To me, one of the prettiest drives is from Billings east and north along the Yellowstone River to its confluence with the Missouri River on the border with North Dakota. Today I traveled from Glendive to Billings, about 220 miles. Winter had total control today -- there had been a fog earlier so trees and bushes were heavy with frost. In some cases each needle was delineated. The sky was the same color as the snow -- a grey-blue-white, blending into an indistinguishable line between sky and land.
Because Dad was a history teacher, teaching classes in Montana history, we got to know the the river well -- Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, Fort Manual Lisa, Jim Bridger were all part of the story; the FAR WEST steamer that carried the news and the wounded from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, when the railroad survey crews came to Montana Territory, the steamers from Ft. Abraham Lincoln would carry men and supplies across the river at Glendive and later supplied the crews building the Northern Pacific Railroad. One early Glendive pioneer remembered a buffalo herd holding up the steamer as it took nearly a day for them to cross. The river was an artery of supply and commerce from its earliest days.
Today was a nostalgic drive. The first time I traveled the highway in the early 1950s it was two lane to Billings. Dad and Mom would take us in October to state meetings of the Montana Education Association. I don't think they could always afford it, but they managed and we had a fun couple of days as a family in the 'big city'. I think it was in Billings I first tasted pizza at some pizza place downtown. The passenger trains were also running back and forth in those days and people often traveled by train for shopping or doctoring and then came home in the evening. It was a sad day when that was taken away.
Billings has always been the Mecca for those of us in Eastern Montana. It sits right on the edge of the mountains and the prairie. For most people from Western Montana, Billings is 'east' and Montana beyond Billings really isn't a part of the state. But we go merrily on our way driving to Billings to fly to other places, for doctoring, for shopping, for high school events like the music festivals or athletic events and that has always been the case.
I remember when the highway between Billings and Glendive began construction to interstate 90. It was several years before it was finished. We would be on the interstate and off the interstate and on the interstate again. We truly had to remind ourselves which one we were driving on at the time.
Returning from Billings late one night somewhere east of Hardin a man came out of the ditch alongside the road, hailed our car and told my dad he and his wife had gotten confused as to interstate or non-interstate and had driven off the road. Dad helped him get to a farm house so he could call for help. It really was exciting when the road was all finished.
When we still drove parts of the old highway there were lots of little stops from the early days of driving that are now gone or else hidden because they have been by-passed. The drive from Hysham to Forsyth on the old road is like a trip through the past. The little picnic area with the water fountain just west of Forsyth is a relic of by-gone days.
Whenever we went through Miles City the old highway took us past the Red Rocks' cafe and motel. In its day it was a great place to stay. You could always count on seeing someone from Glendive eating there as well. They had a shopping area with souvenirs which my brother and I always had to check out.
The high school trips on the bus from Glendive to Billings were and still are legion. If you graduated from DCHS you know that highway well. If the Red Devils were playing the Cowboys which ever place the game was, the headlights from the cars of fans stretched for miles in either direction. It was exciting to come into the visitors' gymnasium and hear the Pep Bands playing and look for the Glendive section so you could be sure you were sitting in the right place.
As the years went by the reasons for the trips changed and many of us from Glendive began going to doctors in Billings. We would hear people making multiple trips for surgeries and cancer treatments. I remember when I took the folks to Billings so Mom could see a cancer specialist and she was diagnosed with leukemia. Earlier we had taken Dad for heart bypass surgery. I remember we stopped at the Hysham interchange so he could get out and move around as the doctor ordered. Later my sister--in-law had surgery and my folks went up to stay with my brother's family and help out.
The drive changes with the seasons. Fall along the river is just glorious. The golden cottonwoods snake along the banks and when the sun hits the leaves just right they shimmer. One of my favorite views is just east of Miles City before you descend into the valley closer to Terry. On a hot summer day the distance wavers with heat waves as your eye follows the line of hills that border the river heading east and north.
As you travel along you will see license plate numbers from Sidney and Wolf Point, Circle, Baker, Miles City and Glendive. Minnesota license plates are common during hunting season and when winter hits there are snowmobilers who come from Canada to enjoy their sport.
Interstate 90 is an artery of life flowing up and down the valley. It is etched into my life as firmly as an umbilicord attaches us to the place that gave us birth. The big blue Montana sky, the changing seasons, and the river, flowing freely along the highway, always direct me home.