Something shifts when you cross the border between North Dakota and Montana. That said, I would be hard pressed to give you any clear insight into what that shift might be or what it might mean. For me, I can imagine that border crossing representing another step closer to National Parks like Glacier, Olympic, and the North Cascades. Maybe I was assuming that more grand adventure waited in Montana. North Dakota hadn’t been a let down by any means, but part of me had always idolized the wide-open landscapes and dense pine forests of western Montana. As far as my feelings go, I am sure they were a combination of my expectations and my previous experiences in Montana. Either way, I was pumped.
Montana had crept into my mind during other recent adventures as well. During our walk across England this past summer, my Dad and I devoted the better part of an afternoon to trying to hypothesize exactly why Montana is known as “Big Sky Country.” Although I do not remember the precise conclusions that we came to, I was struck by our willingness to defend Montana’s right to the claim. This dilemma, of course, weighed on me as I drove west across this expansive state. Nothing I saw detracted from that idea of massive skies, but it didn’t abate my curiosity. The drive began in the sporadically rolling hills that form the border between Montana and North Dakota. As I continued west, the ground leveled out, sloping gently and descending slowly over low hills that seemed to last for many miles. While this gentle landscape rolled by beneath me, the sky filled my gaze.
Very early on in my drive, I realized that I was not the only one, or only thing, traveling that day. Whether they chugged alongside me or slogged away in the distance, the railcars and their freight were never far away, incessantly crisscrossing the landscape around me. Nowhere in my travels thus far had I seen this many goods in motion. I didn’t know what the trains carried, but realized more than once that I had seen more trains than people over the past hour. Weird.
Did I mention that the roads were straight? Because they were… endlessly straight. As a result, my mind wandered. For hours, the sky continued to distract. Even as railcars snaked by, roadside grain depots zipped past, and wind turbines spun rhythmically, the sky maintained its hold on me. It was only when the Rocky Mountains crept higher on the horizon that the sky began to shrink away. Then, it filled with clouds, unleashing raindrops mixed with soggy snowflakes. I had arrived in the mountains.
The view was not exactly as I had envisioned it. The low slung clouds and persistent precipitation obscured the snowy peaks within Glacier National Park and the adjoining National Forests. I could barely see 200 feet in the air. My fond memories of this landscape allowed my imagination to complete the majestic scene in front of me, but the mountains were completely hidden.
Not wanting to deal with drying clothes or gear, I didn’t venture deep into Glacier on my first day. As you might imagine, drying soggy equipment in the interior of a car isn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience. My hesitations aside, I did strap on the snowshoes for a jaunt along Going to the Sun road. One of the most famous (or infamous) high altitude roads through a National Park, I would’ve loved to brave the dangerous route. That said, I think sticking to my snowshoes was definitely the better option.
The next day, I hiked up the Sperry Chalet trail, marveling in the silence of heavy snow. Overnight, the rain had transitioned to a gentle snowfall, coating the soggy base with fluffy, soundproof flakes. It was another side of the park that I hadn’t expected to experience. With the inclement weather, my hopes for high peaks and never-ending views had to be tempered. The result, however, was just as marvelous. Perfectly formed snowflakes drifted aimlessly down from the overcast skies. Meandering snowflakes toppled piles of snow balanced precariously on bending pine boughs, sending them crashing to the ground with a muffled roar and white puff of scattered flakes. My snowshoes crunched beneath me, violating the natural silence with the unpleasant sound of plastic and metal scraping against compacting snow. As soon as I stopped walking, the silence rushed back. For hours, I snowshoed the Sperry Chalet trail, aimlessly wandering through the wonderland falling into place around me. This was Glacier at its most intimate.
Checking the weather and my schedule, I decided to save further exploration of Glacier for another day and another season. With that, I returned to the road and began driving south, ready to visit close friends in Big Sky. As I did, the clouds lifted, revealing the open, blue sky that I had missed in the Rockies. I am not sure the sky in Montana is actually any bigger than the sky in any other state. Flat plains lend themselves to unending, open horizons, but plenty of states can claim flat pains.. Without much topography, our field of view is truly remarkable. Where Montana leaves other places behind is in its sheer scope. It is a massive state with imposing mountains, wide-open plains, powerful rivers, all of which sit under an equally monumental sky. For me, that is enough to validate the title: “Big Sky Country.”
All the way across Montana!