By Chuck Tabaracci
The end of September arrived and it was time for my annual trek to Montana. Every year since moving to Utah, I’ve made it my goal to drive up and visit my family. For many years, this has been a routine eight-hour drive on I-15, visit for a couple days, then drive back the same route. That is, it was routine until a few years ago. I thought about the previous trips I have taken, always via interstate highways, with their chain-store restaurants, fast food establishments, and standard indigestion-inducing fuel plazas, and wondered how much in my life I have missed out by not taking the proverbial “road less traveled.”
I decided that I needed to break out of that routine and check out more of the state in which I was raised. I named it my Discover Montana Tour. I’ve been asked if these trips are on my bucket list, and I inform those who ask the question that I don’t have such a list. A bucket is a container, and a container has limits. These trips are more of a “What’s down that road?” adventure.
The first year of this tour took me on Highway 89, which also happens to run through Utah. I went through some beautiful country and some amazing valleys between mountain ranges, but my big discovery that year was the small, nearly ghost town of Ringling, Montana. Per the historical marker along the side of the highway, it was named after John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Circus. He had purchased a large ranch in the area and later this became the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus. I had to use my imagination to see what this town must have been in its day, as most of what remains are abandoned buildings and foundations of what stood there long ago.
Last year, the second year of my tour, I went a little farther east to see what might lay on that highway. Several nice small towns that are slowly restoring their main areas to draw more tourists, but my discovery that trip was the Bleu Horses. This is an art installation of a herd numbering 39 realistic looking metal sculptures standing on a lonely ridge, with the mountains in the distance. There is no sign or real parking area, but it was an amazing sight to see on this lonely, lightly traveled ribbon of asphalt.
This year I decided to make it a longer trip, stretching the drive over two days. I planned to drive on the east side of the mountains that the throngs of tourists to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks rarely visit. The highway took me over the Beartooth Mountain, one of the most beautiful drives in North America. This is not just my opinion but in the writings of many travel authors. The route snakes along the side of the mountain on the Wyoming side until it reaches nearly eleven-thousand feet above sea level, then snakes its way down on the Montana side.
It was fall, and in Montana the mountains are covered in a lush green of pine and fir, broken occasionally by the rich veins of gold formed by the Aspen trees changing colors for the season.
As I reached the top, the road became increasingly narrower with more curves, and my memory flashed back to the summer of 1968. That year my dad hitched up a travel trailer to the back of our 1965 Mercury for a trip to Yellowstone. Now this car was huge, with what we figured was a six-body trunk, and my dad had heard about the Beartooth Highway and wanted to take it into the parks. Little did he know how this highway was designed and built, and I do remember my sisters and me sensing his concentration so we were unusually well-behaved. As I drove my RAV-4, I wondered to myself, “How in the hell did he manage this with that car and trailer?”
After finishing that beautiful drive, I ended up at a resort outside the town of Red Lodge, Montana. It was off-season, so I managed to get a good rate. They had a wonderful-looking restaurant on the property and, due to the time of year, it was nearly empty but the food was amazing. The wonderful thing about these small locally-owned places is that the chef could create a dish not on the menu for my vegan diet. After my dinner, while enjoying a beer, a nice couple came in and sat at a table next to me. We began to chat and they informed me of this year’s discovery.
Near the town of Red Lodge lies a 10,000 acre working ranch that was purchased by the Gray Goose vodka heirs, and they named it Tippet Ridge. They bought it due to the beautiful location, and brought in world-famous sculptors to build works of art that, due to their immense sizes, had to be built on-site and scattered throughout the property. Unfortunately, they had just closed for the season but the woman shared photos on her phone of this wonderful place. Even though I was unable to physically visit this sight on that trip, I still consider it a discovery because I hadn’t known of it before, but it is on my list for next year.
I have kept this quest for discovery in all other areas of my life, especially my long runs on Sunday mornings, varying my routes to see what is out there. I find that exploring new areas along the Ogden bench and trails gives me a fresh perspective, as well as landscaping ideas. This has helped in my life to keep things fresh and interesting.
I am grateful for making the decision to see what’s out there and support local establishments and the people they employ, no matter where they are. I recommend that those of you who read this will occasionally get off the highway and see what else is out there in this big world. I have found myself to be much more relaxed and less stressed when I finally reach my destination, and try to apply this approach to every aspect of my life. It’s a philosophy I hope that more people will adopt, and share their experiences with those around them as I have.
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 6:30-8 pm, 210 E. 400 South, Ste. 8, Salt Lake.