I’ve lived in Montana for ten years. Richard and I have traveled some throughout the state, but the majority of our adventures surround Yellowstone National Park, which we love and is only two hours away. But within easy reach, about 40 minutes from Billings, are two mountain ranges, the Pryors and the Big Horns.
On Saturday, Richard’s boss, Harold, invited us for a tour of the Pryor Mountain Range. This part of the world has been Harold’s stomping grounds for 88 years – he knows it intimately, or so I thought. It was a beautiful day, sunny with a pleasant cool breeze, and Richard and I were eager for the opportunity. We stopped to get some sandwiches, and off we went!
Montana is affectionately known as “The Big Sky” state. The first time I’d ever heard of anyone who’d been to Montana was Chet Huntley on the NBC evening news. He had a place in, believe it or not, Big Sky, Montana. (If you remember Chet Huntley, you also remember “Our Miss Brooks,” “Captain Kangaroo,” and “Romper Room.” It’ll be our little secret.)
One of the reasons Richard loves Montana is that he can see out for miles. Quite literally, on our weekday drives to work from Billings to Hardin, we would come to the apex of a hill just out of the city and would overlook a vista 50-60 miles off into the distance. He does enjoy an unobstructed view. While I long for the Midwest, I truly understand his awed reverence of what was created, and what humans endured to live and to settle here. It could not have been easy.
The Pryors consist of two large mountain blocks, East Pryor Mountain and Big Pryor Mountain. According to The Pryors Coalition (pryormountains.org):
“They are geologically, ecologically, meteorologically, and culturally unique – an island of mountains rising from the prairie, formed by erosion of uplifted limestone instead of glacier carved granite.”
When Richard and I brought my children here for the first time, I asked them to be mindful of how “big” they were looking. In my mind, that was the best way to describe it. When you visit the northern plains, your perspective changes. Take a look at the picture above. Those little black dots in the grass are cattle grazing. Cattle are not small animals – a bull’s average weight approaches 2,000 pounds, and there’s is a mixture of bulls, cows and calves munching on that grass. So now you have an idea of how “big” you are looking. Not the perspective of a suburban sprawl or an urban metropolis, for sure.
“Pictographs, tepee rings, ancient vision quest sites, and numerous shelter caves in the limestone canyons provide archaeological evidence of human use for at least 10,000 years..”
It’s so very green in the spring. Over the last weeks of spring, southeastern Montana experienced a series of heavy thunderstorms. It made our drive muddy in parts, but nonetheless spectacularly green. Wildflowers, some species unique to the Pryors, were in full bloom. The smell of wild sage rose through the car, as we drove over some not-so-well-defined wheel tracks.
Most of the cattle raised in southeastern Montana are Black Angus. But we did run into a small herd of red Scottish Highland cattle. Along our drive, Richard had to get out of the car to open ranch gates. He counted 32 total for the round trip. And because we were on their grazing territory, he came across more than a few very large cattle. Happily, the cattle were in good moods, probably because of all the good grass surrounding them, and jumped out of the way needing only a little encouragement.
We were well into our drive, when we suddenly came to the top of a big hill – at 5,100 feet elevation. It was beautiful – wild flowers all around, the Big Horn Mountains in the distance, and in the very far distance, barely the tip tops of the Beartooth Mountains covered in snow. Ahhhh . . . real peace and quiet. But the path had dropped off.
“Ah, hey, I don’t think I know where I am,” said Harold.
“Huh?” said Richard and I in unison.
“Yep, it’s time to develop a return strategy.” Harold turned off the car, and we just sat there for a moment, thinking.
Well, what’s a girl gonna do? Turn on the GPS on the cell! I mean, here we were, in the middle of nowhere, and I had service! More than that, the truck-rutted path we took up the Pryors was showing up!!! I was amazed. I mean, really, these are paths made by the few pickup trucks that venture to this area to feed cattle and check on the herd. Not even gravel – more like smushed grass!! And, we were getting voice directions letting us know when and where to turn. A little creepy . . .
Everything turned out fine, before sundown, and before Harold ran out of gas. Richard and Harold decided to retrace our path, although Harold was disappointed we weren’t able to make a loop around, but even he admitted it would be hard without anything resembling a road at all. And my handy GPS followed us all the way back to civilization. Isn’t that a little crazy?
Here’s Richard enjoying his sandwich. Gee – it was such a beautiful day. Doesn’t he look like he belongs!
Thanks, Harold for a real adventure!
If you want to know more about the Pryors Coalition, please visit www.pryormountains.org