Missoula, MT to Basin, MT and then on to Billings

We spent December/January in the winter of 2007-08  in Basin, Montana (between Butte and Helena), and so on Thursday in the summer of 2012, we found ourselves irresistibly drawn south to that hamlet in a dip in the mountains.

We lazily took Interstate 90 along the Clark Fork River. (I had called it Clark’s Fork; Jer thought maybe Clarks Fork; we both stood corrected as it is Clark, as in “Lewis and…”. Duh!)

Interstate 90 goes through such terrific territory (as does the next, I-15 between Butte and Helena) that we decided they built the interstate and then hired artists to decorate it. It’s clear that the highways dictate the landscape.

Route 12 (which we rejoined in Helena on Friday) is an intimate road, with dappled sunlight and tight valleys. The Interstates, on the other hand, take an expansive view of life — panoramas rather than sparkling waters and ponderosa needles.

We found we were increasingly excited as we got closer to I-15. Even Butte, which is a horror of environmental degradation, was a place we came to like a lot. It looked, from the interstates, just as it had in 2007 -2008 — dominated by the Anaconda Copper Mine, which takes up at least 1/4 of the town’s territory.

Watching over Butte, and dropping mercy on a place that needs all it can get, is the Madonna, a huge sculpture that can be seen from everywhere in the territory.

We didn’t go into Butte, being eager to get to Basin and see our friends. We turned back north on I-15, up over the Continental Divide, and to the Basin exit past the Silver Saddle Saloon:

Basin hasn’t changed much. We were amused at our desire to see all the things we remembered: the thermometer that we had been able to check from the apartment/studio in December and January, the instrument which made us feel heroic during our prolonged residence,  no longer exists. The Montana Artists Refuge sign was still there (a new one, with a flying raven), but the actual residencies have gone. The building is being rented, reasonably, and we were told we could come back for another couple of months and paint and wikipedia. But the old magic is a bit lost.

The village, however, mostly looks just the same.

We checked in with MJ and Nancy, put our luggage into the Stone House, where we were staying, and spent the rest of the day and evening socializing with Patrick, Rhandi, Bryher, Sean, Debbie, and Mary, the dancer staying in the upstairs studio of the old Residency building. At twilight, as we were admiring the stacked stone in Basin Creek, Willow and Dave and their nine-month-old baby caught up with us. The baby, with her unspellable Gaelic name pronounced EeeFa, stole our hearts completely. We spent another half hour, making the baby smile at our antics and checking in with the two adults. Then back to the Stone House, panting in the 6000 foot altitude, where we fell exhausted into bed.

[The Stone House, our lodging in Basin]

The next morning we left early, avoiding the goodbyes we knew we’d have to face if we dallied. We went north to Helena, to the Historical Society Museum, (which has a set of my Basin paintings that we didn’t go looking for, since I know what they look like). We checked out a fine exhibit of drawings by a local artist, Newman Myrah. He also did many paintings, but his drawings, particularly those he did while in the service in the occupation in Japan after WWII,  captured us most. We also saw an exhibit of Ledger Art by various named and unnamed Indians, who drew and painted on a variety of materials. In captivity (and at the Indian Schools to which the children were sent) the artists were often given old ledgers to draw on, and so these drawings, regardless of what they were done on, are known collectively as “Ledger Art.”

And then, back on Route 12, headed toward Billings:

Route 12 is touted as a scenic route through south central Montana. We were skeptical, but are now convinced. It’s a great way to cross a very wide state. Wheat farming, range lands, mountain forests, wonderful skies — they were all there.

It probably helped that the skies were full of wonderful clouds and the day cool and breezy. Even the road construction was fascinating, because Route 12 was being deconstructed and reconstructed, not merely repaired. We say enormous machines tearing away at stone mountain faces, making space for a highway that apparently had disappeared into the canyon below at some time in the past.

And we were very smart, before we came to the first ten-mile stretch of crazy deconstructed pavement, to have stopped to lunch and refresh at a Forest Service recreation area on a small reservoir. The coup de grâce was the presence of the most important facility.

I made Jer check this out before I made use of it. It was, in fact, fairly charming, if one could disregard its rather primitive nature. Quite clean, built entirely from wood with a square seat — and extremely useful before hitting the 25 mile an hour construction.

From Rt 12 we took rt 3 south to Billings to our motel, having traveled a tad under 300 miles, but not arriving until after 5 PM. A decent day’s adventure.

Tomorrow we will drop a bit further south to the Custer battle field, a place that has fascinated me since I studied Plains history in Kansas. It will be a short day, and we will be staying at another Best-Western-with-WiFi, so probably another blog will follow shortly. –June

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12 Responses to Missoula, MT to Basin, MT and then on to Billings

  1. nancy says:

    You two do road trips so well. Thank you for including me in the journey.


  2. Kristin McNamara Freeman says:

    Hopefully the fires will not prevent you from traveling on to the Custer battlefield….some pretty fast moving fires on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Your photos for your Friday travels are wonderful…think I need to do a trip to see my sister in Billings after I go to Boulder for the women’s retreat in September. Really enjoying traveling along with you, June. On the internet you can see “Back Roads of Montana” a great video showcase that has a story about the Madonna in Butte.
    Looking forward to your Saturday wanderings!


    • june says:

      No problem at all at the Little Bighorn. Well, no problem but all the other tourists. Really, I don’t know why other people need to see what we need to see…. Glad you have joined the trip and I’ll check out the Back Roads of Montana when my brain starts working again. Someday.


  3. Carla says:

    Those roads, vegetation, and clouds show why Montana is called “Big Sky.” Butte, is possibly one of the uglies places around but it has person to person the most genuine and honest people I have ever met. Of course, I always am reminded of their grit when I see Our Lady of the Rockies.


    • june says:

      They now call this the Treasure State. I like Big Sky Country better, myself. My camera can’t do the sky like I can see it, but it’s a reminder of the glories of the space. And you are right about Butte.


  4. Diane says:

    And how could almost 5 years have passed since you were at the residency? My….


  5. Diane says:

    Keep up the good work! The clouds are stunning. The outhouse a hoot and a holler….or however that saying goes.


  6. Del Thomas says:

    Oh, I wish I were there. I love the high open country and the wonderful clouds. Although I usually stick to the Interstate highways because I seem to be always fighting a deadline, those “blue highways” are so… satisfying! When I drove through Butte in June I did not see any Madonnas, just the huge mining scar on the hillside. Guess I will have to go back some day!


    • june says:

      Check out Kristin’s info in her comment above. The madonna is a tribute, really, to the miners who did the work for Anaconda. They definitely needed mercy.


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