Prairie Lights: Refining the Montana bucket list


John Warner

You may have seen this photo of Hank Armstrong at the Dry Falls before, but I can’t get tired of it, no more than I could grow tired of the falls themselves. They’re No. 1 on my Montana bucket list.

Excuse me for being late on this, but I just discovered (on Facebook, the unsleeping recycler of pop culture) that the Great Falls Tribune published a Big Sky bucket list in December.

The Tribune presented “100 activities every Montanan should have on a bucket list of things to do in a lifetime.” I found it impossible not to read the article from start to finish, and impossible not to keep a running tally of how many of the activities I had already done.

By my count, I bagged 33. I have no idea whether that’s above or below average for a person who has spent 37 years in Montana.


Ed Kemmick

I do know that some of the items have never been on my bucket list and will remain unbagged, including No. 76: “Eat Rocky Mountain oysters. At least one bite.” No. Same goes with the brains and eggs at the Oxford Saloon and Café in Missoula. No amount of alcohol or taunting by friends ever induced me to sample the brains.

I have no objection to chicken-fried steak—which makes an appearance in No. 52: “Chow down on chicken-fried steak and pie at the historic Crazy Mountain Inn in Martinsdale”—but I’m not a big fan, either. So better yet, get anything on the menu, then spend the night at the inn and play poker with a couple of friends in the front parlor till way after midnight. Damn, that was fun.

There is at least one item on the list I checked off but could have done without, No. 39: “Watch the Montana Legislature in session.” If that’s going to be on your list, you might as well take in a session of your local city council or board of adjustment. How about: “Nap in governmental meeting room.”

Two items on the list could have been combined in one—No. 45: “Find a fossil” and No. 61: “Listen to an old-timer speak of Montana as it was long ago.”

One item is oddly incongruous. It’s not “See a grizzly bear” or “Witness a black bear in the wild,” but rather, “Know how to react in a bear encounter.” Wait, you’re putting training lessons on your bucket list? How about “Learn CPR,” “Figure out how to use an automatic defibrillator” and “Practice delivering a baby in a blizzard.”

There are a few items on the list that I would fine-tune. No. 38 on the Tribune tally suggests exploring Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks. Better yet, as near as you can, swim right there at the confluence of the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers. It’s an amazing feeling, and the water is generally clean and cold.

No. 46 suggests you memorize the John Steinbeck quote that begins, “I’m in love with Montana.” That one’s OK, but it’s a bit wordy. I much prefer: “Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.” It also makes fun of Texans, which is a bonus.

One glaring omission, which I can only account for by assuming that the Tribune wanted to preserve its reputation as a family-friendly newspaper, was any mention of drinking establishments, except as the location for some other activity, like watching the mermaids at the Sip ‘N’ Dip Lounge, or eating a hamburger at the Two Dot Bar.

No mention of the Montana Bar in Miles City, the M&M in Butte, the Club Moderne in Anaconda, the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak, the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, the Jimtown Bar near Lame Deer, Pisser’s Palace in Walkerville, the New Atlas Bar in Columbus, the Hell Creek Bar in Jordan … and about 100 other can’t-miss joints.

On a related note, the Tribune bucket list includes visiting the museums on the state’s Dinosaur Trail and stopping in at every historical marker in the state, which sounds more like a career than a bucket-list goal. In the alternative, I would recommend visiting every brewery in Montana. That seems like a lot more fun.

Now, then, what about what’s not on the list? We’ve all got our favorites, I’m sure, and I don’t expect my additions to complete anyone’s list, either. Feel free to add your own, but here are mine, all of which I have written about in the past 13 months:

There was no mention of Plenty Coups State Park. There’s not much there, in terms of Disney-like distractions, but stay an hour or two and tell me if you don’t feel the presence of the great Crow chief.

Up next, the Brockway Dairy Day Rodeo, held each year on the third weekend in July. It is, as one experienced Brockwayian put it, “kinda like the rodeos were 50 or 60 years ago.” And there are plenty of fossils there who can tell you how the rodeo was 75 or 80 years ago.

The Tribune mentions the Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs. I feel compelled to add Magic City Blues, Billings’ giant street (and park) party, and the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, hands-down the coolest event in the history of this state.

And now, please, a drum roll. I am astounded that the Tribune’s list did not include a visit to the Dry Falls of the Shonkin Sag, barely 40 miles from Great Falls.

The extinct waterfall, which dwarfed Niagara when an Ice Age ancestor of the Missouri River flowed gigantically, is, I humbly declare, the most impressive and spectacular sight in all of Montana. That it is so little known and so rarely visited only increases its magnificence.

It should be No. 1 on every Montanan’s bucket list, believe me.

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