Day 9 was a really interesting day. Our journey from Glacier to Helena – the Montana State Capital – was one of contrasts and interesting people. Returning to Helena via the route we arrived on would have been the easiest option but we decided on an alternative route to take in more of Montana. So we headed east from West Glacier on Highway 2, which tracks the most southern point of the park, dipping into it from time to time. It was another chilly, misty morning but we had no doubt that it would change. The peaks of Glacier were visible on our left most of the time along the highway as we passed ranch after ranch and fields of horses and cattle in a very parched environment.
The first notable town we came to was called Browning; home to the native Blackfeet Indian population – The Blackfeet Nation, sometimes known as The Lords of the Great Plains. Their reservation boasts 1.5 million acres. This is where we would take highway 89 south towards Helena. But first we stopped for water at a gas station in town. This town was not the usual clean, new and wholesome kind of place we have repeatedly referred to in the past – every building was dilapidated to some degree, ancient cars and trucks, scratched and bashed in, littered the dusty streets either side of the highway. Wild looking dogs roamed the highway, congregating outside various buildings. We saw one of Browning’s inhabitants walking down the sidewalk surrounded by five dogs, each one looking unkempt and hungry – a pack on the hunt.
Reluctantly I left the relative safety of the car and walked into the gas station to get water. Heads turned and about eight pairs of eyes stared at the stranger in the doorway. It was two seconds that felt like two minutes! I had the terrible urge to turn around and walk out again but forced my feet forward – trying my best to look nonchalant – in the general direction of nothing in particular. I found the water and, when sure I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, quickly joined the small payment queue, which was taking a long time to move. I wasn’t going to complain and provoke a shootout so I waited, only to be told by some Good Samaritan that I was in fact in the queue for the toilets! So much for looking cool!
Outside again, I almost expected to see the car surrounded by circling Indians on horseback, but instead a mangy looking dog approached. It would have been a cute little thing only for the fact that its fur was falling out and its eyes glinted pearly white in the sun. It looked listless and emaciated. It simply watched as I passed by, unable or unwilling to even beg for food in the face of its obvious hunger. I noticed that the lower two-thirds of its tail was completely free of fur; a pink blotchy stump, which looked swollen and painful. I had the urge to give it something to eat but thought better of it. Instead, we drove on to get out of the town as quickly as possible. On the way out there was a sign extolling the virtues of this town’s insisted upon self governance – I couldn’t help thinking that The Lords of the Great Plains were not doing a particularly good job! But later I reflected that it had precious little to do with me; a traveller passing through – the next morning, in a conversation over breakfast with people who knew Montana I gleaned something of the hardship these people have suffered, having had their land usurped by others. I’m sure my impressions would mean very little to them.
And so onward towards Helena. The countryside was now familiar; its green (where it had been irrigated) and gold rolling hills filled with crops of wheat and Barley. Little puffs of dust, kicked up by farmers’ trucks, eddied in the far distance before blowing away in the breeze.
We passed a number of small settlements along the way, one of which was little more than a collection of warehouses and sheds with the odd deli thrown in for good measure. There seemed to be no houses but there were a number of static caravans, which can only be assumed are home to the town’s tiny population. There was, of course, a timber church with spire painted mostly white and in perfect condition; a testament to where the town’s allegiance lies. The only other landmark of real note was a 30 foot plastic dinosaur, which stood incongruously at the edge of the town as we exited.
As the day wore on we were beginning to feel hungry and were relieved to come across the town of Choteau, which had a number of delis, cafes and bars along its manicured main street.
We stopped at the visitor centre for the toilets on the way into town. Rachel went in ahead. After locking the car I followed, opened the door and was greeted by a very small, frail and stooping old lady dressed in a sweatshirt, pale blue slacks and trainers. Her face beamed a smile. Saying hello, I asked her how she was. She jigged from side to side, her hips swaying as if dancing and her hands moved as if she were rolling a large football between them. “I’m as fit and fancy as you like”, she said giggling, as I made a beeline for the loo! I waited for Rachel go back into the centre before venturing out again – safety in numbers, I thought. By now the lady was behind the counter at one end of the room alongside an elderly man in jeans and a white, short sleeved shirt. Rachel was already chatting to them and asking for advice about where to eat when I joined her. No-one else was around. What started out as feeling a little weird turned out to be the highlight of our day as we were treated to the very interesting life story of Bob and Jeanette Hirsh. Jeanette, had now sat down on a chair behind Bob, while he told us of life in Montana. I had noticed a poster in the washroom warning that the centre does not remain open at night due to vandalism and asked Bob about it. He couldn’t believe it was true. He told us of a young boy in the village who rested his bike against a tree beside the main street in October and came back for it in March and it was still there. He was perfectly serious. Knowing we were from the UK he talked about how his great grandfather, who was from the Birmingham area in the UK, was charged with tending to Queen Victoria’s horses when he was a young man and had the opportunity to travel by ship to America with the horses on the way to Canada. When he arrived and got off the ship he promptly gave the horses to some strangers and was never heard of again by his employer. He wanted a new life and took it, ending up in Montana, where he eventually gained US citizenship. These were Bob’s origins and he was eager to talk about them, clearly delighted that we were interested. We gave him the respect he deserved and let the story unfold for as long as he wanted it to. He told us he and his wife had been married for 66 years, as he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb in the direction of Jeanette who was looking very sleepy by now but as he continued his story Jeanette got up and wandered out of the front door into the parking lot. Bob looked quite concerned and asked us if we could see which way she went. “She had a stroke”, he said and his words caught in his throat and tears welled in his eyes, “she’s losing her mind”. It was clear how much he loved Jeanette; you could see it. We felt deeply moved by this old man’s show of vulnerability in the presence of complete strangers and we’ve thought about these two lovely people ever since. They were both almost 90 years old. Jeanette returned to her chair a few minutes later and Bob continued his story of when he was in the US Navy during the second world war speed testing a new submarine. He later taught Science and Math at college. Soon Jeanette was up again and poking Bob in his side asking about something we didn’t understand. It was time to go. We shook their hands and wished them well, taking their advice about where to eat lunch. We had travelled thousands of miles to bump into these lovely people. We only wish we had taken a photo of them to remember them by.
We reached Helena at around 3:30pm and found our new B&B easily, as it was situated right next to the cathedral. It turned out to be the most lovely B&B we had ever seen:
We were greeted by Nick, the owner and shown into the hallway and then the office. If anyone reading this has ever seen the Hollywood Tower Hotel (Tower of Terror) in Disney World, you’ll know what it was like – minus the cobwebs, of course. The walls were oak panelled and held old black and white photographs – eerie faces peering out and watching our every move. I particularly noticed a porcelain doll, which stood about two feet high; long black hair and wearing a red dress. ‘She’ was turned to face the wall with her hand over her eyes – like the child had been scolded and sent away in shame. I felt a chill run down my spine. We were shown to our room – the Morning Room – up a long narrow flight of stairs. As we reached the top a woman came from another room. Her hair was red, untidy and had a severe fringe, curled under along her forehead. She wore jeans and a red T-shirt. Later we admitted to each other that we couldn’t help thinking how sinister she looked. She said “hello” in her very slow, deliberate drawl. It turned out that this was Nick’s sister, Lianne; the woman Rachel spoke to when booking the B&B. She seemed to find it difficult to make eye contact, which was a little unnerving. Nick asked if we would join them for wine and canapés on the veranda at 5:30pm. We said we would.
But first we walked into the city centre to look around. We were struck by just how quiet it was; there were very few people on the streets and many shops were closed. It reminded me of the film – The Truman Show – the bit where Truman realises that his town is not a real town but is instead a film set, where everyone is watching him but he doesn’t know why. It turned out that the whole population, it seemed, was in The Windbag – an old brothel turned trendy pub and restaurant. When we entered the place it was a relief to see so many people drinking and chatting. We asked a local if it was always this quiet. It was!
Wine and Canapés turned out to be a very pleasant affair. Lianne was the hostess and three other women joined us. They were old friends spending the night before one of their daughter’s wedding the next day. We talked for about an hour and listened to the cathedral bells chiming right next door to us. It felt like a very peaceful neighbourhood. It turned out that there were four churches of different flavours within a 2 minute walk of the house; it was literally surrounded by them. The Catholic Cathedral, built around 1912, was the most impressive. Lianne likened it to St Peter’s in Rome – it was nothing like St Peter’s in Rome!
In the evening we walked into town, taking Lianne’s advice, in search of the ‘best steak in town’. We found it – not quite the best steak but certainly the highest price!
Day 10 dawned and we headed downstairs for breakfast. The dining room was such a beautiful room and the large table was set for just the right number of people to sit and eat together. The people we had met the night before over canapés were already there. We ate breakfast of crispy bacon, pancakes (with honey) and a fruit cocktail and coffee; made with pride by Nick. A painting of Queen Elizabeth took pride of place on the wall. Lianne told us that it was given to Nick in payment for his services as a defence attorney many years ago by a man who could not pay in cash! The room and the house was full of expensive antiques and, again, the walls were covered with old photographs from the early 1900s.
Then Lianne asked us if we had seen anything strange in the house. We said “no, why?”. Hadn’t we seen a woman in white wandering the house and in particular standing at the foot of the bed in room number 3? I knew I had recognised Lianne as Morticia from The Addams Family and the house was actually haunted! I had the horrible feeling that Nick and Lianne were not real either. Lianne then went on to tell us tails of strange happenings in the house over many years (the house was over 100 years old); lights switching on and off, furniture moving from room to room, apparitions and more. It turned out that the three women at the table with us were in room 3 and were staying another night. I wished them good luck with that one! Now, to me an Rachel, this was all just a bit of fun (as we don’t believe in anything supernatural) but to Morticia….er I mean Lianne…. this was all perfectly real and the ‘spirits’ she had witnessed were also real. Of course there must have been a perfectly rational explanation for what she saw; either she was just mistaken or she’s mad – I have my suspicions but I won’t go into them here!
The dining room:
We started out for Yellowstone at about 10:30am and the nicest town we met was the town of Ennis.
We stopped here for lunch at the Ennis Café with its famous strawberry pie:
Rachel couldn’t resist it and this pie was the highlight of her day!
We arrived in Yellowstone at about 4pm and this evening we relaxed on our new balcony with a BBQ of sausages overlooking the mountains within the national park, where we will visit tomorrow for our first full day in Yellowstone – we can’t wait.