10/02/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

My Secret Montana

There is something to be said about the road less traveled. It opens up your eyes and greets you with opportunities and experiences you wouldn't have otherwise. I'm writing specifically about a trip that I took this past summer into the far reaches of Eastern Montana.

Eastern Montana is home to wide open country and one big endless sky. The landscape varies from high dry plateaus to the wind and water carved Badlands and this was exactly the trip I was craving. I needed a place to get away from it all, and Eastern Montana was my ticket.

Heading east on I-94 from Billings I arrive at my first stop being Pompey's Pillar National Monument. Pompey's Pillar is a rock formation that sports the signature of Clark from the Lewis and Clark expedition. The site has a very nice interpretive center and interesting exhibits. One can climb up maintained stairs to see Clark's signature where he engraved his name on the stand stone pillar as he and part of the expedition floated down the Yellowstone River on their return to St. Louis, MO. This is the only place where the Lewis and Clark expedition left any physical evidence of their presence and it gave me goose bumps as I stood there.

Lunchtime soon rolls around and I pull into the town of Miles City and make my way to the 600 Café. This is a small town, blue plate Americana diner at its best. It has been around since the late 1940s, and the long dining counter is a testament to that as it has worn spots where regulars have taken their meals at the same time every day. The menu ranges from salads to steak with big portions and a great price to boot. Don't ask for a double tall latte here as you'll only get a blank stare followed by a smile and a great cup of joe. I order up the chicken-fried steak because a local tells me it's the best. His name is Jerry, and I am immediately drawn to him. He sits down with me and begins to tell me about his life, hardships and happiness growing up in Miles City. He also tells me some pretty darn funny (er, inappropriate) jokes which make me laugh, hard. We chat through lunch and after he insists I see the Montana Bar a few doors down. We walk in and up from the long antique bar stand two brawny men who greet Jerry with a friendly sucker gut punch. They then proceed to play brawl and at that moment I feel awkward. Jerry introduces me and they all take off their hats, bow and say, "It's very nice to meet you, ma'am," like absolute gentlemen. Jerry tells me I have to see the men's restroom -- because, well, "It hasn't been touched since the 1800s" he tells me. So I do. He is right -- the original mosaic tiled floor and a (now) vintage porcelain urinal made me feel as if I were standing in a restroom right out of a Western film. Beautiful but really I wanted nothing more than to leave, immediately. We do leave the bathroom (thank you, Lord) and eventually the bar but not before Jerry shows me a bullet hole through a stained glass partition. Turns out a young chap back in the day, probably after a few too many decided to inspect his pistol. Not realizing the safety wasn't engaged; a bullet shot out and went through that beautiful stained glass partition which happens to be at the main entry of the bar. Fortunately no one was hurt!

I say goodbye to Jerry and continue on and stop in the town of Terry which is home to the Evelyn Cameron Museum. I am brought to tears, as this woman has completely moved me. Born into a wealthy, British family and coming from a life of elegant ease with servants to do every imaginable task, she trades in privilege for adventure leaving the lush, green, English countryside for a ranching life in the Badlands of Montana. She and her husband attempt to raise polo ponies and when that goes horribly wrong, her husband begs her to return to England. She adamantly refuses and perseveres a very hard life by earning a living through her photography work. Evelyn Cameron left a legacy of thousands of glass plate images and 35 years' worth of diaries creating an intimate portrait of pioneer life all of which can be seen here at the Evelyn Cameron Museum in Terry, MT.

My next destination is a stop at Hell Creek Music and More located in the small town of Glendive. Guessing what the "more" stands for? How about a full on dinosaur museum -- that's right, dinos and rock n' roll. It's here where you can get your music memorabilia fix while learning about the history of the dinosaurs that once roamed the area. The Makoshika Dinosaur Museum is a private non-profit all volunteer museum that displays a 38 foot T-Rex. Hell Creek Music and More serves as an entrance to the museum. If you come, be ready to be amazed and engaged.

One cannot come to Glendive and not visit Makoshika State Park. Makoshika is the largest state park in Montana, and boasts some of the most stunning scenery in addition to Badland formations and the fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops and more. Driving to the top to get some great sunset shots I come across a pack of wild horses that I couldn't help but photograph. Down below was a visitor center at the park entrance with interpretive exhibits great for both adults and kids. I was happy to see plenty of dry camping options for tenters and RVers alike. Next time, I thought, I'll bring the Airstream. This would be a beautiful spot to camp, no question.

The next day I continue my trip and visit the Fort Union Trading Post. The fort is a national historic site and was an important fur trading post on the upper Missouri river. It was here where tribes traded buffalo robes and furs for goods such as beads, guns, blankets, knives and more. It has been partially reconstructed to show how portions of it may have looked back in 1851 and is truly a sight to behold.

The day I visit is a special one as the Fort Union Rendezvous is taking place with a 19th Century Fur Trade Fair. I observe re-enactors portray American Fur Company workers and American Indians of Fort Union Trading Post which transport me back in time. I walk by trapper and Native American camps that are set up on the trading post grounds. Inside some of tents in the camps are filled with furs, beads, feathers, skins -- you name it. All items are available for trade -- for cash.

It was a hot afternoon at the rendezvous as I was leaving and nothing sounded better than stopping off for a cold one. The tiny town of Wolf Point is next up and home to Missouri Breaks Brewing and Doc Z's coffee and eats. I belly up to the bar and can't help but notice a plastic model of the brain before me. Next to that, a self help book about happiness and further down the bar, a human body model. I learn that the local family doctor in town, Dr.Mark Zilkoski and his family run the brewery, hence the name in lights above the bar, "Doc Z." The beer was cold and the food was good. I learn that they use locally sourced ingredients to brew their beer and offer up some super cute t-shirts for sale. The ambiance of Doc Z's Missouri Breaks Brewing was one I will not soon forget.

As I motor on, just west of the town of Scobey is where I find the Daniels County Museum and Pioneer Town. 35 historic buildings have been restored to depict a town in the early 1900s and I can hardly believe my eyes. I mentally set my watch back to the 1900s and walk around the 20+ acres exploring every nook and cranny. I allow myself to become lost, because this place is unreal. There is a doctor's office, a one-room school, a city hall, a large well stocked general store, and a barber shop. There is a delightful saloon once known as the Crystal Palace renamed to the Dirty Shame Saloon after the Prohibition years when bottles of moonshine were stored over an easily accessible trap door that was quickly opened when the law enforcement raided the place. Someone was heard saying, "It was a dirty shame to waste the liquor!". There is so much here and I can't stop exploring. Inside the museum is a display of Daniels County history in all its forms including archives, a collection of antique cars, tractors and machinery. This was an amazing place and a complete hidden gem. Next time I'll dedicate a full day here.

The grand finale to my Eastern Montana road trip is a musical at the Fort Peck Theater. The Buddy Holly Story is in production and I can hardly wait. I am moved to tears by the energetic and captivating performance and immediately understand the long line of people who waited patiently to see the performance. Prior to the show, I meet a group of sweet elderly ladies who were dressed to the nines. We begin to chat and I learn they are all lifelong friends and come here every year to attend a performance at the theater. I also learn they are from Miles City and that they know Jerry. I can't help but smile. It's no wonder that people come from all over the state and beyond to attend the incredible performances held here at this historic theater. Before I leave, I turn around to admire the Fort Peck Theater as it stands tall and beautiful. Under the care of dedicated volunteers and loyal supporters, the theater is a significant part of Montana life, and after tonight, I understand why.

My trip into Eastern Montana this past summer was filled with secret small town stops and hidden gems. Big skies and wide open rolling plains filled my days with down to earth people who made me smile. For me, taking a trip through Eastern Montana was a trip of a lifetime.

Until next time my secret Montana


My Secret Montana