Big Sky Country

Blog Post created by bejacob on Jun 23, 2019

It's hard to believe it’s been almost two months since my last county collecting post. Though my travels didn’t stop in May, I didn’t visit any new county seats so there has been no need for a new blog entry. June meant getting back on the road, this time in western Montana. I’ve been visiting county seats around the country for about the last ten years, and for whatever reason, I had not gotten around to visiting “Big Sky” country ... until now.


The trip started with two firsts—my first visit to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) and my first Element stay. I wasn’t at the hotel long enough to make much of judgment about the Element brand. The room was decent and I slept well. That’s really what mattered. On most of my county collecting trips, I’m up with the sun and on the road early. This time of year that meant leaving each morning about 5am. No sense in wasting daylight.


One great thing about Montana is the scenery. My drive started with views of the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman. Heading north and a little east, I soon found myself on the western edge of the prairie. Though I never spotted any bison, pronghorn antelope were a reasonably common sight, along with an occasional deer. Unfortunately every time I spotted interesting wildlife, there was no safe place to pull over so I do not have any photos.  The first day ended at the Springhill Suites in Great Falls. The property is relatively new, having opened in April 2018, and is a good representation of the brand. Rooms on the back side of the hotel look across the Missouri River toward the rest of the city. I didn’t wait around for breakfast to begin on Sunday morning, instead preferring to again be on the road early.


Sunday started off with a few rain showers, though the weather had mostly cleared by the time I crossed the continental divide. Following route US 2 along the southern edge of Glacier National Park, the scenery got even more impressive. Most of the mountains in the area had at least patches of snow. The image at the top of this post was taken at Marias Pass, 5,213 feet above sea level.


The route continued through Kalispell and eventually into Idaho and Washington where my day ended at the Autograph Davenport Tower in Spokane. Spokane would be the westernmost point on this trip. My drive on Monday morning began before 5am (again), though it didn’t feel like it as early as I had ‘gained’ an hour on Sunday when I crossed into Idaho and the Pacific Time Zone. I’d lose that hour when I crossed back into Montana a couple hours into to the day. I did get an early morning picture in the town of Wallace, ID which nicely illustrates the small towns in this part of the country. For the most part, the county courthouses were built in the 1890s and often the streets nearby evoke a bygone era. Toss in a mountain covered in trees and you’ve got the quintessential rural, western, mountain town. I can almost smell the pines and fir trees as I reminisce.


Back in Montana, I finally found a good stopping point along the road to capture another aspect of the beauty of Big Sky country—the rivers. One thing I love about this part of the US is that you can drive for miles along many of the rivers and never see a building. There might be a fence or a few power lines, but there are no houses. In the east, other than specially designated scenic rivers, you can’t drive a mile without seeing someone’s house. On part of this trip, I drove a stretch of highway along this river for at least 10 miles are barely noticed the encroachment of ‘civilization’ (beyond the aforementioned fences and power lines). Here’s a picture of the Clark Fork River.


Back across the continental divide, I wrapped up Monday in Helena and the Delta Colonial Hotel. This property has previously been both a Red Lion and more recently a Radisson. It joined Marriott as part of the Delta brand in August 2018. I had my first experience with the Delta pantry here. Though not nearly as extensive as a CL or even the M Lounge, I found it to be satisfactory. Plenty of snacks ranging from trail mix and packages of beef jerky to ice cream (both bars and prepackaged cups) and fruit. Not sure how breakfast is, though I was able to grab a bowl of cereal at 5am. The room is accessible by key card 24/7, and at least on my visit, seemed reasonably well-stocked. When traveling alone and leaving early, I can make do with the Delta pantry. I might be less thrilled when on a family vacation, preferring instead a full breakfast in the lounge or restaurant. Regardless, this property is worth visiting if your travels ever bring you to the capital of Montana.


Tuesday I made my latest start of the entire journey, hitting the road around 5:30am. I wasn’t due to fly out of Bozeman until 4:30 that afternoon, but I still had about half a dozen stops and an estimated 400 miles to cover (based on the routes I planned to drive). The scenery continued to be spectacular with mountains in the distance in almost every direction. At one point on my drive a lone bighorn sheep crossed the road. Speaking of wildlife, I forgot to mention the moose I spotted on Sunday afternoon west of Kalispell. Again, no safe place to stop for a picture.

I reached Bozeman by noon, way too early to head to the airport, so I checked my map and realized that Livingston (another county seat) was only about 30 miles away. Though not on my plans, I had plenty of time to zip over there after lunch and still be back to the airport in time for my flight home.


When all was said and done, I logged 2,380 miles over the four-day trip and mailed postcards from 36 county seats, 30 in Montana, 4 in Idaho, and 2 in Washington. Given that Montana only has 58 counties, I was able to knock out just over half the state in one trip. Considering that Montana is the fourth largest state (by area), I surprised myself by covering so much territory in such a short amount of time.


Here are the before and after maps showing my progress.

For anyone new (or who has forgotten) the colors do have meaning. Blue shows the counties I have ‘collected.’ I mail a postcard from the county seat and when it arrives home, I color the county blue. Green is for counties where I have visited the county seat, but haven’t mailed/received a postcard detailing the date and time of my visit (most of those were visits from before I began trying to ‘collect’ every county in the USA. Cyan (light blue) is for counties I’ve been in, but haven’t yet made it to the county seat. This trip brings my total number of county seats ‘collected’ nationwide to 2,315. That leaves slightly more than 700 to go. It also means I now have postcards of my county seat visits from all 50 states (Montana was the last one to get at least one blue county).


Next on the horizon is a return visit to Alaska. This year will be completely different from my first trip to the state in September 2018 as I’ll be on a cruise ship this time, stopping at several borough seats (Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, and Sitka). Given that the only way to reach some of these cities is by air or by sea (Juneau is completed isolated by land from the rest of Alaska by the Juneau ice sheet), I’m excited to have found a somewhat novel way to visit them.  Look for a blog post detailing that trip in late July.


Until then…


Happy Travels