In 1862, Congress opened up the west by “giving away” 160 acres to anyone who could live on it for five years. Driving across the Hi-Line it is obvious that no one in Congress then (or now) has any idea of what they are doing. 160 acres is so little land out on the Hi-Line that it would be a joke to think that you could live off of it. Multiply that number by ten, then ten again and you have a chance.
Our dream “off grid” property was 30 miles north of Havre, MT and numbered 95 acres. That sounded like a lot in the online write up. It looked like a lot when we could see the buildings eight miles out. It was a postage stamp sized property in comparison to the farms surrounding it when we arrived.
It was also the postage stamp sized property where the U.S. Air Force built a radar site during the Cold War that could withstand nuclear war, and now it was for sale. What a nuclear war between the U.S. and the C.C.C.P. failed to do quickly, time accomplished at its own speed. The base was intact and recognizable, also covered in Montana wheat colored grass. The massive concrete block structures survived the 50+ harsh Montana winters.
The sign for the Commissary marked the central shopping area. An auto depot with 2 high bays and three low bays looked inviting. Four deep water wells and two massive windmill power plants stood by ready to serve the uninhabited base. They did not work, but we were sure it would be no problem to get the 100 feet wind mill generating power. The potential use possibilities were endless. Our heads were spinning.
The realtor old us everything was open, go on out and let her know if we were interested after that. We were greeted by the Border Patrol who use the 100 feet above ground bomb shelter to monitor the northern Canadian border just 10 miles away. Montana is where Border agents go to rest after a tour on the southern border, or so he claimed. We were not the first property hunters to have been through. We picked his brain for use cases but he could not come up with anything better than using it as a high-ground lookout perch.
There just is not enough land to farm, and all those solid block buildings needed millions to be habitable. And yet, we stood in awe of the view, the solitude, the natural beauty and the uniqueness of the base. It just needs a billionaire with a vision for the most unique executive off-site venue. Or perhaps, an elite athlete training facility. Better yet, an arts and music retreat for McArthur Fellows. We have the vision, but not the billions.
The doors are actually unlocked. And when they weren’t windows were broken to get inside. There are some signs of squatters, but in the end, even squatters can’t squat for long here. It is too remote and too harsh. In the winter, the string wind blows the snow into 10 foot drifts across the roads. It is beautifully remote and unforgiving, like the Hi-Line. We made camp in that remoteness, all alone on the shore of a lake south of Havre.
The day started overcast and mild and ended cold, rainy, and windy. Somewhere in the middle of that change we cooked, read, hiked, and slept. Every once in awhile, a car could be heard in the distance transiting on the two lane road that passed by the lake, but no one bothered us. Just in case, Sheri fine tuned her marksmanship skill with her new slingshot and ammo. Hey, it worked for David.
While nothing can compare to bone cold winters, we have not caught Havre and the Hi-Line in ideal conditions. Wind and rain continue to blow through without advance warning. The town has provided good respite when we needed it. We knew Jenny’s Kitchen was not going to disappoint by the crowd of locals. Home cooked food with vegetables and nothing fried on the menu clued us in that this was no greasy spoon.
Havre is full of rough around the edges but friendly underneath resilient hard-working folks. At a local second-hand shop, the owner, dressed in shorts on this cool day, related that he wears shorts year-round just because he is not going to let the weather get the better of him. Some days when Havre is the coldest city in the lower 48 with temperatures around -40 below, shorts are his silent statement on toughness in Havre.
The pride of Havre is the tour of the “underground city” in the center of town. It’s more like a series of connected basements with spooky tunnels running under the roads created when some drunk cowboys set the city on fire in the late 1800’s. The city folk went to their basements which as any homesteader knows is the first thing you build anyway. Some liked it so much under the ground and out of the wind, they just stayed. Prohibition helped keep things underground for reasons other than fire damage.
Our tour guide Mary battled what sounded like the bubonic plague as she lead our group through the staged spaces. We half expect to see her as one of the “mannequins” if we came back next week.
Havre is pure Montana, pure Hi-Line. It is most definitely not California jet setters buying up the best plots like in Big Fork and Flathead Lake. Old timers describe life in Havre as a war to survive and pure joy to be free in wide open spaces. When we tell them we are from Florida, they are very polite. They all know someone who has been to Disney World. That’s Florida to them. And in their eyes you can see a hard edged pride which says this is the Hi-Line, and trust us, you Floridians can’t win this war.