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Billings, Montana Shamrock Tour®: Touch the Sky

Text: John M. Flores • Photography: John M. Flores

I land in Billings and meet Cameron at the moto-inspired MoAV Coffee House. We’re both eager to spend time in Big Sky country, and brand-new 2018 Gold Wings await us at Montana Honda & Marine. The next morning we start with breakfast at Stella’s for strong coffee and a cinnamon roll big enough to sink the Titanic, pick up the bikes, and jump on the interstate to blast out of town.

We turn onto a smaller state road and then onto a rural road. Trees, buildings, and cars all but disappear as the road rises and falls with the grassy folds of the land, passes through somnolent hamlets, then drops down into Red Lodge, a funky little mountain town at the base of Beartooth Pass. This is the only place for miles with good eating options and gasoline. We stop for lunch and then continue westward, the peaks of the Custer Gallatin National Forest peering over our left shoulders. 

The big mountains are blanketed in smoke from the summer’s western wildfires; some of it, we’re told, has drifted all the way from California. The color of the day is straw, dry grasses as tall as my waist stretching as far as the eye can see. The only time the color changes is near a creek or stream where the grass turns green and trees drink the water and reach for the sky. The road turns north and gradually unwinds as the land flattens. Before we head back to Billings, we spot a twisting two-lane road that invites the Gold Wings to dance, and we are eager partners. We head back to Billings to explore the downtown on foot and grab dinner.

Touch the Past

The road crosses over railroad tracks, vaults the Yellowstone River, and flows into the lonely, rolling brown hills of the Crow Indian Reservation. It’s hard to believe we’re just minutes from downtown Billings. The roadside turns thick with lush green trees as we run alongside a small creek, but they disappear just as quickly as they arrived. We ride through a harsh, arid land along the edge of the reservation. The Crow Reservation is 3,600 square miles but contains fewer than 8,000 residents.

The earth rolls like giant ocean waves beneath a hazy sky. Tall grasses, brown from the dry summer, blanket the peaks and troughs. Lakota, Cheyenne, and Dakota call this place “Greasy Grass.” It would be a struggle just to run up and over these hills, let alone fight on them for your life or your way of life. But that’s exactly what happened in 1876 at what is now called Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Some places feel sacred, reverent. This is one of them. Not only for Custer National Cemetery, with its rows of somber white gravestones (some with names and others blank) standing eternally in formation, but for the blood that was spilled on this soil. Near the top of Last Stand Hill, stones mark where the soldiers of Lt. Colonel George Custer’s 7th Cavalry were felled by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Sitting Bull, a Lakota spiritual leader, claimed to have seen the Battle of Little Bighorn in a dream where soldiers fell into his camp like grasshoppers from the sky. Custer, tasked with forcing Lakota and Cheyenne back to their reservations, underestimated the size of his opponent. Nearby, the “Spirit Warriors” sculpture—native warriors on horseback heading off to battle with a woman handing a shield to the third warrior—acknowledges the Native American side of the story. 

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2019 back issue.