Montana, where roads do end

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Enterprise file photos
TOP: Two cars drive down the road to Emigrant Gulch, Oct. 23, 2015.
MIDDLE: Pictured is Big Timber Canyon Road, heading toward Half Moon Campground in the Crazy Mountains, June 3, 2017.
BOTTOM: A car drives down the road to Emigrant Gulch, Oct. 23, 2015.

 

“You’re going to need new tires if you keep driving on roads like this,” the nice tall man at the tire shop tells me.

I’m in with a flat tire for the second time in two months since moving to Montana. Since the move, I’ve joked that while I don’t pay sales tax — I instead pay a flat tire tax.

The first flat was easily patched, but this time, 5 miles back on a U.S. Forest Service road in the Crazy Mountains, my tire just split on a rock and I had to change it on the side of a mountain. I guess I was driving too fast, but I never really learned how to drive on rocks (despite having a gravel driveway). I since have been asking for pointers from anyone I can.

The tires on my pickup truck were relatively new before moving out here, but apparently Illinois tires don’t mesh with Montana roads. Especially with my new habit of driving to the end of roads.

I moved to Livingston from central Illinois, where everything is a flat grid, so the roads don’t really ever end. Sure, sometimes you run into a T, but you can turn right or left to go past more corn and soybeans. You could literally drive all day and not run into a dead end.

So in my mind, roads have always been a continuous thing, always somewhere new to go, always somewhere new to turn, always forward.

But here, I quickly learned, roads do end. You can go up a road into the mountains and drive the road until it stops — at a trailhead, at a creek, at a “road ends” sign.

The finality of a road is fascinating to me. The whole point of a road is to get you from one place to the next.

Roads aren’t supposed to end. They keep going.

***

Thousands and thousands of miles of roads.

Paved, unpaved, two-track, dirt, frontage, asphalt, concrete, blacktop, gravel.

A total of 873 miles, and that’s just Park County’s responsibility, then there’s the Forest Service, the Montana Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the city of Livingston. Beyond that, there’s Sweet Grass County and Stillwater County and Carbon County and Gallatin County and Meager County and, and, and …

Roads with trees in the middle of them, never-used roads, pot-holed roads, lined roads, unlined roads, perfect roads.

There’s a running joke during the correspondence section of Park County Commission meetings, where commissioners say how many calls they got about roads this week.

“No complaints here.”

“All the roads are in perfect condition.”

“Not a pothole in Park County.”

The reality is quite different. Commissioner Clint Tinsley recently told me after a stint of heavy rains, “The roads are the worst I’ve seen it. It’s from Gardiner to Wilsall. The entire county, you can just pick a road and drive on it, and you’ll find bad spots.”

The county is currently having to survey a road to the Crevice Mountain mine because they haven’t maintained the road in decades, despite it technically being a county road.

There are full-grown trees in the middle of it.

But it’s a county road, and they’re supposed to maintain it.

***

The idea of the road is about as American as they come.

For centuries, Americans moving west — toward the frontier, toward freedom, toward social mobility — went down roads. They went down the National Highway. The Oregon Trail. Route 66.

Many writers, most notably Jack Kerouac in my life, have written extensively about the idea of the road, going back and forth between coasts. An adventure always continuing, never looking back.

There’s nothing more American than the ideal of a teenager in a car, driving down the road with their friends, making out with their main squeeze, the first freedom from parents and their rules and first space that can truly be their own.

I’ve been to both ends of Route 66, in downtown Chicago and Santa Monica, but there’s a natural ending both places, anchored by bodies of water, and a real distance in between. There are also places to go at each end.

A 5-mile road, or even a 20-mile road, to nowhere is about an absurd of an idea as I can think of.

***

In many open-world video games, a player must walk through an area in order to gain knowledge of that city, understand their whereabouts and have knowledge of an area. Once you’ve driven down a road, the character can usually remember what was in that area and look on the map in the future to remember what was there.

Every place I’ve lived, I’ve taken this approach, drive down every road at least once and you’ll create a map in your head.

The breadth of roads here represents an entire world to explore, but the terrain of Montana, the maintenance (or lack thereof) of roads and the finality of many roads also represent a limited world.

In a grid system, like in Illinois, the map easily creates itself.

While there aren’t many landmarks, growing up in a small community, you can easily remember people’s houses. Like if Luke lives a mile south and mile west of Mary Margaret, then he’s 2 miles southwest of Grandma’s house.

Despite the immensity of the county, the fact that one road — U.S. Highway 89 — goes from the bottom to the top with mountains framing it all makes the area fairly manageable. There are the stray roads that go through the hills, connecting Clyde Park and Livingston or Paradise Valley and Bozeman, and I’m sure I’ll learn them, but in the grand scheme of things, the unique thing is that roads end.

Here, the internal mapping device in my brain is much different.

***

Thus far, my process of finding where to go has been easy. Look at the map. Find the road that goes the deepest. Start driving.

It turns out the map doesn’t necessarily tell you whether a road is drivable, as much as whether it allegedly exists.

I still haven’t gotten new tires, and almost every road I’ve driven to the end of has had some sort of frightening aspect.

Palmer Mountain Road seemed to have the very real possibility of a grizzly. As did Mill Creek Road — there was even a “bear activity in the area” sign at the Crow Mountain trailhead at the end of the road. Big Timber Creek Road and the Main Boulder Road both scream flat tires or bottoming out my vehicle.

But Nye Road — Highway 419 heading off 78 toward Fishtail and Nye — on a Sunday afternoon is the opposite of scary. The road is so nice, and goes so deep, a feeling of apprehension builds in my chest. Past Stillwater Mine. There’s a few rocks on the road, the Stillwater River borders the road, but it’s absolutely beautiful and absolutely smooth.

The road’s speed limit is almost higher than I feel comfortable with going around the curves, a feeling I’ve noticed in Montana, including on the drive over the hill to Bozeman.

Surprise hits at the end of the road. The Forest Service map in the office shows this going miles deep into the Beartooths, yet there were no potholes and, even more, it was paved the whole way. You approach the mountains, looking surreal as they climb out of the relatively flat country. The last stretch is under a waterfall, and at the end, there’s a full parking lot of hikers, taking the easy stroll up to Woodbine Falls.

There’s no fright, other than the buildup of what’s to come. Waterfalls and smooth riverside driving. The best road I’ve seen in Montana.

Another day without heading back to the tire shop.

 

Going clear to the end

These are roads I’ve driven to the end of:

• Palmer Mountain Road through Jardine (easily accessible in a minivan and a place I’m going to hike and camp)

• Tom Miner Basin (There was a moose at the end!)

• Mill Creek Road (Many roads, many options, bear activity sign at the end on Crow Mountain)

• Cottonwood Creek Road (I am avoiding this because of flat tires)

• Nye Road (By far the nicest road I’ve driven to the end of, but there are also many, many, many people at the end, though I imagine this is accessible in winter?)

• Big Timber Creek Road (Not too bad, lots of cars at the end, was afraid of a flat tire but I think I’ve gotten kind of jumpy already.)

• Pine Creek Road (10/10 easy road, easy hike)

• West Boulder Road (a run-in with cows awaits)

• Main Boulder Road (not recommended in a minivan, but hey, I made it work)

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