In the early autumn of 1994, just a decade short of the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition and a decade after Dayton Duncan’s wonderful book Out West retraced their route, I, too, set out on a journey of discovery.
Lewis and Clark and their “Corps of Discovery” were commissioned by President Jefferson to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Duncan did his retrace in a Volkswagen Bus that he nicknamed “Discovery.”
I was newly divorced and needing some time to figure out just who I was as an individual rather than as part of a pair, so I called my trip “the voyage of self-discovery.”
Unlike Lewis, Clark or Duncan, my target wasn’t the Pacific Ocean, but the perhaps unlikely destination of Deer Lodge, Montana.
Why Deer Lodge? Because after my grandfather retired from his position as a prison warden in Illinois, he was hired by the governor of Montana to help put that state’s prison back together after a riot. Twice, we — my Mom, Dad, my young brother and me — drove to Montana on our annual family vacations to visit my grandparents in Deer Lodge.
It’s difficult to explain, but ever since Deer Lodge has served as a “true North” for me, and I’ve been back two or three times as an adult. It was during my drive from Michigan to Montana in the early fall of 1994 that I found the roads of which I write today as part of our month-long series.
One of my goals for the trip was to avoid interstate highways, to do the drive like we did when I was a kid, when the interstates were just being constructed and people still traveled roads such as Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, when we ate in roadside diners and slept in motels that were not part of any national chain.
And I almost accomplished that goal, but for one stretch in Wyoming where I-90 had replaced the old road and there was no alternative to the new super slab. I fled the interstate at the town of Buffalo, because I wanted to drive the Cloud Peak Skyway, and then visit Shell Canyon and the Medicine Wheel Passage before turning north toward Montana.
The Cloud Peak Skyway is a 47-miles scenic section of U.S. 16 between Buffalo and Ten Sleep (don’t you love the names of Western towns?). The Skyway crests at the Powder River Pass, where at nearly 10,000 feet the temperature was 45 degrees, quite a change from back in Buffalo where it was 72.
I stopped in Greybull for lunch — at a restaurant called Lisa’s. Just east of Greybull on U.S. 14 is Shell and just beyond town is Shell Canyon. This segment of U.S. 14 is the Bighorn byway and my journal from the trip reports that Shell Canyon with its tall walls and waterfall made the red rocks at Sedona, Arizona, seem “insignificant.”
It started to rain while I was driving that segment, and it started to snow when I turned off onto U.S. 14A for the Medicine Wheel Passage. The snow fell through fog as I drove up Bald Mountain, and was piling up to the point that I walked the last mile to the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, which I wanted to see but could not because it was buried under the fresh snow.
Fortunately, there was a ranger station at the site and the ranger invited me inside, shared coffee and gave me a wonderful lecture about the wheel and its history, how the stones used to create the wheel some 12,000 years earlier were not native to the area but had come from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as from the Arctic and Central America.
He explained that the circle of stones was 3-feet tall and the casements went down 6-feet to bedrock. The entrance faced the rising sun and the stones lined up with the spring and fall equinox and I was reminded of an earlier visit I’d made to Stonehenge in England, except here there were 28 ribs, the same number as a buffalo.
The snow finally stopped and I hiked back to the car and drove on to Lowell, where the Texaco station, an old-fashioned gas station with service bays instead of a convenience store, still filled your tank for you.
My journal says I spent that night in Billings, and arrived in Deer Lodge the following day. It also has a note I wrote about how this trip had been much like those of my childhood — back roads, someone else pumped gas, and I was going to Montana.
In more than one way, I had come full circle.