A perfect day for the long loop home from Red Lodge

Sometimes the shortest way home just isn’t good enough.

I had to be in Red Lodge Tuesday evening, and since I wasn’t too keen on driving home afterward—dodging deer in the dark on Highway 212—I spent the night at a friend’s house and left Red Lodge the next morning.

It was a perfectly beautiful morning, a little cool but on the way to warm, with clear blue skies and the fall foliage already on fire in the early light. On a whim, when I got to the new roundabout on the north end of Red Lodge, instead of going straight on 212, I turned left on Highway 78, the “back road” to Columbus.

On the bench above Red Lodge, Highway 78 is being reconstructed, and at the big bend where 78 starts heading west, there was a temporary traffic light in the road. The light was red and a woman standing there with a stop sign told me it was one lane for a few miles, that I’d have to wait six or seven minutes for the pilot car to return.

So help me, my impatience is such that I considered turning around and taking the direct road to Billings. Fortunately, I decided six or seven minutes weren’t going to kill me, and before I knew it I was behind the pilot car, soon out of the construction zone and on my way.

And at almost every bend in that winding road there was a scene of such beauty that I actually began to wonder how people could stand to live there. How could you get anything done in the midst of so much beauty, or, worse yet, what if you grew so accustomed to it that you didn’t look anymore?

I’d been on 78 for a while when I saw the junction of Lower Luther Road up ahead. I wondered: had I ever actually been down to Luther, off the main road? I concluded I hadn’t, so I took the exit, leaving pavement for dirt and gravel on roads that went up and down and curved all around so sharply that 25 miles an hour seemed like plenty.

I had my DeLorme road atlas with me, but it didn’t show an Upper Luther Road, which road signs told me I was on eventually. Wherever I was, it was still breathtakingly gorgeous, with the falls colors exploding all around and with the rolling hills tucked right up against the jagged wall of the Beartooth Front. I went through Luther, got on the Luther-Roscoe Road and passed its intersection with Upper Red Lodge Creek Road.

Where the road met Metcalf Road, I considered going straight north to Highway 78 again, but decided I was in no hurry and continued on Luther-Roscoe Road until it ran into East Rosebud Road. Another wise decision, more heart-stopping valleys and stupendous peaks and riots of fall color, and then over East Rosebud Creek itself, running low and glassy under blue skies.

I was soon at Roscoe, at which point I was on Highway 78 again, traveling down a familiar road. It was still beautiful, but after having seen so much that was new in the preceding hour or so, I was itching to experience some more fresh country. And so at Columbus I took the north frontage road to the Columbus-Molt Road.

I had been on that road once before, 15 years ago or more, long enough ago for it to seem new. It was strange but also somehow thrilling to go from the fall colors of the Beartooth Front to the grays and browns of a prairie landscape recently shorn of crops, mostly hay from the looks of it. (Full admission: Don’t take this city slicker’s word for anything touching on agriculture.)


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

On East Rosebud Road, a raven kept on an eye on a fine day from his perch atop a fence post.

On a map, the road from Columbus to Molt looks quite short, a lot shorter than all the roads I’d been on since leaving Red Lodge, but somehow the drive seemed twice as long. Maybe it’s because the roads mostly follow section lines, I think (see note above), always turning left or right at 90 degrees.

I saw some interesting sights that I did not remember having seen before. Most interesting was a little patch of wind-sculpted sandstone hoodoos along the Columbus-Molt Road, identified by a sign as the “Carrie Keating Rock Formation.” I was still wondering who she was when I crested a short rise and saw another sign announcing “Henry Keating Hill.”

The only reference to Henry and Carrie Keating that I found on the Internet was an obituary for their son, Ted Keating, who died in 2010 at the age of 89. If anyone knows more about them, and about that rock formation in particular, I’d love to know.

At the top of Henry Keating Hill, by the way, there were two big, rusty steel bins that look from a distance like oil storage tanks. Up close, they still looked like that, especially since they were made of thick steel plates. But one of them had what I believe was a grain auger feeding into it, so I was confused once again.

And to the east of the mystery tanks was a sizable collection of honeybee hives. I wanted to get close for a good photo, but I was unnerved by the loud buzzing and by the apparent inspections of my body by reconnaisance bees, so I took a long shot with a telephoto lens and got the hell out of there.

I reached Molt at last and took a melancholy gander at what used to be the Prairie Winds Cafe, and before that a mercantile and hardware store. Twenty-five years ago, when I was new to Billings, I took my middle daughter and her best friend on an outing to some alkali lakes out beyond Molt, and we stopped at the Kepferle Mercantile and bought potato chips and orange soda.

Years later, when Jerry and Fran Urfer turned the Merc into the Prairie Winds Cafe, I spent a lot of time there, sometimes playing music and often listening to others play during what was known as Bluegrass Saturday Breakfast, and eating Fran’s good food. The Prairie Winds closed in 2013. I felt old looking at that familiar storefront.

From Molt I took Buffalo Trail down to north of Laurel and then headed into Billings on King Avenue West. I was surprised to see a huge new subdivision out around 85th Street West that I didn’t recall having seen before, and near King and Shiloh I was amazed by the profusion of endless rows of new apartment complexes, even though I had seen those before.

And then home. The only other notable thing I saw, but was unable to photograph, was a woman in short jean cutoffs and black pantyhose (it seemed like a detail worth noting, for some reason) walking over the no-shoulder Laurel Road overpass at Sixth Avenue. In 25 years, I have never seen anyone courageous or foolhardy enough to walk on that overpass.

The world is full of wonders.

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