Tour 2015 – Days 49-51: Aberdeen -> Polson

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Yellowstone River, near Rosebud, Montana

Aberdeen was a major rail hub in the 19th century, and birthplace in the late 20th century of the Super 8 motel chain. We stayed at the smallest of the three Super 8 motels now in the relatively small city, and went to the “original” to use the guest laundry services, so got to tour the city on the back streets on the way. In the morning, we backtracked to the east side of town for our morning coffee fix, then off toward Montana, crossing the Missouri at Mobridge, one of the few bridges across the river, and into the Mountain Time Zone.

We had early lunch/late breakfast, depending on which time zone you came from, in northwestern South Dakota, where a poster on the wall proclaimed this “Reagan Country,” a reminder that the Conservatives are determined to turn the clock back at least 40 years, and have succeeded in some parts of the country. For us, that would mean a world without Starbucks or the Internet, among the other more political issues, so we quickly moved on west in search of the 21st century again.

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Espresso at Lawler’s Coffee and Tea, Baker, Montana

A brief passage through the corner of North Dakota and badlands reminiscent of the Badlands of South Dakota and the Teddy Roosevelt Park further north, and we were at last back in Montana. The first town we came to, Baker, had a coffee shop serving espresso and WiFi: we had successfully navigated the time warp and returned to our own time. However, we still have nostalgia for the “good old days,” i.e., the 50s and 60s, before the Interstate highway system isolated small towns and homogenized America, so we had been avoiding highways starting with “I-.” However, we did find ourselves on I-94 between Miles City and Forsyth, where US 12 has been absorbed by the newer road.

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Rosebud County Courthouse, Forsyth, Montana

Leaving Forsyth, we realized we had 150km ahead with no guaranteed fuel stops, so turned back to fill up before moving on to Roundup, our destination for the evening. Our motel, booked through one of the newer Internet services, turned out to be another chain franchise enterprise that had succumbed to the recession and was now being slowly rehabilitated as a mom-and-pop operation. This one only had a few rooms ready for occupancy, but they were clean, with new carpet but nearly worn-out linens and towels stacked on the closet for lack of towel bars. The owner said they had started in April, with a huge mess, but were proceeding with a focus on quality before quantity. Now, this part of a “return to the past” we don’t mind–the Internet has equalized the marketplace so that we no longer have to depend on name recognition as a mark of quality and consistency: the very thing that gave rise to the Super 8 motel chain 40 years ago and that late-comers to the chain/franchise market had forgotten was the reason for their success. On-line reservation systems are now a free market, not the purview of large corporate mainframes, and online guest reviews provide a measure of quality. The upside for travellers is a variety of accommodation, rather than travelling hundreds of miles to stay in a room identical to the last one.

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Autumn’s Inn, the “& Eatery” sign either temporarily or permanently removed during renovations to the former chain motel, now a mom-and-pop operation.

Having passed through the timezone the day before, we awoke early and set off in search of breakfast and good coffee, which we found 100 km down the road, at Harlowton, a bit bigger town. We had been following the trace of an old rail line along US12 since Forsyth, the tracks long gone. At Harlowton, we learned that this had been a main switchyard for the Milwaukee railroad 100 years ago, where the coal-fired steam engines turned over their west-bound loads to electric engines, which provide pollution-free passage through the tunnels under the Rocky Mountains,to Idaho and later, the Cascade Range into Seattle. The electric engines were also powered by hydro-electric generators, so the savings in fuel cost offset the cost of electrifying the mountain crossings. Unfortunately, the smaller Milwaukee line was in competition with the older Great Northern railway, whose tracks ran parallel and which served more towns along the way, and the Milwaukee/Soo line eventually went broke, depending entirely on long-distance loads, and lower operating costs that never quite offset the capital investment in technology.

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An electric locomotive on display in Harlowton, Montana, to commemorate the use of electricity to carry trains over the slopes and through the tunnels in the Rockies during the early 20th Century. The transition from steam to electricity was successful, but other economic factors led to the railroad’s demise at the dawn of the Diesel age.

We stopped for fuel again in White Sulphur Springs, birthplace of the late novelist Ivan Doig, as the next town, Townsend, was again too far. Through Montana’s capital, Helena, we climbed over the continental divide and turned north at Avon, leaving US 12 to pick up MT 200, to avoid the merger ahead between US 12 and I-90 into Missoula. At Missoula, we stopped for late lunch at the Good Food Store, one of our favorite deli stops on trips to/through the “big city” when we had lived up the Bitterroot Valley in the early 2000s. One of the reasons we stop so often at Starbucks in our travels, despite our penchant to sample local lodging and eateries, is that we know what they serve and we like it. One of the pitfalls of frequent travel and frequent moves is that you become attached to certain places to eat and simply have to wait until you pass that way again, or try to duplicate your favorite items at home. However, the appeal of these places is that they come up with new items that must be sampled: now we have new dishes to try to replicate from memory when we get home.

Finally, seven weeks into our grand tour, we arrived at our little cabin on the side of the mountain and spent a restful night in a familiar bed, though we hadn’t slept there in nearly a year and a half, since before my surgery last year. Since we hadn’t cleaned up from fumigating the cabin before we set off for new Mexico six weeks ago, we went into town in the morning for coffee and breakfast, as well as Internet access. Our standard stop in Polson is the Safeway store, which has an in-store Starbucks and fast WiFi, but no electrical outlets in the customer cafe seating area, so we don’t stay too long. Of course, later in the day, we visit with Rick and Ben next door. where there is running water and electricity as well. Today we wait for more family to arrive from the East Coast for a week of celebration, before we head back to Washington.

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Montana/North Dakota border, on US 12.

One thought on “Tour 2015 – Days 49-51: Aberdeen -> Polson”

  1. when you were in Baker MT, did you feel the long ago, now deceased ancestors whispering in your ear? These would have been Gus’s children & family’s. When they left Cass Co MN they moved first to Leeds N D, then on to Baker MT, where Adolph Carl Pietz had a farm & neighbors would come for miles around to light matches out behind the barn & they would “bang” ……………natural gas do you suppose? Anyway they didn’t find what they wanted in Montana so they moved on to Vancouver Washington.

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