Fort Peck

Written by Roy Hall

“You won’t find a hotel room anywhere for the next 300 miles.”

We had stopped in a town called Glasgow, Montana, to gas up. I hail from Glasgow, Scotland, and I was curious to visit the namesake of my hometown. It was nothing like home. Glasgow, Scotland, is a dynamic city with over a million people. The one in Montana has about 3,000 souls, and looks like many small towns across the West, rather run down and past its prime. It was founded as a railroad town in the late 1800s but before that the plains around Glasgow were known for extensive buffalo and antelope herds that fed the nomadic Native American tribes.

This was our third cross-country trip. You have no idea of the scale and magnificent beauty of America until you drive across its endless prairies. This trip took us from New York to Philadelphia to Eastern Ohio, to Chicago and up to Madison, Wisconsin. South of Madison we picked up Route 18, a back road that goes west for over 1,000 miles to Casper, Wyoming. Our destinations were serendipitous, usually decided by the number of miles we wanted to drive that day. We would choose a destination, find a hotel, book it, and head off into the horizon. Using this method, we spent a night in Mason City, Iowa. At first glance it is just one of many Midwestern towns sprawling across the cornfields, but on arriving downtown we booked into a fully restored hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In addition to the hotel, Mason City has quite a few examples of Prairie School architecture, a style developed by Wright and some leading architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A famous son was Meredith Willson who wrote, The Music Man, and modeled River City on it. Who knew?

We continued on to Casper, Wyoming, and caught a rodeo there. We watched “cowboys” (mostly college students) chase, rope, and truss a calf in less than eight seconds. Amazing! Onward from there we went to Jackson Hole, also in Wyoming, where we hiked in the Grand Teton National Park. From there it was over the Teton mountain range to Boise, Idaho, where we met up with a couple who have a ranch a few hours west of the city. On the ranch our friends raise organic beef cattle that thrive on the rich range grassland. One day when out riding, I asked my host, “Where does your land end?” She pointed to the horizon and said, “Somewhere over there.”

From there we went north up to the panhandle and the Snake River. We passed stores with names like “Survival Solutions” and “Survival Enterprises”. We stopped at one grocery store and were met with silence and suspicious looks. Perhaps our old Jaguar with New York plates and blacked out windows had something to do with this. While there I picked up a local newspaper, which apart from being badly written, had an article about the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. It talked about the search and capture of one of the brothers who had planted the bomb. There had been a manhunt and a lockdown while the police searched. The paper described them as “the jackbooted Boston Police” going door to door in their search. I realized that some of the people who lived there had no idea what life in the East was like. Conversely, we had no idea what their life in Idaho was like.

In the middle of the panhandle, we entered the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, a people who used to inhabit most of Idaho, Oregon, and Montana, but had been relegated to a small part of Idaho. We gassed up at a general store and noticed that everyone who worked there wore t-shirts with a likeness of Chief Joseph, a revered heroic figure who had stood up to the army but eventually, to save the remaining members of his tribe, surrendered and agreed to move to the reservation. This happened in the 1870s. It seems that memories are long in this part of the country.

We passed through eastern Washington state and into Montana. At one point our GPS mistakenly took us up a back road that soon turned to gravel and then to dirt. We passed a long-abandoned silver mine, and also some houses ringed with tall fences topped with barbed wire. Large dogs prowled the perimeter so we did a quick U-turn and got the hell out of there. It took us 200 extra miles to get to our next destination in Montana where we visited a friend of ours, Gary, owner of a hi-fi store in Scottsdale, AZ. He was single-handedly building his dream house in a secluded wood near Thompson Falls.

While gassing up my 15-year-old Jaguar in Glasgow, something happened to the pressure in the pump, and I got splattered with gas. After I cleaned up we started a conversation with the owner who told us that because of the boom at the Bakken oil fields down the road (150 miles away) in Williston, North Dakota, no hotels were to be found for hundreds of miles. We asked if there was anything in town. He sent us to a large hotel but there was a railroad convention in town and they were fully booked. (It had never occurred to me that there were enough railroads in the US to hold a convention). I asked the receptionist if there was anything available nearby. She sized us up strangely and said, “You look like you may like the Fort Peck Hotel which is about 20 miles from here.” I called them up and a very friendly woman said she did have a room with a shower if we wanted it. It seemed an odd way to describe the room but I told her we would take it.

The drive to Fort Peck was spectacular. We were on US Route 2, a back road that runs from Everett, Washington, to Duluth, Minnesota, a distance of around 1,700 miles. We had picked it up earlier after spending a night in Glacier National Park. While there we hiked to Gunsight Lake then took a boat ride on Lake McDonald with a guide who was full of facts about the park. As always the National Park Service employees are extremely knowledgeable and courteous. They are truly a national treasure.

Having driven over 3,000 miles from New York, we were now on the way back east. As we approached Fort Peck, we passed buffalo, deer, and elk. We also saw many different types of birds, and as we had done for most of the trip, admired the endless and breathtaking scenery.

In the 1930s the WPA (Works Progress Administration) decided to build a dam in Fort Peck. The WPA was set up by FDR in the depression to provide work and wages for the unemployed. At one time it  employed millions of people and was, in large part, responsible for pulling America out of the depression. It focused on public works like bridges, dams, parks, but also gave jobs to artists, actors, musicians, dramatists, and directors. At one point over 10,000 people worked on the Fort Peck Dam, which, in damming the Missouri river created the Fort Peck Lake.

The Fort Peck Hotel was built in the late-1930s as accommodation for the dam workers. It looks like buildings you see in the Adirondacks: a brown wooden structure with a grey roof. On entering the lobby we were warmly welcomed by the owner. The furniture was rustic and worn, but in a good way. There was a bar, a fireplace with a large seating area; the walls were festooned with taxidermy. All sorts of critters were staring straight at us. The owner explained that we were lucky to get a room because only that day she had kicked out all the residents, rowdy oil workers from Williston, for disrespectful behavior. They disobeyed the rules and used hot plates, which overloaded the old wiring in the hotel. They were now gone and the hotel was very quiet. Our room was tiny and basic: two single beds, a nightstand, and a lamp. A toilet and a shower (obviously later additions) were squeezed into a corner; other rooms had no toilet and no shower. The hotel had been a dormitory when first built, and now it was just one stage above that. We didn’t care as we now had a bed for the night, and were totally seduced by the hotel itself.

We went down to the bar and met the owner’s husband, Carl Mann, who was charming and talkative. Unlike many innkeepers you meet, he was genuinely interested in where we came from and what we did. We asked about his life in Fort Peck. He told us he was an outfitter. Where I come from this means a haberdasher, but out here in the West, this means a man who takes you hunting. If you want a deer or an elk, Carl is the man to help you get it. He was so interesting that we hung around the bar talking, and instead of going out to eat at the only restaurant in the area, we stayed and ate bar food instead. One of the tales he told was about a group of “gentlemen” from New Jersey. They had sent ahead cases of red wine, and every evening after the hunt they would eat enormous portions of food, and drink gallons of wine. Even though they were all rather portly, they were expert shots, and killed quite a few deer. The kill was taken to a local man who butchered, vacuum-sealed, and froze the meat. On the day they left, they put the meat in their suitcases and took it to the airport. If he thought this was strange, he never let on.

He also is a big supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project and takes small groups of wounded veterans, from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, hunting. This affords them the opportunity to bond with other former soldiers, and helps in the healing process and the transition to civilian life.

One of Carl’s many skills was taxidermy; all the animals and birds mounted on the walls were shot and processed by him. My wife asked to buy a bird and we now have a stuffed Gambel’s quail sitting in our living room.

The next day, after a sumptuous breakfast we started driving east on Route 2. About 50 miles down the road, the vista changed dramatically. For two weeks we had been driving through some of the most exquisite scenery in America, and suddenly everything changed. It was like a James Bond movie where 007 goes over a ridge and suddenly an enormous industrial facility stretching out to the horizon comes into view. There were derricks and pipes and warehouses and RVs and pre-fab buildings strewn around at random. The rutted roads were full of large trucks. There were billboards advertising housing—one-bedroom apartments for $2,500 per month, this in rural North Dakota, not New York City. The devastation before us was the result of rampant fracking. The damage was so intense that we decided to leave Route 2 and head south towards Fargo, North Dakota. Because of the density of the traffic (most roads were just two lanes) it took us three hours to leave this tiny town.

Although I had grown up in an industrial city, the shock of witnessing the rape of previously pristine land after travelling for weeks through unparalleled beauty, depressed me profoundly. With heavy hearts, our wounded souls turned towards the East and headed home.

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