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Into Big Sky Country

As much as I thoroughly loved my wonderful stay exploring the “hot stuff” and canyons and falls of the lower part of Yellowstone NP, it was time to move on – Montana – my next destination – was just up the road

Montana has several nicknames, though none official as I had read, including: “Big Sky Country” and “The Treasure State”, and slogans that include “Land of the Shining Mountains” and more recently, “The Last Best Place”. Names that reflect the rich history and beauty of the state.

And, as I have mentioned in previous posts about Western States, Montana was not completely foreign to me – I knew a little about Montana having traveled here over the years with family, as well as on hunting and fishing trips.

My plan was to re-explore areas around Bozeman and Livingston as well as see for the first time a couple ghost towns; a few new hiking trails; some of Yellowstone’s north end; and then move on to the “Crown of the Continent” – Glacier National Park – a Park on my bucket list –

much to do – time to get going…

My journey into Big Sky Country was on US 191 into Montana – a route I had read was spectacular in its beauty – a spectacular scenic route, an avenue to great fishing, hiking, hunting, resort living, and wild country, that once served as a grand visual entryway for Easterners coming to Yellowstone.

I picked it up right outside the campground just north of the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park – at the edge of the town of West Yellowstone I have mentioned in previous posts.

The highway headed north before veering slightly east and re-entering Yellowstone National Park for many miles. Northward through Yellowstone, the road took me along beautiful forested and mountainous terrain while doing this brief loop into the state of Wyoming before leaving the Park in the upper stretch of the Gallatin River canyon and now entering “The Last Best Place” –another Montana nickname 🙂

Then the route got even more interesting indeed.

The route traveled northward through the very narrow and stunningly beautiful canyon along the Gallatin River. I managed to see a few big horn sheep along the roadway; some avid fly fisherman on this world class riverway; and some disturbing signs about this stretch of roadway (more below on that aspect!).

I continued past the resort community of Big Sky (which I would revisit with “S – the reluctant RV’er”) , before entering the broad and beautiful Gallatin Valley near the town of Gallatin Gateway, Montana. Then a quick right and US 191 traveled north and east through the valley to the city of Bozeman – my base for the next part of the journey – and the initial part of my travels into Montana.

I was interested in seeing how Bozeman had “grown up” in the last 20-plus years…now described as “one of the most diverse small towns in the Rocky Mountain West, with an eclectic mix of ranchers, artists, professors, ski enthusiasts and entrepreneurs drawn hereby world class outdoor recreation, Montana State University and a slice of old fashioned Americana.”

I was also excited about exploring Montana with “S – the reluctant RV’er” as she had never been to Montana before. Business plans in Denver made it easy for her to plan another “work – cation” like her visit to Ouray weeks ago.

With so much to do, it would be an interesting week….More on all this to come….

But first, I promised a footnote about US 191 – turns out 191 for years was one of the bloodiest stretches of roads in Montana…

“Highway 191 is also our symbol of misery…one of the most dangerous stretches in Big Sky Country… Driving 191 requires consistent concentration just to stay alive and out of the other lane of traffic… is often a perilous, ice-covered deathtrap in winter…. winding along the banks of the famous Gallatin River, hidden in the shadows of two mountain ranges, coated with humidity that wafts off the river and then ices over, favored by semi-trailer-truck drivers who always seem harried for time, it is heart-palpitating…”

“The scores of crosses which line 191 symbolize the horror and terror of the highway”

That’s right – white crosses. After getting settled in at the campground, I felt compelled to do a little research…

The drive had been extraordinarily beautiful – but – I was also very disturbed by the absolutely extraordinary number of white crosses along the route – sometimes 1 at a time; sometimes 1 on each side of the road on sharp curves; sometimes in pairs; over 2 dozen crosses on a long stretch before I stopped counting; a corner with 5 crosses; and, then just up the road, another 5 on the opposite side of the road – absolutely incredible – thought-provoking – disturbing…

It seems 191 is one dangerous place…” The weather is a factor; so, too, is the winding, two-lane nature of the road. Speed and poor driving also play a part…dangerous tailgating by truckers…the truckers who often exceed the speed limit, rarely slow down out of caution, ride the bumpers of motorists in front of them, and treat 191 as a shortcut between Idaho Falls and Interstate 90…”

What I discovered in my research was that Montana chapters of the American Legion have been putting up crosses on Montana roads and highways for 50 years. Each one represents one person killed in that spot in a car crash. The crosses are made from scrap metal and painted white. They are mounted on metal poles painted red. Each white cross is 12” wide and 16 “ long.

“They are numerous enough to notice, yet infrequent enough to startle at seeing. They stimulate reverence, sorrow, sympathy, curiosity, and caution. They effect us all, to one degree or another. They are the white crosses that mark the sites of fatal traffic accidents along the highways of Montana. For 50 years, these white crosses have reminded passing motorist of the dangers of the road, as well as the lives, which have been lost on the highways.”

Certainly, US 191 had more than its share of those white crosses – hardly infrequent at all! And, yes, they certainly stimulated in me some reverence, sorrow, sympathy, curiosity, and caution.

However, and thankfully, I have subsequently learned that an “Accident Prevention Program” which includes increased patrols as well as severe restrictions on truck use has helped reduce the fatality rate along this stretch of road.

I was glad to hear from some locals in Big Sky, during my visit there, that things in fact were better …happy to hear that.

Sitting safely in Bozeman, I reflected that I can never take any of this for granted – I have spent almost 6 months on the road living out my dream – others that have passed this way have not been so fortunate – my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families and friends that have lost so much…

So – be safe out there – and, when you pass a cross, or a wreath, or other symbol of highway loss, say a little prayer…

Take care…see you down the road…

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