Before you get to the part of Montana that is the reason why many people go to Montana (mountains, lakes, trees), there is about a week-on-a-bike’s worth of lumpy prairie land that makes up 3/4 of the state. It’s the kind of terrain that makes me think about continental drift and dinosaurs and the flip-flop between oceans and deserts over eons. Here, people drive 3 hours to get to a grocery store (east to Bismark or south to Billings) and the air is thick with wind. It is tumbleweed country, and it’s where we met Ruth and Dave.
They were happy to drive us to our destination, but also insisted on taking a 2 hour detour to see the Fort Peck dam. “It’s the biggest in the world,” Dave told us. “Until China built a bigger one.” From the backseat window, I watched the shrubby ocean floor of yesteryear pass by and then eventually blur into a blue that stretched to the horizon. Fort Peck Lake looked a lot like the ocean. Rather than salt water though, it’s filled with fresh Missouri River water, dammed to generate power for Montana’s energy grid.
Construction for the dam began in 1933 as part of the New Deal and brought in over 10,000 workers plus their families to the otherwise undeveloped area. Aside from dam building there wasn’t much going on in the consequential town of Fort Peck. Until ! In 1934, the newly constructed Fort Peck Theatre started screening movies 24/7. The theater held audiences of over 1,000 then and now.
“When Beauty and the Beast showed,” Ruth (huge Disney fan, wearing a Disney baseball hat and sweatshirt) told us, “people were turned away at the door.” The July Thursday that we showed up on was Cabaret Night at the theater. The local company performed singles from a lot of Broadway hits I have never seen. I was as much entertained by the show as I was by the other audience members and the establishment itself. There was a concession stand selling popcorn and hot dogs like it was a high school football game. Having witnessed firsthand the sparseness of the region, I had to imagine people came from far and wide and yet the small-town community feel was completely in tact. It was a time and space warp. Time warp because here was a theater that actually served as a space for townsfolk to convene a la The Globe. Space warp because eastern Montana is at once small and enormous.
Next to the theater, there’s a museum with one exhibit. “You know the big T-Rex skeleton in D.C.? It’s called Peck’s Rex,” Ruth said. “My neighbor found that in her backyard. This one’s just the cast of it.”
Dave didn’t care for cabaret, but he did care for Pizza Hut and brought us back a stuffed crust pie from Glasgow that we ate in the car on our way to the Flowing Wells Rest Area, where we unloaded our bikes, hugged Dave and Ruth goodbye and set up camp.
Take-away: Though you’re seeing everything you pass on a bike in finely saturated detail, there’s some gems you could be passing because a 30 mile detour would derail your whole agenda. If you notice something off your route (this is why it’s also good to have a regional map in addition to the Adventure Cycling maps), a thumbs-up and a pick-up can get you places.