I remember the first time I was in the state of Montana. It was the summer of 1995, and my wife, Nancy, and I were on a relaxing vacation touring the West. We'd flown from our home in Indiana to Vancouver with plans to make a big circle, stopping at Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, and back to Vancouver Island before returning to Indiana.
After leaving Yellowstone, we headed north to Bozeman, Montana, to catch I-90 back toward Vancouver. Going through Montana wasn't a goal, simply a matter of convenience. However, the more I saw of the state, the more I fell in love with its awesome beauty.
The Right Fit
Two more trips in the following years took me to Montana. My feeling for this state only deepened. Being an avid trail rider, my dream of trail riding in this beautiful place took shape.
The next few years were spent trying to find just the right "fit" for me and my 5-year-old buckskin Quarter Horse, Poco Tigger Tivio ("Buddy"). The right fit wasn't a dude ranch, although one of my trips was to a working cattle ranch. The right fit wasn't camping at a trailhead, either. What I wanted was a place where I could hang my hat in the evening, have greater comfort than a tent, and a place where I could make daily rides out to different types of country. After all, I was setting aside an entire month to ride my dream.
This may sound simple to find. If it is, then I made a difficult task out of it! Certainly, cost was a factor. I wasn't willing to spend $200 per day for 30 days to achieve my dream! As to the camping, my trailer has a dressing room that I've modified to be a weekender-type of living quarters. Not something I wanted to live out of for a month!
Putting everything together, I wanted to find a cabin that I could rent for a month, for a cost that didn't break my budget, and, most of all, great riding from my doorstep. Pretty high expectations!
I wouldn't want anyone to think I spent all my waking hours for the next few years making this search. At the time, I was working as a public-school superintendent, and a little of my time had to go towards those responsibilities. Since I've retired, I've sure learned how a job can get in the way of having a good time!
After much time researching the web and after many e-mails, the list of possibilities was reduced to two. One place was located northwest of Great Falls, and the other near the small town of Dillon. The place in the north was attractive because of its proximity to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and the reasonable price. The place near Dillon was attractive because that area also has its own unique beauty. In the end, the north won out over the south.
Off to Montana!
Plans started coming together, prices were negotiated due to a lengthy stay, and reservations were made. By the end of 2004, the trip was set for July, 2005. I could start counting the days before my dream would be realized.
What is that famous quote? Something about the best-laid plans...? Once again, my job got in the way of my dream. My school board determined that because of severe financial problems, we should expedite the closing of two buildings. Facilities would be moved during, you guessed it, July 2005. My dilemma became either to change the reservation, if possible, or cancel the trip. Making a long story short, changing the reservation was possible, and the trip was still on.
It was set; I'd leave for Montana on June 2, 2005, and return to Indiana by July 1. The excitement mounted as that date approached. Finally, 4:00 a.m., June 2, arrived, and I headed out the driveway on my long-awaited adventure. Buddy in tow, we were off!
I'd planned a big day for the first day -832 miles with a stop at a horse motel near Chamberlain, South Dakota. The second day would be a shorter leg to another motel just outside Billings, Montana. The last day would be the easy one, just 250 miles.
Everything went great in the beginning. The stopovers were excellent, and both had available lodging for me, as well as Buddy. I really liked staying in the same place I kept my horse, as this made his care even easier. Buddy is a trouper, as well, and didn't seem to mind the long hours going down the interstate. We arrived at our destination on time and on June 4.
Dream to Nightmare
At this point, things started going downhill. Before I'd made my reservation, one question I'd asked of the owner was how much riding was available without trailering. The answer: "You'll have all the riding you want from your doorstep." That statement proved true only if you didn't mind riding the same trail over and over. What I found was a cabin in the middle of barley fields. There were beautiful mountain views, but the mountains were at least 30 miles away.
The second day, we had a hailstorm, the likes of which I'd previously seen only on TV. I'm talking hail piled as deep as four inches. I was sure my new truck would be a mess after I could assess the damage. Fortunately, I received about four dings, and they were unnoticeable on the roof.
Bottom line, I'd narrowed my search for places to stay down to two. I had a 50-50 chance of picking the right place for the kind of things I wanted to do. I picked the wrong place. The place north of Great Falls just didn't fulfill my dream. I was very close to packing things up and going home. Instead of riding my dream, it was more like having a nightmare.
Don't get me wrong; the country where I stayed in northern Montana is beautiful. I traveled up to Glacier National Park for sightseeing, and Glacier is one of my favorite places on earth. I also had one awesome ride on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Unfortunately, I had to trailer Buddy 80 miles one way to get to the trailhead.
Just on the verge of packing it in and forgetting my dream, I contacted the place that was my second choice. I thought that if I could get a partial refund from the first place, maybe I could go to the second one for at least a short time. This was Torrey Mountain Log Cabin Rentals in Argenta, about 15 miles from Dillon, Montana. Torrey Mountain is owned and operated by Mark and Donna Thorpe. they're are great people who do everything they can to make your stay enjoyable.
However, I'm getting way ahead of my story! I wasn't about to make another reservation sight unseen. I called Mark, and told him I was in Montana and would like to come to see his place. He asked if I had my horse with me. Since at that particular moment I was in Great Falls and Buddy was back at the cabin, I told him no.
Anyway, we made arrangements to meet at his facility in Argenta. Not a small trip! It's about 250 miles from Great Falls to Dillon straight down I-15. However, it's a gorgeous drive, much of which follows the Missouri River and through a valley traveled 200 years earlier by Lewis and Clark. Argenta is an old mining town that once boasted more than 1,500 residents. Today, however, the population is around 25.
It didn't take me long to assess Torrey Mountain Log Cabins or Mark. I could easily see that there were more riding opportunities than Buddy or I could handle right from the cabin door. My home would be a beautifully handcrafted log cabin. It was small, with everything in one room except, of course, the bath. Since I'd be alone, I'd have plenty of room. The cabin actually would sleep four people, but you better really like each other! Mark has a second cabin that's much larger and would comfortably handle six guests.
Fortunately, the small cabin wasn't reserved, and I was able to make arrangements to spend the last two weeks of my Montana dream in the Argenta area. I was also able to negotiate my way out of my cabin in the north. The only glitch was the difference of a day between leaving the north and arriving at Torrey Mountain.
This cloud also developed a silver lining. I checked my overnight-stabling guide, and found a bed-and-barn near Butte - Mill Creek Lodging, operated by David and Barbara Webb. I called and reserved a bed for me and barn space for Buddy. The Webbs are wonderful people. They have a great facility, and if you're ever in the area, I highly recommend their place. Be sure to request David's blueberry pancakes for breakfast.
The riding at Argenta was awesome. You'd never need to use your trailer to go to trailheads, but you'll probably want to, and I did. There's such a variety of riding terrain. You can ride the old Bannack stage road (which is right behind the cabins), you can ride in timber, or you can ride to the top of Long John Mountain. I never trailered farther than nine miles, and the only reason I did that was to allow more time to ride deeper into that area.
My favorite ride was through a canyon that contained four lakes. The second of the four is known to be excellent fishing for rainbow trout. This lake is a two-hour ride from where I parked the trailer and an increase in elevation from 6,000 feet to about 8,500 feet. It's a drop-dead gorgeous lake with views of snow-capped peaks in any direction.
I caught 27 rainbows in less than three hours. Then the challenge was how to get the fish back to my cabin for dinner without them spoiling. The solution: Put the fish in my insulated saddlebags, and pack them in snow! Yes, it was late June, but there were still ample-sized snowdrifts in the shady areas below the dam.
I learned a lot from my first Western trip with a horse. Maybe I wasn't looking for help in the right places, but frankly, I had to figure most things out on my own. Following are some of the things that I learned. If you have a similar dream, maybe these things will help you ride your dream and avoid a nightmare:
- Your horse must be fit! If you're coming from low elevations, you can't prepare for that ahead of time, but you can avoid a double whammy by taking a fit horse.
- Choose your location with care. You probably don't want to trailer to every ride. This was my biggest mistake!
- Be willing to guide yourself. The country can be intimidating, but you can do it.
- Wear a gun in case of a bear confrontation. This was hard for me. I never saw a bear, but did see signs. If you're not comfortable carrying a gun, you can purchase pepper spray. I also put a bell on my saddle.
- Get a global positioning system, and learn to use it. I used a Garmin Etrex, and it was great.
- Carry extra batteries!
- Plan the things you'd like to do on days that you rest your horse.
- Realize that it's a big country and that you cannot ride it all.
- Be prepared for all types of weather.
- Don't leave your common sense at home.
- Be sure someone knows the area where you plan to ride. I always left a note on the kitchen cabinet.
- Know the health requirements for each state you plan to visit.
- Requirements vary; ask your veterinarian for suggested vaccinations. Montana also requires an import number that can be obtained by your vet.
- Make horse motel reservations in advance.
Riding the Dream
In conclusion, I rode my dream. It had a rocky beginning, but the finish was awesome! I wrote this story to, I hope, help others realize their dreams. As I said before, I couldn't find many helpful sources. I'd be happy to answer additional questions. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I encourage you to contact me!
For more information on Torrey Mountain Log Cabin Rentals, call (406) 683-4706, or visit http://goldwest.visitmt.com/listings/12544.htm. For more information on Mill Creek Lodging, call (406) 560-7666 or (406) 560-7676, or visit www.millcreeklodging.com