The fog has been thick the past few days. Mornings are wet. A clear, starry, 3am sky turned thick gray at dawn. The tent floor and walls were soaked from the heavy condensation on the fly sagging on the bent tent poles. The zippers are not so zippy anymore and the beds, bedding and bags are damp to the touch.
It’s like getting stuck in a rainstorm wearing a cheap raincoat on your bare body. It could have been a 3rd night on the American Prairie but instead of our normal rise and go routine, the fog slowed us down and made us think, what’s the rush.
At Antelope Creek campground you get a hot shower, clean dishes, fully charged batteries and stronger WIFI than our best libraries and McDonald’s. But you also get a soaked tent, 40 mph winds and mud so thick they make bricks out of it and give it its own name, “Gumbo.”
We live the opposite life in Florida – copious amounts of pickleball, thrifting and heat. Also copious eating, streaming and internet reading. Showers outnumber people in the house. Sometimes we forget that we can do other things because the world is good at providing copious means to consume all our time.
It’s 250 to Miles City with views of wheat, sage, Pronghorn and cattle. There are silos and tractors, wind turbines and tiny towns with one gas station and a casino. Grass Range is about the halfway point where you can buy the “Ole Merc” for $1.2M. Includes a gas station, market, restaurant, RV park and apartment on 3 acres. We took a prospectus but haven’t called Travis yet.
There’s nothing to do but get a stretch at Ol Merc, buy a 12 pack of Kettlehorn Scotch Ale and relax into the drive, listening to local talk radio on the AM dial or singing along to 70s on 7 on XM. Except we have to figure out where we’re staying. There’s a BLM recreation area and a fish and wildlife preserve, plus a winery that will let you tent in their yard. It’s good to have options.
Tongue River Vineyards is open all the time, it just looks closed. When you arrive, you call a phone number and the owner or a neighbor will come right over and give you a tasting. In Montana, people are practical. Why wait behind a counter on the chance that someone comes in when you should be doing something productive. Retired Kathy appeared within minutes and poured us 6 reds, 4 whites and 2 fruits cause it was more fun than doing laundry. The owners only use Montana grapes and promise they’ll never taste like their fancy Napa Valley cousins. No problem there. Kathy spilled on the town that’s been her home since she was 10 then sent us to BLM to camp.
There’s an old Army Vet keeping watch at Matthews Recreation Area where the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers meet, 6 miles outside of town. There’s no wifi, electric, showers or even water for that matter, but there is a pit toilet and free camping with picnic table, fire ring and grill. We pick the group area because it is closest to the hike-in point and oddly set up on a dozen picnic tables. Our only neighbors are two young scruffy guys working the wind turbine farm about an hour away who have tucked their tents into the brush for privacy. The jobs on the wind farm pay $33/hour and it’s 12 on 12 off. A tent on BLM cuts expenses if you can handle it. There are showers at the CENEX and water too if you bring your empty milk jug in with you. You’ll hear the rushing Yellowstone, whistling cargo trains and the roar of the occasional diesel truck running hay.
Every bar is also a casino in Miles City. They have every national chain store you need in 3 square miles. Out of food and clean clothes, it was chore day. Mile City is like that. It is a working Montana town not a tourist attraction. Doing chores feels right. Unlike Kathy, we like doing laundry. In Florida we do laundry everyday because we sweat so much. Here we wear the same things over and over until they are too smelly or stained to see another day. So laundry is now something to look forward to. All these pioneer museums remind us that life used to be really hard. The extreme weather reminds us that nature is in charge.
There’s one 24 hour laundromat in town. The owner’s mother was on duty this morning, emptying buckets and buckets of quarters from the busy weekend. She reports that her daughter is “killing it,” with pride. One laundromat and one grocery store later and Boss is replenished. Home prices in Billings, Bozeman, and Kalispell are now out of reach for working Montana folk but Miles City is still undiscovered by the out-of-towners. The population this year is actually a few folks less than the year prior, and that is probably a good thing. You can drive your pick-up right down onto the banks of the Yellowstone river and fish and grill undisturbed. You can start a winery and sell grapes that they snub their noses at in Napa. If you have never heard of Miles City, that is probably just the way they like it.