Touring Montana - Where The Peaks Meet The Plains

Riding the other part of Montana

Ever luck into one of those days that captures the essence of cruising? It doesn't happen that often, but every once in a great while you find yourself immersed in that happy confluence of time, place and mindset. It happened to me on Highway 89 in central Montana last summer.

The day was cool and bright, the road was empty, and the roar of endless river crossings provided the perfect punctuation to the Electra Glide's Twin Cam 88 soundtrack. I'd filled my belly with a sizable order of flapjacks at the Log Cabin Cafe in Choteau an hour earlier, and I didn't need to be anywhere all day. I felt like I was in a commercial for Montana's Chamber of Commerce.

All too good to be true, of course. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly caught a shadowy movement in the bushes off the road. My reverie faded as the danger-assessment meter kicked in: Too big to be a deer. Way too vertical for a stray cow. In the back of my head I thought, "S**t. Grizzly."

Half-curious but more than two-thirds spooked, I upshifted and goosed the Harley. Funny how curiosity about the local fauna seems to vanish when the object of your interest has really big teeth.

Wide Open
I was touring Big Sky Country's lesser-trafficked parts, thanks to a couple of tips I'd received from Travel Montana, the state's tourism bureau. They had called me several times offering story idase and route suggestions, always emphasizing that the state was perfect for biking because of its empty roads and boundless scenery. I could confirm the last part as I rode Highway 89 through this wide-open country in the shadow of the Rockies. From the Electra Glide's saddle I could see the majestic limestone of the Rocky Mountain Front jabbing skyward where it met the windswept borders of the Great Plains. There's no gradual rise to the topography here-the flatlands come right up to sheer faces that head straight to the sky. This was the eastern edge of the ultrawild Bob Marshall Wilderness. Affectionately called "The Bob" by locals, it's one of the most rugged areas in the U.S.-and one of the last places in the country that grizzly bears still roam freely.

It's not like I hadn't been warned about the local bruin population. Earlier in the day I'd visited the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch outside Dupuyer. As I headed back to the bike, the clerk bid me an ominous adieu. "Y'all have a fun ride. Oh, and be sure to watch out for the grizzlies," he said without a tinge of sarcasm.

Seems there had been several bear attacks in the area recently, and as I packed the bike the implications of the newly purchased jerky (real Montana beef!) stashed in the saddlebags suddenly hit me. Did I really want to become rolling bear bait? All those other things I'd confirmed about Montana-Big Sky, Big Cattle and Big Spaces-suddenly didn't seem important.

Watching The Fort
I had arrived three days earlier in Great Falls, Montana, and sat down for a chat with Gayle Fisher, the big cheese in charge of the Montana Department of Tourism, Russell Country section. She gave me the scoop on why they'd been so eager to help me. "Everyone thinks Montana is too far away, so no one aims for it as a prime destination; it's always a stop on the way to somewhere else. We want to show riders how much there really is here-especially in this part of the state." She had a point. The only time I'd visited the state was en route to Sturgis, and I wasn't at all familiar with Russell Country. That may be because other nearby attractions drew more curious eyes. On the scenery scale, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks are tough acts to follow, so the Bob Marshall Wilderness is generally unknown outside the state. "Overlooked and underappreciated," I believe was the phrase Fisher used.

On Fisher's advice I set up camp in Fort Benton, a National Historic Landmark and time capsule of a village nestled on the banks of the upper Missouri River in north central Montana. There I met Mike Arnst, owner-operator of EagleRider Central Montana, to pick up my bike-an immaculately serviced Electra Glide Classic-and check out the rest of his franchise. The spacious, orderly dealership held a complement of nicely appointed Harleys, ATVs and dirtbikes, all available for rent. Having secured my ride, I headed to dinner at the Grand Union Hotel in the center of town.

Built in 1882 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Grand Union is right in the middle of Fort Benton's Historic District. It's an ideal base for riders exploring the area, which is why I booked a room for the night. The restored structure on the banks of the Missouri River is the oldest operating hotel in Montana and sports that classic combination of good eats, comfortable beds and a killer view.

An after-dinner stroll along the old river levee revealed 11 saloons lined up on the main drag of this tiny outpost. I shuffled across the street to one of them-the aptly named Pastime Bar-to do some, uh, research. Lucky for me, the bartender proved to be a veritable Norm Peterson, dispensing both information and tequila with a heavy hand. In the course of the evening I learned that no other town played such a prominent role in the opening of the northwestern United States. Established in 1846, Fort Benton became an important supply depot for the North West Mounted Police charged with bringing peace to the western provinces. Lewis and Clark spent a good chunk of time in the area, too, and the scenic Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was right around the bend. The town was a perfect road-trip destination-easily navigable, low-key and full of history. It would be hard to leave.

Royal Roadway
But I was here to survey the land, so I armed myself with maps (courtesy of Travel Montana) and pointed the Electra Glide down Route 87, across the Missouri River and onto I-15 South to Helena. I slanted southeast on Route 12, planning to loop around to the Kings Hill Scenic Byway portion of U.S. 89 heading back north.

Dozens of gravel paths crisscrossed the highway en route, and I had no doubt they led to even more spectacular scenery. At the Byway's north end, I stopped at Sluice Boxes State Park to check out the remains of the Montana Central Railroad and take in views of towering cliffs rearing up from Belt Creek. By the time I hit Great Falls and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, I was well schooled in the byways of the west.

After grabbing some Zs in the sleepy, western-style town of White Sulphur Springs, I opted for a more leisurely pace the next day, so I picked up the Byway at its southern junction with U.S. 12. The 71-mile rumble north up Highway 89 was the way to savor the lush foliage and Ponderosa pine-scented air infiltrating the Lewis and Clark National Forest and Little Belt Mountains. The sight of the rugged limestone outcrops was invigorating, and Little Belt Creek, swollen from snowmelt, shadowed the roadway. The Kings Hill Pass at 7393 feet proved a bit nippy, but then the Electra Glide did its bit to keep me sheltered. I was guessing this was Russell Country at its finest.

Then There's the Culture...
I felt obligated to put my routes into historical context, and the Lewis and Clark Center was a fascinating way to get a visual slice of local history. But I was also itching to get back into the Great Wide Open.

And sure enough, it was way beyond the city limits that things got more interesting. I'd chosen to zigzag back onto Highway 89 north for a ride through acres of wheatgrass highlands, with no other life-forms around as far as the eye could see. The road was long and wide and the grins came often. The bike settled into a relaxing lope, and my mind was in a beautiful place.

It was at this point that the alleged grizzly rudely interrupted my reverie. I responded by lowering my head and pinning the throttle until I spotted a small sign on the roadside, "Town of Bynum." It wasn't until a mile or so later that three shabby buildings abruptly appeared out of the flatness, but apparently this was Bynum. And one of the forlorn buildings was JD's Wildlife Sanctuary-a one-stop restaurant, bar, gambling parlor and meeting place, it turns out. Fisher had highly recommended the place, so I pulled into the dirt lot, dismounted and took a seat on one of the weathered benches inside.

I ordered the prime rib special and settled back, admiring the old wooden bar with dozens of dollar bills tacked overhead and graffiti etched into its weathered planks. Local ranch hands sat along the rail nursing Moose Drool brews. The cook came out with a perfectly grilled steak the size of, well, a freight car, and the feeding frenzy was on. As I sat there happily chawing the local Angus, it occurred to me that for any self-respecting biker this place alone was worth the trip.

The cultural immersion continued later that evening, after I blasted another half-hour north on gravel roads to the Inn Dupuyer B&B.; Dupuyer is only slightly bigger than Bynum, but at least it has a proper main street. Proprietors Joe and Rita Christiaens welcomed me with gallons of hot coffee while they told tales about the Hutterites that settled this area. Seems this religious sect is much like the Old Order Amish and lives on scattered colonies throughout North America. They stress separation from the outside world and, like the Amish, are identified by distinctive dress. The men wear black trousers, a black coat and, here, a black cowboy hat. The women opt for ankle-length skirts, an apron and a polka-dot headscarf.

"In fact," said Rita, "there's a bar a couple of blocks from here where they congregate. Be sure to watch out for the grizzlies on your way back," she added, again with all earnestness.

I couldn't pass up the chance to witness the local culture in action, so I hoofed it down to the saloon. Strict religious order or not, it seemed the Hutterites had no qualms about boozing it up-the black-hatted lads bellied up to the bar in Dupuyer were going at it hard. To make matters worse it was karaoke night, and whole families packed the place. If Bynum had seemed otherworldly, Dupuyer was an alien circus. But it was the kind of show you never forget.

The next day I rumbled back to Great Falls after my Hutterite holiday and near-grizzly experiences, thinking that none of this was at all what I'd expected here. Sure, it's Big Sky, but the characters and the subculture were equally outsized. Russell Country may be an overlooked piece of Montana real estate, but that can be a good thing. It means you can have the whole vista to yourself. Just be sure to keep your eyes open for the extraordinary locals.

Break Me Off A Piece Of That
The Eaglerider Adventure RanchThere's little excuse for sitting around bored in Montana. But should your adrenal glands need a bigger shot, there's always the EagleRider Adventure Ranch. Run by locally born and bred Mike Arnst, this is the kind of ranch that's custom-made for motorized steeds.

Arnst is a mechanical engineer who turned stints for Harley-Davidson at Buell, Kansas City and York. He returned to his childhood home to start the ranch and EagleRider franchise some years ago. Although the main office is in Fort Benton, the actual Adventure Ranch is located in a remote area outside of town. The killer 5000-acre spread is set right in the rugged Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, currently accessible via dirt road or the river.

The EagleRider franchise can outfit you with a Polaris ATV or KLR dual-sport, or set you up with hiking, motorcycle or auto tours. Add on canoeing or camping options and you can book your entire adventure in one place. Get details at eaglerider.com, mgmmontanaadventures.com or call 888.625.6618.

Trip Resources:
* Montana State Travel information: visitmt.com
* Montana motorcycle routes: ridemt.com
* Fort Benton: fortbenton.com
* The Grand Union Hotel: grandunionhotel.com
* EagleRider bike rentals: eaglerider.com; mgmmontanaadventures.com
* Inn Dupuyer: 406.472.3241;
3rivers.net/inndupyr