Alberta into Montana: Seamless Prairies and Big Sky

Western Alberta is astoundingly beautiful. Gently rolling grassland—as far as you can see—for hours of driving. I’m sure we saw lots of cattle and horses, but the land is so vast that they seemed like only a handful scattered around. In some places, the grass was so tall when we drove through that they’d look like they were swimming.

I caught a glimpse of one beastie that looked just like a wolf. I googled to see if there even were wolves in the area, and damn if they’re not there, and a problem for the cattle. I found an article about a rancher who was being praised for his no-kill wolf-control techniques, such as how he’d move his cattle in a way that would avoid “ringing the dinner bell” for the wolves. He did have to kill two wolves in a pack that was being followed by a grizzly bear: the wolves would kill a cow, and then the bear would scare them off and eat it. What a scene that would have been to watch! Not so exciting for the rancher, though.

Lesalle Lake, Alberta

I get exhausted when we stop for just the night and have a long travel day, then stop for just the night again, on repeat. So much packing up the trailer and unpacking and hitching and unhitching; I have no idea how Tracy does the driving on top of that.

To give me a break, we stayed a couple of nights on a lake in southern Alberta. (We also needed to eat our food and drink our beer to leave us with the limit we could take over the border in Montana.)

At this stop, I had this fascinating encounter with a three-generation family who pulled into the day-use area while I was sitting by the boat dock in the sun; it started when the grandfather saw my Woodie Guthrie t-shirt and invited me to their bluegrass circle that night, in a very friendly manner.

I’ve tried to tell this story twice now and I never get it right. The gist is that I walked away from the evening thinking about what an odd group they were, but, on reflection, it was me who may have been the odd one.

I’d been busy trying to read their behavior. For example, clue #1 for them being Seventh-Day Adventists or Pentecostals was that they played only songs about Jesus and heaven and said they’d play secular ones once the sun went down. And it was Saturday. Like I said, I was so busy trying to figure them out that I never noticed how weird I must’ve been. From their standpoint (especially if the grandfather didn’t mention he’d invited me), I appeared out of nowhere and intruded on their sabbath. I’ve unpacked that night over and over and still am not sure whether they were having a lovely family evening and truly thought, “The more the merrier,” (the grandmother actually said that) or if I was a wayward stranger in need of fellowship and they were being super polite. Did they sit around that night trying to figure me out as much as I did them? Why was I there?

Man, was the daughter great with her mandolin, and the son’s banjo was very sweet accompanied by the grandfather on guitar. They asked what songs I know how to play, and when I said, “Suddenly, all the songs I know are about drinking and guns and sex,” we all laughed uproariously.

Banff, Alberta

We’ve basically sworn off national parks because the crowds make them too much like Disneyland. This time there just was no way to get south to where we wanted to cross the border in Montana without going near Banff, and Tracy found a campsite that had just opened for two nights, so Banff it was.

This is Mount Robson, which, when we saw it, made us feel just like when we saw Denali. We had looked all morning long for this famed mountain. I even had pictures of it in my lap as we drove, and we’d say, “Is it that one? Maybe that one?” We turned a corner and bam there is was, so clearly Mount Robson that we laughed. (Sorry for my lame photo; it’s out the windshield of the truck.)

Banff was lovely but as crowded as we feared. We had exactly one day so we picked a hike we could do that morning, but we when drove out to the trailhead it was closed, so we had to pick another hike, and by the time we got there it was 10 am and we knew we were screwed.

We climbed a small summit, took some photos, and then started down and had to say, “Good morning” to every single damned person coming up, like a receiving line. You have to just finally turn your head away so no one speaks to you, it’s terrible. They’re meeting very few people on the trail on their way up (everyone else is also going up), so they have no idea how many people we have to say hi to on our way down. It’s not hiking, it’s a stranger meet-and-greet.

We did see this Northern Pygmy-Owl that was loud and adorable and a new one for Tracy.

Townsend, Montana

Our final border crossing—the one we feared the most—was smooth. We’d heard of trailers being searched, border agents being real jerks, body searches, and food thrown out, on and on. Ours just asked the usual questions and moved us through. YAY! Back to the Lower 48 after three months of being away.

God, Montana is beautiful. I’d nearly forgotten. We stayed on a reservoir of the Missouri, near Helena so we could buy new tires, and near Townsend so we could visit our good friend Tom. We got to see him on this same lake last Labor Day and while dodging forest fires the summer before. A Tom day is a good day, no matter where.

He took us on a masonry walking tour of downtown Townsend, having done a lot of the masonry himself. The tour included pizza and lots of joking around—we even got a brilliant reenactment of Tom’s famous “plank skit” with David Letterman when Tom was working on his house in Montana. It’s true.

Seriously, it is so good to see friends. Tom joked he hadn’t seen anyone different in a month. Dude, I see that month and raise you several more.

Reunion in Bozeman

In Bozeman, we were able to have lunch with Tyll, whose converted delivery truck I toured on Mars last winter.

Tyll no longer lives on the road and no longer runs Nomad Center Camp or Van Aid at Quartzite. And is he glad of that! He’s the type of person who has to retire from retired life. He’s still playing ukulele though, and we made the most of lunch in the park talking about that and the podcast we’re both obsessed with, A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs. Long live friendships.

4 thoughts to “Alberta into Montana: Seamless Prairies and Big Sky”

  1. My husband spent two weeks in Montana a few years ago for his job and still can’t stop talking about it. And no apologies necessary, the mountain shot is lovely.

    1. We spent part of a summer all over Montana in the trailer and I lived for a couple of years before that in western Montana – it really is glorious.