May 12, 2021

Dateline: Billings, Montana

Today was a straight 540 mile shot on I-90. Not so straight as it’s primarily through mountain country so lots of ups, downs, S-curves, slow trucks, views of lakes, mountain peaks, and rushing rivers that only needed a young Brad Pitt in hip waders to be complete. The weather is holding. There is no gas shortage in this part of the country. Hampton Inns are pretty much the same everywhere you go. (They offer major Hilton points at the moment…)

From Spokane, the road curves along Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho while crossing the panhandle, and then climbs up into the mountain country of Western Montana. The passes were all clear of snow, even at the 6500 foot level of the Continental Divide outside of Butte. All of the clusters of mountains have range names but they are part of the same cordillera that contains the Rockies so I have always thought of them as the northern Rockies. Once up in the high plateau, it’s mainly the broad river valleys of the Missouri headwaters and the Yellowstone, bypassing the park on it’s northern border and after passing through Missoula and Bozeman, eventually arrives at Billings which was far enough to go in one drive.

Whitefish Montana

Many long years ago, I spent a month or so in Western Montana, north of Kalispell, in the little town of Whitefish. (Long before it became a trendy Western mecca for the well heeled). I was there to do my rotation in Family Practice and attached to a group of FPs that were the major providers in town and were first call to the ED. As a fourth year student, I was responsible for the after hours ED calls to do a preliminary evaluation and warrant whether a ‘real’ doctor needed to be woken up. Drunk tourist with a bellyache? I could handle that. Gored by bull. As the wound was in the belly, that had to be loaded up in an ambulance and taken to Kalispell for surgical evaluation. Fell off a horse on a trail ride? Colle’s risk fracture. Apply splint and help them arrange for orthopedic follow up when they got back home to Minnesota. It was one of the experiences that taught me how to think well on my feet and one which kept me from being afraid of rural medicine or of delivering care without a tertiary care university hospital hovering behind me. Whitefish is just outside of Glacier National Park, so I was in the park on day hikes every day off. I got one long weekend during my time there and used that to head up to Banff/Jasper where I had not been since I was a tot of four. (A trip long remembered in family lore as the engine fell out of the car in the middle of the Banff Jasper highway leading to a number of complications…)

Large adult male black bear

I want to go back to Glacier/Banff/Jasper/Waterton Lakes as a mature adult and see them all again. Perhaps after I retire, I’ll take a leisurely trip out to Seattle and spend some time going all the way up the Rockies from Denver taking in the Tetons, Yellowstone, and the others mentioned above. Then again, I might skip Waterton Lakes. The last time I was there, around age 12, a deer came up to me in the campground. When I had nothing to feed it, it reared up on its hind legs and planted both its forehooves in the middle of my chest, knocking me over, before stalking off in search of another campsite where they might be freer with the treats. My encounters with deer and elk this trip have been less dramatic, just having seen them in passing from the car. No bear this trip. I can do without seeing a grizzly in the wild but I don’t mind the occasional black bear encounter though. I’ve had a number of those over the years. The bear is usually not at all interested and ambles off another direction. The only one that was at all unusual was when I was four on the same Banff trip when the car fell apart. My mother was reading to me in the tent when our dog, Duffy, a West Highland White terrier who was tied up outside, began to bark. This was unusual so she stuck her head out of the tent to find a large black bear pawing at the things in the next campsite. My mother scooped me up and took off down the road (and I remember her running with me in her arms quite clearly) and took refuge at the ranger station. My father, when he came back from dealing with car trouble, was glad we were OK (the bear having been chased off by the rangers) but was upset at my mother for having not grabbed up the dog at the same time she grabbed me. The dog was fine. The bear wasn’t the least bit interested in yapping terriers.

Down from the mountains and onto the plains tomorrow.

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