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Charles Kuralt: Beartooth Highway "the most beautiful roadway in America"

Red Lodge, Montana and the Beartooth Highway


By —— Bio and Archives--June 13, 2011

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imageWhile America’s famous journalist and travel correspondent Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway “the most beautiful roadway in America,” he might have overstated his case just a bit. Granted it’s a judgment call, but for sheer beauty the Going-to-the-Sun Highway over Logan Pass in Glacier National Park leaves the Beartooth in the dust.

Never-the-less, the lofty Beartooth that rises to 10,947 feet and has been designated a National Scenic Byway can’t be denied its place among aesthetic grandeur. The chorus of accolades are well-deserved because it is beautiful, it is marvelous and other-worldly. It’s a thin-aired land of cropped tundra and green lichen among the clouds and lingering snowfields and rolling alpine grasses, and deep, deep canyons and sheer cliffs and tall mountains and roaring, sparkling rivers - away from it all.

A journey over the broad, alpine plateau will take you near, and through, some of the most rugged terrain in America’s Lower-48. The road meanders along the southeast edge of the one-million acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, near the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by three National Forests. This winding, twisting road daring the distracted with plunging drop-offs and tempting anglers with cold, trout-filled lakes serves up incredible mountain vistas. Recreational treats are plentiful and are certain to satisfy hardcore mountain men wandering among wolf and grizzly, as well as timid, fun-loving families, large and small, who stop for a snowball fight at the top of the pass in August on their way to Yellowstone.

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To sweeten the pot, the old, upscale, former coal mining town of Red Lodge at the base of the Beartooths boasts a rich history that includes eclectic Wild West characters, a smutty industrial boom and bust, an ongoing ranching tradition, and today’s vibrant tourist economy. If you visit Red Lodge and partake of town and the surrounding mountain buffet, you’re almost guaranteed to have a great time because around here, things are jumping.

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The valley where Red Lodge sits today and the surrounding fields and rolling green pastures and gullies and draws and thick evergreen forests used to be Indian Crow country, although you’d never know that standing on one of the town’s busy street corners during one of its infamous motorcycle rallies as scowling bikers in beards roll up and down the main drag on pricey Harleys in large, noisy processions that have been known to scare off the little people.

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Established in the 1880s, Red Lodge owes its existence to coal, not gold or silver, copper or any of the other heavy minerals that gave rise to many western mining towns. Hi-grade coal, in great demand by the booming West, transformed Red Lodge in to one of the most significant towns in America at that time. And with the discovery of coal came the Finns and the Slavs, and a bunch of Italians and those Germans and some Irish from Ireland and Scots from Scotland.

Railroad tracks carried noisy, soot-spewing trains back and forth to Billings 60 miles distant, and beyond to coal-hungry markets elsewhere. Large mills that have since vanished sprang up in town and hard-working men with lanterns strapped to their helmets and picks in their hands and families to feed strode deep into the black bowels of those deadly coal mines and emerged hours later coughing up black soot and red blood.

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And fine Victorian homes were built which remain to this day as refurbished B&Bs in the historic district, and money poured in and found its way into banks, and streets were laid out in grid, and law and order took a stand, and famous buildings like the Pollard Hotel rose to heights among the dust and smoke and mayhem, and brick buildings stood shoulder-to-shoulder along Main Street and 20 saloons watered the weak and weary, and hookers did what they do, again and again, and spitting on dirty, scuffed-up wood floors was a time-honored tradition, a right, as were drunken brawls that broke out over nothing, and those exhausted, proud miners lit their lamps and slogged back into the black hole for the American people, coughing, spitting, swinging their picks at the dark wall as coal chips flew and canaries keeled over, and the men and boys in overalls coughed and spit and labored on in the dark and were greatly mistreated and abused by management. Strikes and labor unrest invariably followed.

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Colorful characters made it to Red Lodge in the early days sooner or later, and some of them stayed on. While I loath the taste or mere thought of liver-and-onions, not so with John “Liver-Eatin’” Johnston who cut out his fallen enemies’ flabby, brown organs and gobbled them up on the spot, bloody and raw, as legend has it. The great liver-eater-turned-deputy-sheriff made Red Lodge his home for a while, and his cabin still stands north of town. That lazy scallywag, the Sundance Kid, an uglier less-talented version of our beloved Robert Redford, robbed the Red Lodge Bank across the street from the Pollard Hotel in 1897.

Other historical somebodies who hung up their spurs in town included Calamity Jane, William Jennings Bryant, and Buffalo Bill Cody who made Cody, Wyoming, sixty miles to the southeast, his primary residence. My favorite character, not that he was a character, was the late, great novelist Ernest Hemingway, the young man, who spent hours getting smashed in the rowdy saloons. All this land was Hemingway country, especially the mountain kingdom over the pass around Cook City. If you read “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” you’ll notice that Hemingway’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, who joined a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War, hailed from Red Lodge.

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By the 1920s the coal industry waned, other mines at nearby Bearcreek and Washoe picked up the slack and Red Lodge wasted away and was known as grimy, seedy, rough, and going nowhere fast. Fortunately for the local economy, the Homestead Act caused farming and ranching to flourish, as well as bootleg liquor during Prohibition. The death-knell for coal rang in 1943 with the Smith Mine disaster in Bearcreek four miles east of town that killed 74 men. It puts tiny, dilapidated Bearcreek into perspective as you drive through on your way to or from Cody. At one time a rival to Red Lodge, Bearcreek has become a sad place, particularly in light of the suffering and all that pain.

But those days are long gone. Like a Phoenix rising from the dusty coal bin of history, Red Lodge re-emerged beginning in the 1970s and has become a vibrant, hopping community rich in culture and art and fine dining and luxury living and good times; the list of activities and festivals too many to number. From old-time fiddle contests and motorcycle rallies, from running marathons and arts fairs and beer fests and wild and wooly summer rodeos and music festivals featuring the likes of Willy Nelson and his ilk, to rock concerts and adventure races, you’ll never get bored in Red Lodge.

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Even during brittle, cold winter months, snowmobilers are tearing up the pass, skinny-skiers are slipping and sliding on maintained trails, pin-heads are floating through back-country powder, and alpine skiers are barreling down the 70 trails offered up at the Red Lodge Mountain Ski Resort. This fine country will have you coming back time and time again.

Except for the occasional grizzly bear mauling, or raging forest fire or the ravages of those little beetles that are devouring our forests, this corner of the American West should be tops on anyone’s vacation list. Better yet, move here, and bring a job with you. It’s one of Montana’s greatest little ski towns and finest summer resorts, and a secret I’ll probably regret telling you about because at some point quaint becomes crowded.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer


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