Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Where Montana Began

We finally left the Evergreen-Coho campground and headed east, down the hood canal and across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  We had been warned that the traffic through Tacoma would be horrible, but it turned out not to be all that bad.  When you come from Southern California, it takes a LOT of cars to get on your nerves.  We spent a night in Ellensburg right on the Yakima River, which should have been nice, but it was 102 degrees in Ellensburg so as near as I can remember we just cranked up the AC units and hunkered down in the motor home, then hit the road again the next morning before the heat started building back up.

Riverside Park in Spokane through the smoke
Our next stop was Spokane.  We had intended it to be Couer d'Alene but the only campground there that could reasonably accommodate our rig was full, so we stopped a little short and spent 2 days in Spokane.  It's a frustrating town to drive through.  The main drag is about 8 miles long and has stop lights every 100 yards specially timed so that you are guaranteed to have to stop at about 3/4 of them.  In our bus-sized vehicle that is not a pleasant experience (though I suppose the buses do it everyday).  We finally got to our campground at the north end of town and got it set up, then turned around and drove right back down town in the car where we ate at a Korean restaurant that turned out to be pretty good.   We kind of got hooked on Korean food when we lived in Hawaii back in the eighties.  When we first came back to the mainland you couldn't find a Korean restaurant here but they are becoming more and more common and in unexpected places.  There are at least three of them in Temecula.  On the way back through the signal gauntlet to get home we were overshadowed by a plume of smoke rising from the west of town.  We never did hear what that was all about, but the next day all of Spokane was smokey and our car was covered with a thin layer of ash.

Programmed water fountain
There is not a whole lot to see in Spokane.  They do have a nice riverside park downtown that we went and wandered around in for an hour or so.  There is a pretty cool water fountain there that puts on a varying show, changing patterns every few minutes.  There is also an old carousel that was fun to look at through the windows of its enclosure.  It wasn't scheduled to open up for a couple of hours yet when we arrived and seeing it in action wasn't worth the wait.  The Spokane River goes over a falls just west of the park and was used to run an early hydroelectric generator which is still in use but they didn't tell us what percentage of the city's electricity it produces.  We had planned to take a scenic drive up to the top of Spokane Mountain but with the visibility at only 4 or 5 miles tops, we decided to skip it.
Antique Carousel
Frank's Diner
That was about it.  The next morning we got up and went to Frank's Diner, an eatery in an old railroad car that was parked right across the street from our campground.  In the early part of the 20th century it was the posh, private rail car of the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  It was retired by the railroad during the Great Depression and converted to a diner in Seattle in 1931.  It was moved to Spokane shortly thereafter and is something of a local legend.  After waiting in the smoke and 85 degree heat for about a half hour we finally got to go in.  The seating was pretty tight for someone my size but the breakfast was excellent.  If you are in the area give Frank's Diner a try.  Then hit the road for someplace else like we did.

Someplace else was Missoula.  This is where we got our flat tire fixed 2 years ago which you can read about here.  We stayed in a really nice campground on the west end of town about 1/4 mile from the truck stop that  replaced our flat.  There were no fires nearby, but the prevailing winds were apparently funneling smoke from distant fires both west of us in Washington and north around Glacier Nat. Park right down the I-90 corridor so while it wasn't quite as smokey as Spokane, it was far from clear the 3 days we were there.

Oldest Pharmacy.  Hills barely visible in background are only a mile away.
We did explore the area somewhat.  We took a scenic drive down the Bitterroot Valley from Missoula.  In the town of Stevensville we found the St. Mary's Mission complex "Where Montana Began".  When we visited Coeur d'Alene 2 years ago we visited the Cataldo Mission about 8 miles east of town.  You can read about that here.  That mission is the oldest still extant building in Idaho and was founded by Father Pierre Jean De Smet in 1842.  Well, it turns out that a year earlier this self-same Fr. De Smet had founded the St. Mary's mission in  present day Stevensville, although at the time it wasn't known as Stevensville. It was just known as some God forsaken place out in the middle of the prairie.  The buildings there are the oldest in Montana.  Before that, Fr. De Smet had founded missions in Iowa and after Cataldo he wandered around the west doing missionary work until 1846, leaving other Jesuits behind at various places to do the actual work of getting buildings up and whatnot.  Then he went back to St. Louis and spent the next 20 years fund raising among the faithful in the East to keep all these missions going.  Much like today if you're a Baptist.
St. Mary's Mission
Very old bottles
The mission building has a kind of telescoping design.  We didn't go in because you had to arrange a tour in advance.  A small cabin on the site is the oldest pharmacy in the west as indicated by the display of very old bottles in one of the windows.  There are a couple of other buildings and displays and the old church graveyard.  While Stevensville is obviously proud of its historic past, little else seems to have happened there and it remains a tiny 3 street town out in the middle of the prairie, but maybe just a wee bit less God forsaken.

On the way back to Missoula we stopped at the Traveler's Rest State Park.  The name comes from Lewis and Clark who camped here on their way west in Sept 1805 and again on their return trip in July, 1806.  This area has changed little in the 200 years since their Journey of Discovery.  Interestingly, while you can follow what we think is the "Lewis and Clark Trail" from St. Louis to Astoria, this is the only place where we have any archaeologic evidence that Lewis and Clark were actually here.  The story is interesting (and a little disgusting).
Lewis and Clark trading with the natives
Lolo Creek
Traveler's Rest was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960 but they had it in the wrong place.  Historian's thought the camp was at the confluence of the Bitterroot River and Lolo Creek, but careful reading of the explorers' journals lead some to believe the campsite was actually a few miles up Lolo Creek and they went looking for it.  In 2002 they found the evidence they were after in the form of one military coat button and a lump of melted lead in a fire pit left from making musket balls.  These seemed like pretty thin gruel to me, but here is the clincher.  The campsite appeared to have been laid out according to American military specifications of the time.  From this they knew exactly where to look 75 yards away for the camp latrine.  From the journals they knew the expedition medic had been
Site of the tell tale latrine
handing out powerful laxatives to some bound up members of the party which contained mercury
(not recommended these days).  So they went and dug up the latrine area and, sure enough, found traces of mercury in the latrine pit from somebody's 200 year old pee.  Ain't archaeology grand?

We walked the 3/4 mile trail around the camp area and learned that, other than a few rocks that were supposedly parts of fire pits, there is absolutely nothing left there to see.  Just dirt and grass.  But we did stand on a spot where Lewis and Clark likely stood.  And at least the trail was flat.

The whole area around Missoula looked like it would have been beautiful if there were less smoke in the air and there were points of interest we didn't have time for, so we are already talking about coming back and spending a little more time here some year when the west isn't on fire.  In the meantime, we will be hitting the road for Glacier.  What's at Glacier?  Well, at the moment there is fire.

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