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Pandemic Refugees Explore Eastern Montana Oddities

April 10, 2020

April 10, 2020

We love the sparsely populated parts of Eastern Montana.  Oops, redundant.  

Have you read journalist and musician Ed Kemmick’s book, Montana the Lay of the Land, recently published?  He described unusual places in Eastern Montana. 

I liked “Montana’s Niagara Falls,” about Shonkin Sag with its now-dry waterfall in what used to be the course of the Missouri River after the last ice age, 10,000 years ago.  Well, the river channel moved and the waterfall is now about 50 or 60 miles west, near Great Falls.  The sag is another name for the valley eroded by the defunct part of the river.

The sag’s dry falls is on private land, and you face about 10 miles of dirt road, so I didn’t think I’d ever find—much less see—the sag.  

A few years ago at the Lilac restaurant in Billings I found Mr. Kemmick at the bar nursing a. . . lemonade, I think.  He assured me that with a bit of perseverance we too could visit the Shonkin Sag, the dry waterfall, and Lost Lake, a body of water at the foot of the 250-foot falls. 

I had read about the sag in Ed’s Last Best News.  Hard to find a catchier name for a geologic feature, I thought.

With coronavirus distancing, we needed to leave home in our camper van so our grandson could quarantine in our house.  “Good,” we said.

To get used to camping, we stayed at the KOA by the Yellowstone River, in Billings.  Spent three nights there, then north to adventure.

We got to Fort Benton to an RV camp.  Melting snow leaked through the porch roof as I knocked on the office door of a mobile home.  An attractive, older woman, took my $40, and we plugged in our van.  We walked around the fairgrounds.  Then we walked downtown.  Quiet for Saturday evening.  The bars and restaurants were closed for coronavirus.  A gas station/convenience store was open.

Next morning we headed east toward Geraldine from Fort Benton, but after crossing the Missouri we saw sign for a road to Highwood.  We pulled off the highway to think.  And let Gunther relieve his bladder.  Our map showed Highwood to be near Shonkin, so we changed our plans.

In ten miles we got to a sign that said “Shonkin,” and took gravel roads over hill and dale until I thought we were lost.  A pickup headed our way, so I rolled down the window and stuck out my hand.  I asked the young man dressed in camo if he could tell me where the Shonkin Sag was.  

“You just went through it,” he answered.  After prompting, he told us how to find Lost Lake, three miles farther on a muddy road, to a sign telling us to park.  A Subaru was there, so we pulled our camper van behind, then followed some footprints through snow.  

You can’t see the magnificence from the road, but in a short space we viewed the 250-foot deep, perhaps half-mile wide gorge that had birds wheeling on the fluted granite columns of the cliff.  We didn’t get too close to the edge.  Gunther gave me a scare.  We soaked in the magnificence.

Big dry 250-foot waterfall.

Then we drove to Great Falls to a KOA where we stayed two nights.

Because I recently read Margaret Bell’s tale of her childhood at Sand Coulee, near Great Falls, we visited. We saw a bar, a jail, some dugout houses, and a town park with horse shoe pits with horse shoes hanging on the backstops.

Jail in Sand Coulee.

Our computers worked fine pretty much everywhere we camped, so we could look up our questions.  I re-read Mr. Kemmick’s chapter about Shonkin Sag and soon I was aching to visit the Square Butte Granite Quarry.  Turns out the iconic Square Butte is a laccolith, formed by an intrusion of magma between layers of overburden.  Square Butte and the Shonkin dry waterfall are each composed of the same brown granite, called Shonkinite.  During the days of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 until the 1930s, several companies invested in mining Shonkinite at a quarry near Square Butte town, about seven miles east of Geraldine, Montana.

We drove to the town of Square Butte, onto the main street.  I approached a man as he stepped out of his pickup onto the dirt street to check his mail. When I told him I was interested in visiting the quarry, he told me I wouldn’t be seeing it that day because the road was wet.  He said last week a truck from Tire Rama made the mistake of turning south off the highway instead of north and got stuck.  The man said he had to pull the Tire Rama truck out with a back hoe and four-wheel drive tractor.  Obviously we’ll have to wait to see the quarry next go around.

By then we felt like driving to Lewistown for groceries.  Then back on the road again. P.’s mother used to live in Benzien, Montana.

Between Sand Springs and Benzien.

We got to Sand Springs via Grass Range, took a road toward Benzien.  Just a dirt road with no signs.  Arbitrarily took a left fork and drove 10 miles until we encountered a pickup with a couple, perhaps our age.  I learned we took the wrong fork.  P. learned she and the man in the truck were probably distant relatives, through her mother’s side.  His name was Don Rich.  His grandmother was a teacher.  Mr. Rich knew P.’s mother.

Benzien post office.

I felt overwhelmed by the feeling that P.’s mother, who had been postmaster of Benzien during WW II, was acquainted with most all of the folks in the Sand Springs area of Garfield County.  

Lillian’s root cellar near the Benzien post office

Only we didn’t stop at the Rogge ranch because a sign warned us not to approach the house.  Years ago, P. and I went with her mother to visit Edwin and Darlene Rogge at their modest mobile home at the ranch.  Edwin and Darlene took us three on a great tour of a bison ranch in the Missouri breaks down near where the Musselshell joins the Missouri.  

Rogge Ranch.

Looked like rain as we headed back on the dirt road toward Sand Springs and we didn’t want to get stuck in gumbo.

We stopped at the Wolf Cemetery and found Edwin and Darlene’s graves.

 We headed east on the highway to Jordan. We counted 13 dead deer and one live one.  Pronghorns were too numerous to count.

My view of Jordan was tainted by the so-called “Freemen,” a group of criminals who gained notoriety in the late 1990s for claiming freedom from the laws of the United States.  Their “freedom” allowed them to escape debt, print money, and declare sovereignty until they were convicted of fraud and punished.  Jordan is arguably in a remote part of central Montana.  

Only I was surprised at the generosity and friendliness of its citizenry.  The high school used to have a dormitory, but that was razed in favor of an RV park where we were the sole occupants.  Also, gasoline was only $1.51, forty cents cheaper than anywhere else in Montana.

Jordan, Montana.

My impression was that people throughout Eastern Montana were taking seriously the advice to socially isolate themselves to prevent spread of the pandemic.  We saw plexiglas shields in Fort Benton, Great Falls, Billings, Lewistown, and Miles City.  I didn’t see a shield in Jordan, but we visited just one business, a gas station.  Just about everywhere had tape on the floor marking off six-foot distances for people to stay apart.

Lewistown and Billings get the nod for many people wearing face masks.  Certainly all the places we visited had closed their bars and restaurants.

The Great Falls KOA had the good shower facility.  Neither Jordan nor Miles City had a water hookup (too early in the spring).

Next?  After a day in Miles City, we explored Sidney.  I particularly hoped to find my friend Gordon Simard’s grave.  He died in the late 80s, early 90s, of malignant melanoma.  Gordon and I were musicians together with John Herman and our bass player and manager, whose name escapes me, in a band we called “Water.”  Our repertoire consisted of:  Keep on Chooglin,’ Slow Blues, and I Ain’t Superstitious.  Just those three songs, but we’d play each one twenty minutes each.  We didn’t have enough material for a show of our own, so we usually did gigs with another group.  We didn’t play many gigs, either.  One in the UM University Center ballroom, one in Helena at the Civic Center, and a half-dozen at the roller skating rink on Higgins Avenue where we practiced in an upstairs apartment.  I want to think we played in the Monk’s Cave in Missoula, but that might be a false memory.

I did not find Gordon’s grave, but I found a Simard family plot at the Sidney cemetery.  Gordon was too much a counter-culture type for burial in a family plot, I’m thinking.

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One Comment
  1. Blaine Ackley permalink

    This is quite a journey of discovery for you two, Dan. What a tale! And I learned about the Sorkin Sag. :)B


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