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MidWest

Drive down Route 2 in Montana, and you’ll begin to ask yourself about 2 things: 1) the 70 mph speed limit, and 2) all the small white crosses on the side of the road.

Coming into Montana from Wyoming, the 70 mile per hour speed limit that seemed so appropriate suddenly seemed way too fast. Coming from the East Coast, where speed limits seem to always be just slightly below the optimal road speed, I took the 70 mile per hour speed limit to mean “set your cruise control for 74”. Whip around one of those mountain curves going over 70 mph and that perception will be changed. In Montana the speed limit might be  just that, an actual speed, limit.

The second thing you’ll notice about Montana’s roads, is that they are lined with small white crosses on red poles. These are part of a highway safety program began in 1953 by an American Legion member and now maintained by the various American Legion groups throughout the state. The 60 years’ worth of crosses are meant to act as a reminder for drivers to slow down and not drive drunk. However, as the crosses continue to fly past my window, I wonder if they actually have their intended effect. They worked on me, but I was new to the idea. Does the sleepy college kid, tipsy bar goer, or newly licensed teenager, all of whom spent their whole lives seeing those crosses go by, think about what those crosses mean before heading out on the road?

In 2002 Montana had the highest rate of drunk driving deaths and the third highest per capita fatality rate in the nation for car accidents. In 2005 Montana was tied with Hawaii and D.C. for the percent of alcohol related traffic fatalities – 47%. It almost makes you wonder if drunk driving education programs and dropping those speed limits by 5-10 mph in some places wouldn’t have more of an effect than the white crosses.

I immediately noticed as I left Montana and crossed into Idaho, a state with an alcohol related fatality percent below the national average, that the crosses disappeared. They were suddenly replaced with blue “free coffee” signs at each highway rest stop. Crosses vs. free coffee – it would be an interesting research study.

— For stories and memorials dedicated to those that have been killed in Montana road accidents, visit the Montana Highway Crosses site.

Rugged, beautiful, and full of Grizzly bears, Glacier National Park is a majestic place. Everything about this piece of land oozes with Montana-ness. (Exhibit A: The main road through the park is named “Going to the Sun Road”; it is a perfect name in Big Sky Country.)

The 10th national park to be created, “Glacier” received its name from its glacial-carved valleys and the from the large number of glaciers present in the area. In the mid-19th century there were more than 150 glaciers contained within the park boundaries. Today, with the global warming debate still in full swing, the park has less than 30 glaciers and is expected to have no remaining glaciers by 2020.

During our one day there, we hiked up to Avalanche Lake, a glacier fed lake on the west side of the park. Standing at the foot of this lake, it definitely made you think.  What will these places be like in 10 years once all of the glaciers are gone?

Avalanche Lake - the four small waterfalls on the ridge are from the glacier hidden behind the ridge.

Driving through South Dakota was interesting, Wyoming was rugged and beautiful, and Montana as a whole has been breathtaking, but the place that has enchanted the most since leaving Minnesota is Whitefish, Montana. Right at the edge of Glacier National Park, there is a buzz in the air here. The downtown looks like a setting right out of a picture book.

We drove in on a Tuesday night to the weekly farmer’s market in the park by the train station. Did you catch that? A Tuesday NIGHT farmers market — obviously a brilliant idea because the park was packed. If it hadn’t been for the plastic signs advertising the market, you would have thought the state fair was in town. An easy mistake considering the smell of grilled Bison sausage in the air. Yum.

I was pretty underwhelmed with my Yellowstone experience at the beginning. Driving in from the south, we went by the magnificent Tetons and then, as soon as we passed through the Yellowstone gates, were thrown into a Disneyland-like, pine tree-lined traffic extravaganza. All the way to Old Faithful, all I could see were pine trees and (you guessed it) RV’s. Starving and not willing to deal with the lines in the touristy new service center by Old Faithful, the hubby and I sat on a bench overlooking the main parking lot and ate our beef sticks, apples, and cheddar cheese, all while be heckled by a huge black crow. (Did you know that crows can cluck, and whistle, and gurgle, all in addition to making their normal crow-like sounds?)

Leaving our new friend crow behind, we ventured over to wander around Old Faithful and the other geysers in that part of the park. It was 1:30 and we had an ETA for Old Faithful of 2:24pm (+ or – 10 minutes), so we walked over to the Old Faithful Inn (beautiful log lodge built in 1904), purchased one of the airiest ice creams ever (vanilla only, because this late in the season everyone is just waiting for the food to run out so they can go home), and took a seat with a few hundred of our closest friends. 2:24pm came and, like someone turned on a switch, water started spewing 20 feet into the air. I’ll admit it was more of an awe-inspiring experience than I anticipated.

Luckily Old Faithful was the beginning of the good stuff. Bison filled  meadows, Artist’s Way on the canyon, and a little jaunt to the top of Mt. Washburn were all around the corner. Mt. Washburn was my favorite. After a two hour hike mostly above the tree line, we arrived at a fire lookout on top of the mountain. We could see all of the park, the Tetons, and the fires burning off to the east of the lake. Looking out over such a large and varied landscape was the first time that it really hit me why this piece of land had been the first national park.

In 24 hours I went from underwhelmed to enchanted. I think I’ll be back.