This post is part of a series on exploring and navigating the world with a fat body and an anxiety disorder. See all the posts here.
If Montana is big sky country (and it is — we’ll get there), northern Idaho feels intimate. The smoky haze begins to clear as you head east past beautiful, deep-blue Lake Coeur d’Alene, and you’re quickly enfolded in pine forests that sweep from the tops of the surrounding mountains right down to the edge of the road, with just enough room for an occasional grassy shoulder.
To be honest, you’re just looking for a bathroom when you take the exit for Old Mission State Park. You skip the main park (which seems to indeed have an old mission building and you’re sure is worth a visit sometime), since you’re anxious to make good time, but there’s a pretty surprise over at the bathrooms: a dock on a peaceful blue river. You take some photos and meditate for a few minutes before moving on.
Since Idaho is so narrow at that point, it doesn’t take long before you’re over a mountain pass into Montana. The road gradually begins to open up, with small valleys between you and the mountains, but everything is still green and tree-clad.
On previous long drives, you’ve struggled with knee pain. In addition to experimenting with the way you sit in the car today, you’re discovering that your body responds best to car travel when you get out and stretch briefly every half hour or hour. The short breaks don’t hold you up all that much, and they seem to be preventing the knee pain, so you start stopping more often.
The Dena Mora rest area is next up in available places to stop, and it also has a little surprise: a lovely grassy area completely full of bright, heavy-headed dandelions. You’re still feeling a little fragile from yesterday’s emotions, so you lie in the dandelions and breathe for a few minutes. On the way out, you find four-leaf clovers and tuck one into a book to dry.
Montana has what they call “parking areas:” They’re not quite rest areas, just small bathrooms (pit toilets, no flush action here) and parking spots clearly meant for long-haul truckers who need to rest. Makes sense, since it’s not like there are hotels every ten miles out here. You take advantage of a few of these to stretch your legs, too.
A bit later, you stop for fried cheese curds and a pretty decent barbecue sandwich at the 50,000 Silver Dollar in Haugan, MT. There’s a bar, diner, giant gift shop and hotel, and it’s just your kind of tourist trap, so you wander around for a bit and purchase some cheesy gifts (like a grow-in-water Sasquatch) and postcards, which you swear you’ll actually remember to send this trip.
You intend to eat in the restaurant, but the food (which is very tasty when you finally eat it) takes ages to come out, and the waitstaff is bickering and stressed in a way that makes you really anxious, so you ask for it to go and eat it in the car much more happily.
You picked up a couple of touristy ads at the hotel in Coeur d’Alene and thought about stopping for a silver mine tour or some sapphire panning today. You don’t have time for both, so you settle on sapphire panning in Philipsburg, MT.
Gradually the road opens into true Montana country: wide, wide valleys rising into smooth, bald mountain ridges. It’s still early spring at these high elevations, so everything is green; a hotel clerk will later tell you it just stopped snowing here.
At the Quartz Flats rest stop, you find ground squirrels! These are probably Richardson’s ground squirrels. They weigh about a pound, can damage crops if they overpopulate, and are absolutely freaking adorable.
Since this is a rest area, the squirrels are used to humans, but they’re still cautious. As you get near them, warning chirps surround you, and all the squirrels vanish into holes and behind trees…except one naive adolescent, which lets you get close enough to photograph it, bless it.
The road follows the Clark Fork River for part of the day, and its clear waters keep you cheerful company. You stop at one of the Montana parking areas and discover that it’s right on the riverbank.
This part of the river has its own small white-sand beach, and a lovely driftwood hut that you admire but don’t approach. (Not just for safety reasons, but also because you’re wearing your driving shoes and they’re not really appropriate for scrambling up and down riverbanks.)
Dirt and gravel roads branch out from the parking area and seems to lead to some fishing spots. You choose one at random, hoping it doesn’t hold a stray serial killer, and find a perfect spot of river. It feels safe and wild and free.
Other than scenic stretch breaks on the Clark Fork and at Georgetown Lake, you make excellent time, but arrive in Philipsburg after the sapphire panning place closes.
That leaves you five minutes to dash into the candy store next door before it too closes, so why not? You snag some hard candies and other goodies that seem like they won’t melt in the car, then survey your food options and settle on barbecue (again). These folks seem to only have the slightest idea of what “barbecue” is, so you decide not to name the restaurant when you blog about this later, out of pity for the clueless.
You intend to camp at Beaverdam campground, about 20 miles outside Butte, so you head that way as the light turns golden, finding a lovely meadow with new-to-you wildflowers on the way.
Short, steep ridges then enfold the road, dotted with trees and tumbled with glacier-smoothed boulders that look like they could animate into a fantasy-novel golem at any moment.
Since campsites are only $5.00 here, you’re a bit worried that all the spots will be taken, but you arrive to find the campground completely deserted. It’s a self-service kind of place, so there’s not even an attendant to take your money, just an “iron ranger” (a hollow metal pole with a slot in the top for envelopes and money).
The place is eerie in the twilight, and the signs at the entrance with dire warnings about bears aren’t helping. There’s no cell signal if you get into trouble or a bear tries to eat you, the forecast calls for a low of 42 tonight (which is well beyond the capabilities of the one blanket you brought), and the worries of the people who were alarmed at the idea of you traveling alone are pushing to the forefront of your mind.
It’s the thought that, if a bear makes you a tasty tent-wrapped snack, half the people who hear about it will blame you for camping at a deserted campground alone that has you driving, exhausted and irritated, back toward Butte. You find a cheap, bear-free hotel and settle down for the night.
What you’ll remember from this day: Ospreys patrolling the river shore and swallows flitting among the reeds at Old Mission. A bald eagle at Georgetown Lake. Cherry blossoms in June! The ominous-looking smokestack in Anaconda. A white sand beach on the Clark Fork River, with a hut made of driftwood. Wildflowers along every shoulder and meadow.