Montana: Into the Big Sky Sunset

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Chris Myers, Kathy Myers

Heads still awhirl from a day of amazing sights in Yellowstone National Park, Kathy and I exit the West Entrance and suddenly enter the town of West Yellowstone, Montana. Even though the shadows are lengthening, we decide that it's better for us to push on past this crowded tourist trap and end the day by letting the Wing reveal a bit of Big Sky Country before we retire.

We've had a long tiring day exploring Yellowstone, but still, the lure of southern Montana's mountains is undeniable. Worst-case scenario, we get to Bozeman around dark. As we push north on Highway 191, the pockets of tall-mountain shade offer soothing respite from the August heat. Tracing our way, the frothy, icy green Gallatin River instigates an urge to stop for a swim and more - a large contingent of the after-work trout-fishing crowd is out this afternoon. From every kind of vehicle, parked at practically every wide spot in the road, anglers sporting hip-waders and lugging rods and creels are walking toward the water.

As we near the ski resort area of Big Sky, a Comfort Inn appears and we figure, what the heck, Bozeman can wait. The nice thing about large ski areas is that they often have a host of summer activities going on as well. You just have to be prepared for the same high prices - a dollar doesn't stretch much further in the off-season here.

Will We Make It All the Way?
A long sliver of bright light trespasses, sneaking through the small breach left between our blackout curtains. Although securing a few extra winks sounds like a fine idea, we have to get going to wrap up our travels on Highway 191. There are only a couple of days left before Kathy catches her flight back to North Carolina from Bozeman. And as she's been so fond of telling me with the trip drawing to a close, "somebody has to work around here."

We continue where we left off, riding north beside the Gallatin River where the swift currents and deep pools draw more than men and women with fly rods. Brightly clad kayakers plunge and pirouette through the rapids as canoeists skim along the more serene stretches. The river valley begins to broaden and the sunlight settles, no longer flickering like a strobe through heavy pine boughs. We reach Bozeman mid-morning and follow the signs downtown. To our surprise, the streets are already closed off for the annual Sweet Pea Festival; and while this particular celebration of the arts seems interesting enough, it's much too early for us to lose the helmets just yet. So we decide to go on and get the eastbound 60 miles that Highway 191 shares with Interstate 90 under our belts before lunch. Thankfully, even Montana's major highways display great stretches of wonderful scenery through mountains and across the open grasslands. Before we know it, the sign for Big Timber and Highway 191 appears and we happily revert to the back roads.

With the map indicating we're about to enter an area that's probably not overloaded with dining options, we swing a right onto Big Timber's wide main street, which immediately seduces us with its rugged, down-home charm. Within the rows of connected buildings each exudes its own appeal, and though swinging saloon doors and hitching posts are nowhere in sight, the stunning views of the distant Crazy Mountains complete a distinctly western scene. The premises of place called Prospector Pizza look like a winner, and when she sees the size of the burger she ordered, Kathy erupts in laughter. There's enough on her plate to nourish a posse of three. A big eater, even I can't finish mine. If those Big Timber meals are indicative of "normal" servings, the cows around here don't stand a chance.

Afterward, we fight off the urge to nap and continue our northward trek. My earlier cartographic hunch is correct, and we find ourselves riding over lonely ground. There are no structures and few cars, just open pasture, cattle, and wheat fields. The occasional vehicle approaching takes forever to reach us - then whoosh, it's gone. We stop for a gas and water break at the crossroads of Route 12 in Harlowton. North again, we head into more of the same, but with slightly more activity. On the horizon, giant combines crawl across the golden fields. Though dwarfed by distance, the mechanical brutes create impressive clouds of dust as they labor to gather this massive harvest of waving wheat. The tonnage of food grown here is almost incomprehensible, and we now share the road with random semis lumbering to their appointed granaries. Straight roads and the Gold Wing's spirited six-cylinder make dispatching these big rigs as easy as a roll of the wrist and a quick wave.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2007 back issue.