Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
We began our day with breakfast at Clark and Lewie’s Pub and Grill, the restaurant inside the O’Haire Motor Inn. Great Falls, Montana, is officially Lewis and Clark country. As in, they were HERE, Lewis and Clark country. The Mandan, a hospitable tribe in what is now Washburn, North Dakota, had warned the explorers about the series of waterfalls in this stretch of the Missouri River and that it would cause a delay in their travels. Meriwether Lewis scouted ahead of the rest of the Corps of Discovery with one companion and the two reached the great falls on June 13, 1805. Lewis recounted the event in his journal. His spelling may have been rather fluid, but the name of his companion is quite clear:
“I had proceed on this course about two miles with Goodrich at some distance behind me whin my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arrise above the plain like a collumn of smoke which soon began to make a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri.”
There was a Goodrich in the Corps of Discovery! Private Silas Goodrich from Massachusetts loved fishing and excelled at it. He caught several blackspotted cutthroat trout in the Missouri River the day he and Lewis found the falls. It was the first time anyone in the expedition had seen that type of fish, so the explorers preserved samples. The fish’s scientific name is Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi to honor the explorers. In 1977, the fish that Goodrich found was declared the official state fish. See? Goodriches are good for Montana.
Mermaids may have brought us to Great Falls, but we couldn’t leave without a visit to the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail Interpretive Center. It’s located just east of Upper Pitch, the last in the series of five falls that forced them to portage for eighteen and a quarter miles. That portage cost them a month, and it was at this location that they accepted they would not make it to the Pacific Ocean and back in one year. This was also where they came together as a cohesive unit, realizing if they didn’t work together, they’d never survive.
In addition to those details, we also learned that it sometimes took five different people to translate so the explorers could converse with native peoples. Their most famous interpreter became a legend. Sacagawea (or Sakakawea) was part of the Corps of Discovery, but not as a guide as I learned in school. Her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, was a French-Canadian fur-trader, and when he joined the expedition, Sacagawea and their infant child joined, too. Born to the Shoshone tribe, the young woman had been kidnapped in 1800 by the Hidatsa and then sold to Charbonneau. She was probably about seventeen when the three joined the Corps.
Her ability to interpret with the Shoshone, which helped secure horses for the expedition’s mountain passage, proved to be invaluable. Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their child traveled nearly the entire journey, leaving the explorers only when they returned to the Mandan village on the way back east.
The Interpretive Center is cleverly organized. Visitors begin by learning about President Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis and Clark, and then travel through exhibits about the various tribes the explorers would have met: Otoe, Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Salish, Nez Perce, Clatsop, Blackfeet, and Crow. Outside is a nature walk along the Missouri River. The river seemed calm enough to ford, but that’s because the Black Creek Dam now controls the flow in that section.
We skipped the walk. We had a long drive ahead of us.
I knew this day was coming. Jim had warned me: driving across central Montana requires commitment. It’s not something you do unless you’re properly fortified with snacks, have a full tank of gas, and know where you’re going to sleep for the night. We filled the tank and we still had trail mix left from the giant bucket I’d made for just this reason, so we were good on those two accounts. I also had the presence of mind to book a hotel room before we left O’Haire Motor Inn, so we lit out for the east end of the state fully stocked and completely prepared. If only the weather would hold out.
After three solid hours on the road we pulled into a rest area. It was about halfway between Great Falls and Glendive, and we’d seen three trucks, a combine, and a bizarre art installation. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway. A scarecrow rode a hay bale, rodeo-style, in the back of an ancient green pickup truck. It was pointed towards a dead tree that looked like Tim Burton had gotten ahold of it, with a face plastered on the trunk and curved wires capped with what looked like snake puppets. Bizarre.
It was just Jim and me at the rest stop. No cars passed or pulled in. The only sounds were a cow calling in the distance and birds. Inside, speakers broadcast the weather.
We’d had extremely good luck the last four weeks, skirting some nasty stuff and, with the exception of a couple of nights of rain and some cloudy weather, had sailed under blue skies. This day, though, it looked like our luck might run out. The broadcast reported severe storms rolling in, so we got back into Jeannie the Jeep and pulled up the weather on her dashboard.
On the screen, a block of red warned us that a huge storm was nipping at our bumper. In front of us was a huge yellow area that included our destination. The speed limit on MT 200 was seventy, so we did that and a bit more in our hurry to get to shelter. We could see the downpour in the distance. About an hour out of Glendive the clouds boiled, just like the witch’s cauldron we’d seen in Nebraska. We found out later that it was almost exactly like that formation. Once again, we’d escaped tornadoes.
By the time we got to our Days Inn the skies had calmed. We had no desire to push our luck, so we ordered Chinese, had it delivered to our room, and finished that long day with perfect hot and sour soup in a small town in eastern Montana.