There are few things I love more than cool rocks. Thus, when my dear friend Scott Brauer, told me about a place called Rock City in Montana that’s reminiscent of the stone structures of Goblin Valley in Southern Utah, I was all about it. Even though I was beat from four physically exhausting days of running and hiking, I drove east from Glacier by way of Valier, a very tidy, very tiny farming town in the north of the state.
Scott had sent me a google map approximation and the instructions to keep going on a dirt road. “It looks like private farmland, but don’t worry, it’s public lands.” So I did. I almost turned back a couple of times… after the paved road gave way to gravel…gave way to dirt…gave way to muddy tracks. But I kept going, and it was indeed not a snipe hunt.
What I found, in a place where there is literally no one else around for miles, was a maze of knobby stone structures that have likely been carved in ancient times by winding waters of the river that now lies perhaps fifty feet below. The rocks are easy to climb and you can make your way across the flat tops of them, or explore the crevices between them. This kind of thing is exactly my bag now, but as I kid, I would have adored it. I would have made it my palace.
If you ever want to go there, here are somewhat more specific directions than I got:
From highway 44 going East, turn right on Montana St/Cut Bank Highway. Keep going until you hit Buena Vista Road. Go straight onto the gravel road, which is Rock City Road. Drive about 4 miles. Drive through the gate, past the sign that says “Dead End,” and onto the dirt road. Drive a little over two miles past that, and you will be there. And here is a map.
I spent the night and the next day in Great Falls, where I checked into museums and taxidermists. On the first front the C.M. Russell Museum piqued my interest; on the second, I found a local shop and gave them a call. This was an awkward conversation for me because I have no idea what the etiquette of visiting taxidermy shops is. Fortunately I talked to a very nice man named Shawn, who is either used to such requests, or, as someone who spends his days elbow-deep in bear guts, is not phased by much. He assured me that it’s “kind of like a barber shop” and people come in and out all the time.
Now, I’ve been a vegetarian for ten years, but I’ve always been fascinated with taxidermy. I loved looking at the taxidermized animals in natural history museums as a kid, but only in the past couple of years have I thought to look into how its done, and how one learns to do it. What better way to start than to see where it’s actually done.
When I showed up at Timberland Taxidermy, I was greet by Shawn in person, who was kind enough to show me the whole shop. First he showed me the main workshop, where they put the skins onto the body forms and generally assemble the piece.
He also showed me the freezer, where they keep animal parts to cast forms or to store meat.
I asked too about how hunters come to kill these animals, and about the permitting process. From our conversation and his recognition from the National Taxidermist Association, which seeks to help people understand and abide by the rules and restrictions on hunting, I trust he runs an ethical shop.
From Shawn’s shop I headed to the nearby C.M. Russell museum, which is dedicated to the life and work of C.M. Russell, a prolific artist of the late 19th century American West and a foundational citizen of the town of Great Falls. The staff of the Russell adore Charlie, as they universally call him, and are very excited to share their knowledge with you. Upon paying my admission, I got a “Charlie Minute” from the docent at the front desk, followed by a “Nancy Minute,” because his wife was no less important to his work and to Great Falls than he.
After wrapping up at the Russell, I had a late lunch at a little dinner called Tracy’s, and headed yet further east to Wyoming, via Billings for the night.
I was just in Cappadoccia, Turkey, which is considered to have the most spell-binding rock formations in the world. However, I’ve gotta say, the American West is a worthy competitor in that regard. Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Colorado…so many sick mountain ranges and formations. Surprised it’s not more of a destination than it is.
I dunno, from how packed Arches National Park was when I visited last year I think some people are catching on.