Day 2: A Nat’l Park and a Whole Lotta Montana

Today we found the exact Middle of Nowhere.  In case you weren’t aware of its precise location, it’s in eastern Montana.  Before I get to that, however, let’s start from the beginning.

World’s Largest Holstein Cow

We were up, showered, breakfasted, and on the road by a respectable 8:30 AM.  While I had initially thought we might get an earlier start, it turned into a fortuitous move not to go any earlier because it was still relatively dark outside.  I guess when you are in Bismarck and that close to the Arctic Circle daylight is in short supply this time of year.  The reason we needed light, however, was because we were just 32 mere miles down I-94 from New Salem, ND, home of Salem Sue.  And Salem Sue just happens to be the World’s Largest Holstein Cow, thankyouverymuch.  Not only that, but she is also the largest of all the World’s Largest attractions we’ve seen thus far, standing at 38 feet tall and 50 feet long.  She’s an absolute beaut and can be seen for miles and miles.  We admired her for quite some time before moving along, as we had another long driving day ahead of us.

I’d first like to take a moment to thank North Dakota for installing such a variety of quality roadside stops.  It was really very kind of you, adds a great deal of value, and we enjoyed each and every one.  But we really would like to know:  why are there so many cell towers littering the landscape?  We’ve never seen so many and it’s kind of a blight on otherwise remarkably unremarkable scenery.

Our next stop was on a bit of whimsy, as it was (gasp) unplanned!  For those who may not know, we had originally decided this trip was largely going to be by the seat of our pants with only a couple of committed stops.  The problem was, Jim and I chose this trip a month or so in advance and I couldn’t help but peek at the internet to see what sights might befall us.  Peeking turned into gawking, and gawking turned into mental note taking, and since mental notes are always promptly forgotten, that turned into typing notes into Word.  And that turned into 21 pages of notes.  And an itinerary.  And Jim’s disbelief.  The damage was done, but we agreed we’d also try to be a little spontaneous and not completely beholden to the itinerary, which was evidenced by the fact we blew right past Otto the Big Otter, right?  But back to our unplanned stop, we decided to put our America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass to good use and call in on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western edge of North Dakota.

As we neared the park the topography almost instantly changed from miles and miles of shades of brown to reddish clay canyons and prairielands.  We’d entered the Dakota Prairie Grasslands right at Painted Canyon, which was quite a welcome change in scenery.  We arrived to the park and popped into the first Visitor’s Center we saw to get a map and a plan, and found we were the only ones in the place.  All right, first ones here!  The kid working the Visitor’s Center was less than enamored by our arrival status and we were hard-pressed to get any discernible information out of him.  Undeterred, we continued to pump him for as much park wisdom he would reticently part with and together we came up with a plan.  And he even vaguely pointed to where we could find a map.  Ok, two for two!  Back in the car we got our cameras and peepers ready, as the Visitor’s Center kid had let it slip there were bison herds out there somewhere.  Imagine that, bison!

Part of the Deer Welcoming Committee at Theodore Roosevelt Nat’l Park

Our plan was to do part of the Scenic Loop Drive, the part that was supposed to have the most wildlife.  As soon as we officially started the drive there were 3 deer by the road waiting to greet us.  Ok, this was off to a very good start.  We continued the drive past the beautiful and interesting landscape of red bentonite clay and sandstone features , which passed a Prairie Dog Town that is exactly as it sounds.  There were mounds everywhere that most certainly housed Prairie Dogs, but it was only 10:30 AM and they were still sleeping.  I can’t blame them, as it was cold, gray, and overcast outside.  The road went on up and around and we looked and looked for bison and other assorted wildlife but were coming up empty.  Eventually we reached the point where we had pre-determined we would turn around to head back and we wondered: were there really only 3 deer in this park?  Just to make sure we weren’t this/close to the bison herd just over the bluff, we got out of the car and did a little hike.  I say little because we walked about 50 yards from the car to an overlook and back.  Nothing.  Not even a bird.

A real live coyote!

Crestfallen, we returned to the car and set out to leave and instead of driving 10 MPH and searching high and low for animal movement we clipped along at the speed limit.  Not 2 minutes away we spotted a coyote that stopped to watch us when we stopped to watch him.  It was awesome and he sat very still while we photographed him.  It then dawned on Jim that maybe if we acted like we didn’t care one bit about seeing wildlife they would then start to turn up.  Sure enough, just a bit further down the road we passed Prairie Dog Town and who was out and about but a bunch of Prairie Dogs.  Oh, were they fun to watch and I know I could have sat there for hours listening to their squawking and watching their undertakings.  As we moved on, we also started to notice a fun-looking type of bird that we later learned was the Black-Billed Magpie.  This national park went from bust to must very quickly, even though the bison managed to win the game of hide-n-seek.  Really, how does one miss an animal the size of a small car?

Prairie Dog Town

We still had a lot of ground to cover, so we had to make haste and move on.  The ramp to I-94 West was right there so we were soon back onto it and almost as quickly as the topography had changed before, it was right back to where we started with miles and miles of shades of brown.  However, as soon as we entered Montana we noticed there were very few (if any) billboards and the cell towers were non-existent.  Where North Dakota seemed strangely industrial and moon-like, Montana was very rugged and moon-like.

There were a couple of stops tentatively planned in Montana, but the weather was really turning sour on us and the unplanned National Park stop had put us a little behind the eight-ball time-wise.  So we whizzed right past Glendisaurus, the Giant Dinosaur Statue in Glendive, MT, without a second thought and stayed the course, going west across Montana via the less-traveled Highway 200 rather than I-94/90 because we were headed to Great Falls, which was in the northern part of the state.  And that course brought us to the exact Middle of Nowhere, which brings us to where we started this post.  The Middle of Nowhere is an interesting and quizzical place, bringing an abundance of questions and observations.  For instance, should you be one of the select few inhabitants of Middle of Nowhere, do you make you make your own soap and shampoo?  Where do you put your garbage?  You certainly can’t let your gas tank get below half full because it takes at least half a tank to get to Somewhere.  And where did all those black angus cows come from and how did they wind up in the Middle of Nowhere?  How do they get rounded up and how do you find them all, especially that wayward one we’d see every so often who was over by himself?  What do you do if you didn’t like your nearest neighbor?  Do you ever get tired of your own cooking?  By the way, one of the criteria for being the Middle of Nowhere is if you can walk out onto your front porch and see what the weather will be like in two days, you’re there.  We were also full of (more) admiration for Lewis and Clark, because if we were having troubles staying awake in the car at 75 MPH in the Middle of Nowhere, how do you think they felt – on foot?

Our vantage point of The Exact Middle of Nowhere

Jim also had a few observations, saying he was no longer concerned about population density with such vast expanses to move to.  He also decided we couldn’t move here, as each homestead had to be at least 10,000 acres and he was worried we wouldn’t be able to afford all the No Hunting signs I’d need to put up along the perimeter.  I also wondered aloud where and how you’d get to the nearest doctor, and he was quiet for a moment before thoughtfully saying if you were born here you were most certainly born at home.

The Middle of Nowhere is really big and the drive went on for several hours.  We finally got to Lewistown, home of a bar where there is a creek running under it and you can see it through the plexiglass floor but we were both so tuckered from the drive and it was raining pretty hard so we opted to keep going.

While today’s drive was shorter than yesterday’s it sure seemed to take an eternity longer.  We finally arrived to Great Falls around 5:30 PM and were pleased to find more-than-satisfactory lodging at the Townhouse Inn Great Falls.  Oh, and did I mention it was snowing by this point?  Yes, yes it was, and the news indicates our destination tomorrow is expecting up to 20 inches.  Hmm.  This may throw a monkey wrench into the day’s plans, but we’re ready for the challenge.  Just as soon as we buy an ice scraper.

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  1. Marcie M

     /  October 24, 2012

    Hi…Phyllis sent me your blog. Glad you went to Teddy Roosevelt. In summer the little town of Medora is rather fun..with an outdoor musical and pitchfork fondue! About the cell towers…sometimes when my brother is driving across the state ( lives in Minot) and talking to me, we lose somehow even all those towers don’t guarantee power! And finally, the Capitol building is referred to as the “skyscraper on the prairie”. Enjoy your travels! Marcie

    • howieroll

       /  October 24, 2012

      Thanks for the insight! We noticed the tall Capitol building in Bismarck and thought it was the tallest building we saw for miles and miles – we can see why it earned that nickname.

  2. Greetings! I found your blog on tripadvisor whilst perusing the road trip forums. I’m planning my own road trip for next summer (yes, that far in advance) so I thought I’d check out this blog. I just wanted to tell you that….
    1. I really enjoyed this post. Your writing has great voice; it is informative and entertaining. Thank you for that. I will be reading all of your road trip posts, as you went to (and through) maybe places I will be visiting.
    2. Your photos are lovely–once I click on them and make them larger. The middle of nowhere photo is great. Yep–looks pretty middle of nowhere-ish to me!
    3. This is a warning: you said on tripadvisor that you started this blog to keep in touch with family while traveling. Well, consider yourself warned–I did the same thing four years ago, and now I have a blogging habit that I won’t even begin to explain. Wait no–I’ve explained it in a post on my blog! Here it is:

    Consider yourself warned!

    I shall continue reading your road trip posts now. Thanks in advance!

    • howieroll

       /  November 17, 2012

      Thanks for the kind words, I appreciate it! I also appreciate the blog warning – I can see where this could get out of hand quickly, especially since this is the first time I’ve ventured out into public space with it. And thanks for your blog link, I will certainly check it out.

      Enjoy your trip planning, and let me know if you have any questions. I’m no expert, of course, but always have an opinion. haha!

      • Oh, don’t worry–I’ll ask questions! I have an actual giant board-of-planning going on right now (it involves many, many sticky notes and a self-made calendar spanning June, July, and August 2013). AND I’m reading your posts. So…yeah. Nice to meet you. I’m Tracy. I”ll be lurking around your blog for the next few days. Talk to you soon!

  3. Niamh

     /  November 18, 2012

    Like Tracy, I also followed the link you posted on the TA road trip forum. Really enjoying your report so far, it’s so entertaining, you have a great way with words.

    One question though, is that a UFO on the left hand side of your middle of nowhere pic!!!

    • howieroll

       /  November 18, 2012

      While it could easily be a UFO in the Middle of Nowhere, as it could go undetected for days on end, that is actually a chip in the windshield of our rental car and I am happy to report that it was not our doing, it was there when we picked up the car.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Christine

     /  September 30, 2016

    I’m reading this on my cell phone and the pictures of the animals are small but I can’t help but remark on how well camouflaged they are. Their coloring matches the brown brown lands so well!

    Safe travels! I’m reading along for once!


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