Augusta - the greatest little cow town in the American West

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front

By —— Bio and Archives--January 14, 2012

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Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain FrontThere I stood with my mouth open in disbelief on a small rise at the edge of rolling prairie near the southern end of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Catching my breath, I listened to loud rumbling as the earth quivered beneath the split hooves of mule deer in the hundreds thundering off in a bounding panic through twisted jack pine and brittle, tan grass and prickly pear. They ran for their lives, those beautiful mulies, through rolling foothills near towering cliffs at the entrance to the Sun River Canyon 20 miles west of Augusta - the greatest little cow town in the American West.

Suddenly it dawned on me. No wonder famed American novelist A.B. Guthrie lived on the Front near Choteau a few miles north of here. He could have lived anywhere, but settled for a slice of heaven on earth within sight of Ear Mountain. The same can be said for old what’s-his-name who jets back to Montana between jokes and more recently sank roots in the shadow of this incredible, uplifted, 60-mile-long wall of mountains running north and south.

He could have set up shop any place his heart desired but picked the sunny side of the state, the windy side, where few people live and big ranches thrive and serious crime is rare and miles of open space and fresh air fill your lungs under a very big sky; where quiet country roads set the tone for wholesome living and a good life, and land is relatively cheap and plentiful, and folks are decent and pretty much leave you alone if that’s your pleasure. Americans, driving pickups.

I continued my climb, relying on hands and bruised knees the higher I scrambled through stony debris toward a notch at the edge of a sprawling bench, way up there, beyond a steep, corrugated flank of scarred rock, a sheer wall that faces out across the rolling brown plains at rest beneath hard blue December skies, snow-less and empty and vast beyond measure.

When I gained the ridge I looked across the bench and saw standing 30 yards away a herd of high country ungulate rams, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, 80 strong and meaty, sporting gray-brown coats and creamy-white rumps, bunched shoulder-to-shoulder moving slowly in unison.

Their massive curled horns were as thick as my thighs, their stout legs stomping as they veered toward a much larger herd of ewes and young ones likewise crowding each other apprehensively and moving off to safety; two hundred I surmised, probably more, members of one of this country’s largest herd of bighorns who winter along the Sun River corridor. I crouched low, peered over the ridge and watched as they shuffled out of sight, my jaw dropping for the second time that day. And that’s when I decided, right then and there, that I was going to make the Rocky Mountain Front my home.

In July of 1806, Meriwether Lewis and his men of Lewis and Clark fame spent a few nights camping near Augusta, commending the area for its “extensive, beautiful and level bottom.” He got that right. Not sure if Augusta’s cottonwoods were as thick back then as they are today; big, fat beautiful trees, grand old dames growing tall along the river and over in the park, offering welcome shade in summer and something fine to look at any time of year, especially during brisk yellow autumn.

Augusta’s history reaches back centuries. A Blackfoot Indian travois trail ran down today’s Main Street, and after they were run off, freight wagons and a stage rolled through, followed more recently by occasional Highway 287 traffic, but not much. In the old days when the likes of John Wayne straddled the saddle it was known as a stockman’s paradise, big-time cattle country due to the abundance of feed and native grasses along the river and elsewhere that fattened enormous herds for slaughter.

History testifies there were a half a million head at one time right around here, munching free grass and fertilizing the rocky soil with a plop and a splatter as they waited patiently to be shipped off, stripped of their hides, drained, and carved into thick T-bone steaks or ground to ruby-red pulp.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Tourists driving up from Helena on the way to Glacier National Park do themselves a disservice bypassing this historic gem as they roar down the interstate toward Great Falls in their haste. Don’t be one of them. Hop off the I-15 at Wolf Creek and glide on up the newly resurfaced and widened highway through country that will take your breath away and stick a tear in your eye on account of the beauty; classic Montana scenery, a rolling, convoluted country with nary a tree, a good land that resembles an angry ocean frozen in the moment, a portrait of hills and dales and twisting long valleys and draws and bumps and lumps and low ridges and high crowns; contours accentuated particularly well at morning light. And as green as Ireland in late spring and early summer.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Wild West Indian country. Clean country with few fences, and mountains of the Continental Divide off to the left and sharp hills to the right as you drive north from Wolf Creek, with the slow turns of the shrouded Dearborn River beckoning, perfect and pretty, especially on the drive up to Rogers Pass. But please, do not ram into our beautiful deer at 70 miles an hour, and you WILL if you’re not careful. They gather at dawn and graze near dusk by the side of the road, and invariably jump out when you least expect them. I know, regrettably.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

If you can pull it off, plan your summer visit to Augusta (pop. 300) during the oldest and largest one-day PRCA rodeo in Montana held each summer on the last Sunday in June. It’s a kick in the pants, let me tell you, and the real deal. I’ve never seen so many cowboy hats and pointy boots in such a small place in my life. Horses, horse trailers and half-ton trucks line both sides of every street. It’s a serious, raucous affair and everyone’s invited. No need to chew and spit or mangle your East Coast vocabulary to attend. Just watch where you step.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

When you’re not being entertained by cowboys sailing upside-down through the air, take the opportunity to get up close and personal with the rough stock out back, those massive bulls locked up in their pens, just standing there waiting to gore someone’s spleen. Smell them. Stare them down. Snap a photo. Even more fun is tiptoeing around crushed beer cans and psychedelic piles of orange vomit on Main Street in front of the Western Bar Sunday morning, evidence of a rowdy good time Saturday night, unless you’re the one who got beat up by some drunk, out-of-town redneck spoiling for a fight at two in the morning. Billy Bob could be his name, and with a belly full of brew he might take issue with your Obama-Biden bumper sticker, your tattered long hair and your commie ways, if you know what I mean.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Just passing through town? Make sure to stop for ice cream or burgers at Mel’s Diner, walk across the street for some respectable fine art and crafts at Latigo & Lace, and step into the Manix Trading Post where they’ve got everything, I kid you not, stacked to the ceiling; clothing, hardware, groceries, fishing tackle, you name it. Booze. Their motto is, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” or something along those lines. And don’t forget gas; it’s a long way between pumps.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

The golden eagle caught my attention as it hopped toward the young tundra swan that was obviously in trouble, limping and flapping its wings in distress. I watched the drama unfold on the grassy plain through the kitchen window and decided to interfere with the natural course of events and save that extraordinarily large but innocent bird from an ugly fate. After we chased off the raptor and snapped my new friend’s picture, I sort of wrapped the swan in a blanket, wrestled him or her (wasn’t sure what to look for) into the front seat as it beat me upside the head with those massive wings, and drove back to our place where it lived in the bathtub for two days while we made arrangements to haul him down to the bird sanctuary in Helena. I don’t recall what I fed that poor animal, but cleaning up after that mess was one humbling experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Come to think of it, I probably should have just plucked him and fried him up.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Just kidding. It’s not only grizzly bear wandering out of the million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness onto the plains, or the great herds of elk wintering on the 20,000-acre Sun River Wildlife Management Area, or skittish pronghorn antelope racing at breakneck speed across the barrens, or 128-mile-an-hour winds that will scare you to death, that make this place so welcoming to outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife lovers. They’ve got birds, a bunch of them, especially at 1,500-acre Willow Creek Reservoir northwest of Augusta. It’s popular with fishermen, and though we’ve moved on since those memorable good old days, the spectacle reminded us each spring that we were living someplace special. The numbers are mind-boggling; geese, swans, every-which-kind of duck, some eagles, an eclectic mix of shorebirds too varied to list, and my all-time favorite, white pelicans, the Forrest Gump of the birding world.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

But if you really want something to write home about visit Freezeout Lake in spring, just a few miles southeast of Choteau near Fairfield where 10,000 migrating tundra swans and 300,000 snow geese drop in on stubbled grain fields in early April or thereabouts. With the snow-capped Rocky Mountain Front as a backdrop, and the rush of pounding wings deafening, bearing witness to this flying carpet of white roaring to life and darkening the sky with their shifting mass will get your heart pounding, make you weak in the knees. And no, that’s not manna from heaven falling from the sky.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

I sure do like Willie Nelson, but it’s a shame they ran out of those free tickets so quickly when he played Choteau on July 3, 2007, the summer Montana melted as temperatures soared well above 100 F and stayed there. Rumor has it old what’s-his-name foot the bill and brought Willie and the boys to town for a gig that had the locals giddy for weeks. As we wandered around the bustling arts and crafts festival leading up to the big event, that’s all anyone talked about, grinning ear-to-ear, bubbly with anticipation, friendly, happy. Choteau’s famous adopted son really endeared himself with that generous gesture of appreciation.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Compared to tiny Augusta, Choteau, twenty-five miles to the north, feels downright metropolitan with 1,700 residents, a supermarket, at least one bank, a lumberyard and a hospital and airport and wide streets and good schools and a big old courthouse. But before you fill up and drive on, stop at the Old Trail Museum at the north end of town where they’ve set up a wonderful world into the past. Not merely pioneer log cabin replicas and reminders of our Wild West heritage, but tributes to A.B. Guthrie (1901-1991) who penned “The Big Sky” and won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Way West.” The Front is also home to fossils and dinosaur eggs in the foothills twenty miles west of Highway 89. This was all a massive inland sea way back when, and dinosaurs roamed in great numbers along the shore.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

If you know your paleontology, and I don’t, you’ve heard of Egg Mountain and its dinosaur eggs, nests and baby dinosaurs, which evidently are quite rare. You can get to the mountain called Egg by driving north a few miles and heading west 20 miles along the only paved road leading to the Front. Egg Mountain is off to the south somewhere. I’d get a map if I were you and ask for directions. The road continues on into the mountains through a cliff-strewn, narrow canyon along the Teton River. Follow the signs and you’ll even find a 400-acre ski area at the end of the road, the Teton Pass Ski Resort, if you can believe that.

Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Near the foothills you’ll see a small subdivision as you approach the mountains, on the south side of the river mostly, and nearby is where A.B. Guthrie lived those many years of his productive literary life. He called it his “point of outlook on the universe,” a place where grizzlies wandering out of the Rockies strolled through his backyard no doubt, and brutal winds crippled the trees, and life was calm and meaningful, and the worrisome details of the outside world, distant.
Augusta, Choteau, and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front


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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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