Big Sky Country, or so they say. The earth stretches out flat here, endless fields of tilled land, crops planted in long straight lines. The earth bends at the far edges, it curves down with the sky into the horizon and the two fall off like a river in the distance.
Montana, in my brief and cozy experience, is a large, empty place. True American heartland; the highways are straight and well-paved, the sky stormy one minute and bright blue the next. There is a serious lack of cities, with exception of Billings (100,00 in population), and yet Montana is the third largest state in the states. Continentally speaking. It is just open, huge and wide and open.
We stayed in the ultra small town of Brady, population roughly one-hundred, and frequented the “big town” of Conrad, a busy metropolis of about 2,500. We have family in big sky country, which is always the best excuse to visit somewhere new.
There are many cultural aspects of Montana, all important in their own way I’m sure, but what I found most alluring was the history of U.S. exploration in the area. We went to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Interpretive Center, a beautiful fortress of a building that stands over the Missouri river. They provide the detailed history of the Lewis and Clark narrative: the Presidential decree of exploration, the assembly of a down n’ dirty team, the good times and bad. From D.C. to the rainy shores of southern Washington and back again, they had original fur pelts and pages from the journals of our national heroes.
A first-rate museum, the Interpretive center got me in touch with the roots of the land, the U.S. as a whole, but specifically Montana, and even more specifically Great Falls. The troop made camp in the plainsland, they struggled up the Missouri river, which we could see from the Center’s large glass windows. They exchanged culture with the Native Americans, wheeling and dealing as equals. They got lost in the icy hills of the Rockies and killed bears with their hands (well…sort of). They were true wanderers of the highest kind.
I found in their journeys my own wanderlust. I have always found that with new land I feel new things, I become a better self, deeper and wider and curious about our past and present, why things are the way they are.
And Montana, big sky country, it feels untouched. From the fossilized dinosaurs to the farmstead family dinners, somehow it seems that Montana has always been the same. The land may be sectioned off and plowed season after season, and there are a few more paved roads than there were when Lewis slept under the stars, but the feeling of vast expanse remains.