Minnesota to Montana: Crossing the High Plains

We took five days to cross the plains on the northernmost highway, Rte. 2, driving about 300 miles each day. We made a a couple of short stops each day, arriving at each day’s destination in the mid- to late afternoon.

Day1, July 28, 2020: Rochester, MN to Fargo, ND

One of Jonathan’s farm-to-table goals is to try locally made whisky, causing our unanticipated stop at the Panther Distillery in Osakis, MN. He ended up with two bottles, including Pike Street wheated bourbon whisky, “only available in Minnesota.”

Just down the road was our planned stop at Big Ole, a fanciful statue that commemorates the finding of a rune stone in Minnesota, proving that it was settled by Vikings long before Europeans. Though this story was debunked long ago, the statue remains as a local landmark.


Not far from the North Dakota border, we stopped in Rothsay, MN to see the world’s largest statue of a prairie chicken. The statue shows the bird at its most colorful, in the spring, when males inflate air pouches in their cheeks and do their mating dance.

Greater Prairie chicken booming

I was sure this was as close as I’d get to a prairie chicken, as these birds have become rare with the conversion of prairie to farmland. We got to Fargo and checked into our motel. Jonathan went to pick up takeout, and returned with news that he’d seen a small flock of prairie chickens. We went to look and they were still there, though outside of breeding season prairie chickens look pretty regular.

Where did Jonathan find this rare species? On the lawn around an abandoned Hampton Inn, hiding in plain sight. One bird acts as lookout, like the one in my photo who’s giving Jonathan the eye. The rest graze, but if the lookout is spooked, all the birds duck down. They completely disappear. We watched a field for fifteen minutes waiting for the birds to reappear. When they didn’t come out, I assumed they’d sneaked off, and headed back to the car, accidentally flushing the entire group. Talk about going to ground! About eight birds were able to completely disappear in short grass. It was a lot of fun to see them.

Day Two, July 29, 2020: Devil’s Lake, ND

We decided to cross the northern Plains came in order to visit Barbara Breternitz, who lives in Devils Lake, ND, near her daughter and son-in-law. We know the entire family from our archaeology days. A wonderful socially-distanced visit ensued, including a picnic on the patio outside the tiny vacation cabin offered to us for the night by a family member. The family business was distributing oil and gas, and the cabin is packed with memorabilia.

Day 3, July 30, 2020: Devils Lake to Williston, ND

Driving across the entirety of North Dakota included a lot of flat landscape.

We broke our trip for two important stops. The Center of the Continent marker lies in Rugby, ND. This may seem a bit north for the center of anything, but it’s the center of all of North America, from northern Canada to Panama, and though the marker is said to be a few miles off, it worked just fine for us.

There was only one other stop I wanted to make in North Dakota, once again thanks to Atlas Obscura–the Whirl-a-Whip machine at Lakota Drug in Stanley, ND. We breezed across the state until we got to Stanley. There isn’t a billboard for Whirl-a-Whip along the highway, nor any signs in town. You only know that there is a wonderful ice cream machine at the drugstore if you are from the area or found it through the internet.

An older couple run the large store, while two young men work the soda fountain. The sprawling store was nearly empty, one customer waiting for ice cream. It takes a while for the counter guys to put the ice cream in the cup, sprinkle on the requested add-ins and put it in the machine, but eventually our creations appeared: one Whopper/Nutella/vanilla ice cream, one peanut butter/brickle chips/chocolate. Unlike most blended treats, these are made with regular ice cream, not soft serve. They were delish.

Day 4, July 31, 2020: Williston, ND to Havre, MT

360o of Wheat.

That’s Montana east of the mountains, more than half of the state. Wheat, grain elevators, rail cars by the hundreds. There are some other crops, but there’s a lot of wheat.

I also wanted to have a look at the Missouri River. The railroad was built to follow the river, and the highway parallels the railroad as it cuts across the prairie. On a map, the river coils back and forth like a stretched Slinky. As we drove, we’d pass a stretch of river, then fields, then another stretch of river. Up close, the river is muddy and wide, with not a soul in sight, though deer tracks in the mud right along the shore showed us where the locals pass unnoticed.

One small town after another dots the highway west. Our Prius becomes more and more unusual and pickup trucks the norm once we pass the Montana border. In Poplar, we slowed to a stop with the traffic, and the cars weren’t moving. I passed the bottleneck and found that the line of cars were backed up for more than two blocks leading off the highway and around the corner. We think it was a line for the local food bank.

By the time we reached Havre, MT (Have-er), it was late enough that we passed up the opportunity to visit Havre’s attraction, Havre Beneath The Streets. A century ago, fire demolished the town, and while rebuilding was underway, a number of businesses set up shop in the basement spaces that survived. Some of these have been restored and can be visited. When you’re next in Havre, have a look. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/4349

Day 5, August 1, 2020: Havre to Fortine, MT

Five days is one day too long for an overland trip for us. By Saturday, August 1, we were ready to be settled down again, but still had a full day of travel to go. We set out across the wheat, canola, and sugar beet fields toward the west, and finally began to see the outline of the mountains in the distance.

It was surprising to see even the small patches of snow that still remain on the mountains. Montana days have been very hot, 95-99o, much warmer than we ever expected. We passed through East Glacier, MT, a town adjacent to the Blackfeet reservation, complete with casino. This year the tribe opted to keep the east entrances to Glacier National Park closed. Our house in on the west side of the mountains, so we crossed the park on the highway, including the entrance to Glacier N. P.’s best known attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road was bumper to bumper on Saturday afternoon. We’ll have to strategize when to make our own trip there.

We met Virginia at Fortine Mercantile, and she led us up Deep Creek Road to our home for the month. The house began as a log cabin, but is now an all weather home complete with central heating and air conditioning. The yard has lovely flowers and a group of tart (pie) cherry trees that are protected by a high fence. It keeps out deer and the occasional bear. We are careful to keep the gate closed. I don’t want to think about a bear playing in our trash can.

I’ll close with a few interesting things we saw along the way.

Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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