Roadtrip Day 12: Bozeman & Cut Bank

Tuesday, 26 September, 2023
Breakfast & Wandering in Bozeman, Montana
Driving up West-Central Montana
An Evening in Cut Bank, Montana

My friend Ryan’s home in a quiet Belgrade neighborhood was quite comfortable, and I woke up quite refreshed after the previous day’s exertions. I was especially happy to see that their guest bathroom was wonderfully decorated in plum purples and sage greens, which are my two favorite colors—a good omen for the day!

After re-packing and girding my loins for the next day of travel, I followed Ryan as we drove the 12 miles ( km) down I-90 from Belgrade to Bozeman. He had a particular favorite spot in mind for brunch together that morning that was right downtown—Main Street Overeasy. The place was a wonderful combination of classic diner and hip destination, and it appeared we were lucky to snag one of the few remaining empty tables when we arrived around 9:15am.

Throughout the trip so far I’d endeavored to expand my horizons by eating and drinking locally recommended specials instead of only seeking out only my known favorites. Bozeman was no exception, so I ordered a “Cowboy Benedict” consisting of “two poached + a country fried steak on a grilled biscuit w/syrup drizzle + a dollop of gravy. Topped w/ Hollandaise, Tomato’s, + scallions’. Served w/Hashbrowns :)”. A bit more than I’d usually eat for breakfast, but my body was still calling for more fuel as I acclimatized to the elevation and new pace of life on the road. It was indeed delicious.

Ryan was a former colleague from when I had worked at PolSource, a small Salesforce systems integrator and partner. We’d become friends while onsite for a particularly interesting client in California and kept in touch every few months after first he left, and then I quit. It was great to meet his wife, see him, and catch up on work and life in general. Ryan had tons of great suggestions of what to see in the area and for other potential spots along my roughly planned route. We also chatted about his current job (still in the same career space), and what we each thought the trends would be in the coming years. Eventually we said our goodbyes with a hug as he had to return home for some meetings. We both regretted that I hadn’t planned to stay more than one brief night and morning, but it was a pleasant reconnection, and another reminder of the joy of having a good network of friends around the country (and world).

Photo of downtown Bozeman, Montana.
Downtown Bozeman.

I was in no particular rush after Ryan took his leave, so I took advantage of another day of perfect weather to leisurely wander around downtown Bozeman and get some exploring in. It’s part of the human condition that we inevitably end up comparing our experiences with what we’re already familiar with, so in my mind it seemed like Bozeman was a slightly larger, much nicer version of Torrington, CT—close to where I grew up. It’s easily walkable, with a vibrant historical downtown full of bars, restaurants, and shops, and surrounded by various residential, educational, and institutional neighborhoods. There were also some interesting historical sites (clearly marked by informational placards) such as for the Blackmore Apartments, which hearkened from a time when apartment blocks were seen as degenerate and promoting promiscuity through proximity, but that were (thankfully) embraced by small towns in the early 1900’s as a way to attract residents by mimicking the most urbane cities of the time (New York and Chicago).

I eventually ended up at a very nice coffee shop that offered excellent views of the sidewalk through large windows (my favorite type of place!). Some people get to know a place by scheduling and seeing all the major museums, historical sites, and tourist centers. That’s wonderful for those it works for, but I’m firmly in a different group—I come to understand a place far more easily through dedicated people-watching, preferably from a bar or cafe in a non-touristy neighborhood. It’s in that sort of environment where the vibe; the gestalt of a place becomes organically apparent. Sitting there in Ghost Town Coffee Roasters for a while and observing the comings and goings; laptop-ings and phone-ings; dogwalkings and caffeine-ings of the locals on a late Tuesday morning all gave me a clear feeling on Bozeman. And I liked it! This was a town I could absolutely see myself living in.

A part of me wanted to continue my relaxing study of Bozeman from one of the many nearby breweries that were starting to open up for the day, such as Montana Ale Works, which popped up on some lists of suggested breweries I’d found. To add to the desire to stay was the presence of several interesting museums in Bozeman that I’d found in my researches, including the Museum of the Rockies and the American Computer & Robotics Museum. But, as I would argue with myself many times on this trip, I could easily stay in any one place for weeks, but I can’t do it all, so let’s just continue the surface tour this time around. So instead I retrieved my car, filled up my tank with gas and my cooler with some snacks and fruit, and continued on my journey.

My route for the day was mostly heading straight North from the bottom to the top of West-Central Montana. After a (relatively) short stretch on I-90 West, most of the day’s driving was on sparsely trafficked highways—the first being Rt-287 until the outskirts of the capital of Helena (at around 33,000 people, the 6th most populous city in Montana; Bozeman is 4th at around 58,000). Along the way there was much of the same that I’d seen in South Dakota and Wyoming—rolling farm and ranchland, picturesque small towns, meandering rivers, and small mountains in the background—but all of it being slightly more populated and less green in Montana.

After Helena when on I-15 North, however, the views became much more majestic and even more beautiful. The highway passes through a few small mountain/hill ranges, windy canyons, and along a winding stretch of the Missouri River, offering captivating scenery in all directions.

Photo of windmills in Northern Montana.
Wide open Northern Montana.

Further North, once I skirted Great Falls (3rd largest city at 60,000 people) the landscape flattened out a bit and I was treated to big skies and pretty cloudscapes over rolling prairies and ranchland. I got fully into the zone, driving fast on the empty highways, windows open and music pumping. It’s such a great feeling of freedom!

Photo of the roadside motel the author stayed at in Cut Bank, Montana.
A nice little roadside motel in Cut Bank.

The entire purpose of zagging all the way North, as opposed to just continuing West on I-90 from Bozeman to Idaho, was to reach Glacier National Park the following day. I’d spent a bit of time at Ryan’s house the night before searching for the best place to stay outside of Glacier. I’d ruled out camping because it was not only quite cold at night up there but also because of more rain in the forecast. So, I defaulted to searching for well-reviewed but cheap motels in towns that also had breweries. This led me to Cut Bank, Montana (39th largest town in the state at about 3,000 people). This still left me an hour outside of Glacier, but that was an acceptable morning drive to allow me to try some more local brews.

I feel it’s important to digress a bit here about exactly why the nearest brewery East of Glacier is still 60 miles (97 km) away from the park—because of the terribly destructive impact of colonial alcohol on Native American tribes. There is quite a lot written about the topic and I encourage my dear reader to dig in to the topic, but briefly, alcohol was (often purposefully) used to destabilize tribal communities throughout North America during the Western migration in early colonial times. It’s still such a raw part of living history that many Native lands and reservations still prohibit alcohol in many forms, and it’s an ongoing debate among elders of the communities as to how to best heal from the historical wounds that violent colonialism and resultant alcoholism led to. There are parallels to be drawn between the use of alcohol in the Americas and the use of opium in China by the British.

In any case, Cut Bank is a town on the Eastern edge of the Blackfeet Nation, which spans the land right up to Glacier National Park on its Western border. Hence, it having the only brewery I could find outside of Glacier.

Anyway, I checked into the Glacier Gateway Plaza motel right on E Main St at about 5:30pm. I didn’t see anyone at the front desk at first, so I wandered around a bit, and eventually met Kelley, a local woman with a big, fun personality who was running the motel at the moment (she’d been in an annex doing some cleaning). She had some good jokes as she helped check me in, then she told me a bit of the town’s history, who most of the motel’s clientele were (oil industry workers there for long-term stays), where to get food, and some spots to check out when I got to Glacier and within the Blackfeet reservation.

Once I settled into the simple but clean room, I stepped out to walk through the tiny (only about 1 mi² / 2.5 km²) town to get some dinner and drinks. I passed a nice playing field and park and noticed the surrounding residential neighborhoods, but the vibe was quiet and honestly a bit depressed. The town really is mostly a way-station, which befits the fact that it was founded after the railroad was built through the area. Its population peaked in the 1960’s and has been gradually declining since, even though it has its own airport and in fact still boasts an in-service Amtrak station (on the route between Chicago and Seattle).

Nevertheless, despite the small size and sleepiness of the town, the decor and service at Cut Bank Creek Brewery was great! I nabbed a flight and put in an order for some fancy hot dogs from a built-in food truck on the premises, then took a seat outside and logged into the wifi to get some emails, planning, and writing done as I enjoyed the beer. Once it started to get cold as the sun went down, I nipped inside for one more pint and some people-watching, since the brewery had started to fill up with a mix of locals and other tourists passing through town.

Photo of a starkly contrasting evening sky and dark clouds over Cut Bank, Montana.
An amazing night sky over Cut Bank.

It was destined to be another early night for me though, as the sleepiness of the town combined with the much colder weather made my eyes droop while still at dinner. There was one final treat in store for me for the day as I stepped out of the brewery to return to the motel—a sky right out of a movie, as thick clouds like a bolt of purplish-black velvet thrown across the sky left just a thin band of clear blue & pink to the West. I chose to take this as a good sign for the views and adventures I’d have tomorrow, and not as a (more accurate) sign that wet weather was incoming.

Day 12 Distance: 305 mi (491 km)
Total Trip Distance: 3,298 mi (5,308 km)

Next Up: Exploring Glacier National Park by foot and car, then finishing the day in Kalispell, Montana.






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