Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!
Don’t underestimate small towns.
It’s something I’ve learned over and over. It’s something I’ve preached over and over. Yet here we were in a small town in eastern Montana,
and I thought we’d be there to sleep and leave.
Have I learned nothing?
When we approached our hotel the night before we’d noticed signs for both a dinosaur museum and a frontier museum. Inside the hotel, a bunch of tourism brochures were piled next to the Chinese takeout menu. I resist visitor guides and flyers about as well as I do perfect hot and sour soup, so I grabbed a few that looked interesting. One of those brochures was for the largest state park in Montana. Our new plan was to visit two museums and the park and then we’d be back on the road.
We tried to visit the dinosaur museum. It looked pretty cool; the head of a T-Rex leapt out of the three-story windowless building. That museum wasn’t open yet and we went next door to a squat building painted with murals.
We parked on the white gravel and found the Frontier Gateway Museum. Inside, Fayette greeted us from behind the counter and asked us if we’d been next door to the dinosaur museum. We told her we hadn’t. “It’s a creationism museum. They have beautiful displays.” She paused. “Enough said.”
Fayette gave us a “Museum Madness” bracket, an elimination tournament of historical items, and we ticked which artifacts we thought should make it to the next level. Would it be the fire engine or the petrified fire carrier? The Iron Lung or Margie the Dinosaur? A razor used in a crime, or a fire chain? It was a brilliant device that made us pay attention and focus on the exhibits. There was no map to tell us where we could find each item, so we had to search everywhere, including the extensive outdoor displays.
This was a community museum, which meant many of the items were donated by people who had either used them or knew the people who had. It infused the displays with meaning. Somebody in Glendive knew somebody who used that cash register, or wore that hat, or broke a story on that typewriter. It was the best of community historical repositories, a compendium of eastern Montana from prehistoric eras to more recent times.
We skipped the fauxseum next door, choosing to visit Montana’s largest state park instead. Makoshika is a variant of the Lakota’s mako sica – bad lands. It’s a landscape of erosion, and Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex fossils have been found in its exposed history. We drove the main road in the park, noting the disc golf course at the entrance and the radio towers at the top of a hill.
At one overlook, a picnic table edged just to the rim. Pine and juniper grew where they could. In some places, the mesas had layers stacked one upon another, as defined as a picnic pie. Capstone rocks looked for all the world like giant enoki mushrooms. Our unplanned visit to Glendive had turned into quite the surprise. But, I suppose we should have expected that.
We entered North Dakota. As soon as we got to Medora and had cell service I needed to extend our rental of Jeannie the Jeep for a couple of days. It was Friday and she was due back on Monday. We could make it, but we’d be pushing and wouldn’t be able to see anything of Minnesota or Wisconsin and very little of North Dakota. Even with an extension, we still had a lot of ground to cover. I called Hertz to extend our rental.
They said no.
It wasn’t because they needed the vehicle. It was because Jeannie needed an oil change.
“We did that in Spokane,” I told them. Didn’t matter; corporate said local had put the hold on because they didn’t have a record of the maintenance, even though Hertz had paid for it. We talked to local. She needed a copy of the receipt. I took a picture of it and emailed it to her. It had to be a PDF.
I was standing in a parking lot in the historic town of Medora, North Dakota, mere yards away from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “Can’t you talk to accounting? Firestone?” No. She needed a PDF copy of the receipt.
“I can’t do this right now,” I thought. Jim and I decided to take a quick walk around the town, enter the national park, and he would call the next day. I’m a fierce do-it-myself person, but when it comes to customer service, it’s best for everyone involved if Jim handles it. His deep, smooth voice, calming demeanor, and years as an IT help desk manager mean that he can navigate the most infuriating bureaucracies with dignity, whereas I turn into a screeching banshee. It is not one of my finer qualities. If we had to have Jeannie back on Monday, so be it, but we were in Medora and we were going to enjoy it.
It’s a small, small town. And by small, I mean miniscule. It’s .37 square miles with a population of 112. We walked around most of it, popped into a gift shop to look for hats and took a picture with a statue of Teddy.
We debated on getting some frosty treats, but decided we better get a move on. As it was, our visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park was almost painfully short. We briefly toyed with the idea of camping, but with our vehicle situation unresolved, decided it would be better to get as far east as we could.
We browsed the visitor center and stepped into the Maltese Cross Cabin. That cabin had traveled more than most people at the time. It began life as the future president’s ranch cabin in 1883. Once Roosevelt became president, the cabin became an exhibit at the World’s Fair in St. Louis and the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, both in 1905. A few years later it was on the state fairgrounds in West Fargo, and then it moved to the state capitol grounds in Bismarck. In 1959, the log cabin was moved one final time to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We drove about half of the scenic drive, passing wild horses (horsies!) grazing at the top of a hill. A short hike on the Wind Canyon Trail and we were overlooking a horseshoe bend of the Little Missouri River. Off to the left a herd of bison waded into the muddy water to get to the other side. It was nearly four in the afternoon. We turned around and drove back to the entrance, stopping at another prairie dog farm. As we passed the cottonwood-covered campground, I felt a tug of sadness. I was afraid this would be our last opportunity to hike and sleep outdoors, and we had to skip it because we needed to cover some ground.
It was close to nine when we rolled into Jamestown on the other side of the state. We found a local place and shared fried pickles, seasoned fries, and a shredded beef sandwich loaded with gloppy yellow cheese. It was glorious.