose.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
Figures. My grandpa had a pony named Rusty. Grampa and Gramma loved Montana, having started a family there before moving to the Midwest to farm. Years later, Gramma would tell me Montana still called to her. It called to my aunts, too, who moved from Missouri back to the Wild West where they’d stay for the rest of their lives. It had my number as well, beckoned me back with regularity; it anchored me, it connected with me, it always left me feeling at ease.
I was thinking about all of this when the traveler’s eyes met mine, and for an instant, he was Grampa, back in the flesh.
He shook me out of my reverie saying I’d be on the highway before too long, and to enjoy the views along the way. He winked at my daughter and called to Rusty to move along.
I stared ahead, a bit dazed, as if in the desert confusing reality with mirages. Then I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car to capture the image of the man with his horses walking on down the dusty road.
There was no one there, and the only picture I took was of the silky green river winding its way to the mountains.