Access and Resources
Mind the speed limit signs along this 280-mile route. At Evergreen, head north on U.S. 2 to Glacier National Park, where you can sign on for a trip down the Middle Fork of the Flathead with the Glacier Raft Company ($71 for a full day; 800-235-6781).
DON'T MISS: Flathead Lake's Painted Rocks, for 200- to 2,000-year-old pictographs visible only from the lake. Charter a boat from Pointer Scenic Cruises (406-837-5617) in Bigfork, $50 per hour.
BEST EATS: Tequila flame prawns at Seasons, a mile south of Seeley Lake.
TOP DIGS: Bigfork's Marina Cay Resort (406-837-5861) has doubles for $59$185. INFORMATION: Glacier Country, 800-338-5072.
BACK BEFORE IT WAS INCORRECT TO MIX pickups with vodka, a lawyer I called Loophole built his practice running interference for roadhouses all across western Montana. From time to time I'd go along as he circled the Mission Mountains Wilderness Area to touch base with some of these bars, a roundabout we dubbed the Tour of the Montana Wine Country. But when I took the tour again recently, I soberly discovered that not only have most of the water holes dried up, but the geography is so surreal and the diversions so peculiar that stopping for shots of Lewis & Clark at the Bucksnort or Liquid Louie's would have been beside the point.
I started the tour in Missoula and headed north in a heavy traffic of landscape-gawkers. (The bumper stickers that say "Pray for Me: I Drive Highway 93" are not kidding.) When I entered the Flathead Indian Reservation I commenced gorging on the area's cuisine: buffalo burgers, huckleberry shakes, and baskets of fresh, fat cherries. I stopped outside Dixon to look up some old friends, a rancher who raises Oreo cows (white in the middle and black on both ends) and a tractor salesman whose ten-acre crop of cantaloupes every summer makes fools of the critics who say you can't grow melons in a place as frosty as Montana. Then I took a languid cruise around Red Sleep Mountain on the rolling terrain of the National Bison Range. When the biggest bison I'd ever seen lumbered up to my truck, lowered his shaggy head, and fixed his accusing black eyes on mine, I held my breath and slid my burger under the seat.
As I topped the grade before Polson I pulled over and gazed at the panorama before me. The impossible blue of Flathead Lake stretched to the horizon beside the 8,000-foot Missions, which gleamed under their snowpack like a row of shark's teeth. From the shore I could also see Wild Horse Island, a state park with a few summer homes, where people like to watch the bighorn sheep being sheep and the bald eagles terrorizing trout. But the object of my last stay on Wild Horse was a weekend-long poker game ending with some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that I'd lost $100; the good news was that my wallet had fallen out of my jeans when I'd visited the eco-toilet, forcing the winners to crawl under the house and pick through the compost.
The most northerly point on the tour is a little resort town called Bigfork. I stopped there to eat again and to steel myself for the next leg, which used to give me the willies. Every time I've driven through the Swan River Valley, on the back side of the Missions, the sky darkens, the temperature drops, and there's a kind of hush all over the world. Oh, there's a string of pretty little lakes, and I've always seen black bears or gangs of mule deer holding up traffic, but the Swan is the Transylvania of Montana. Maybe it's the isolation or the late springs or the spooky dirt roads or the very private citizens who live in compounds and trailers pulled into a circle. But lots of people like this place. There's even a virtuous mass bicycle trip every spring called the Tour of the Swan River Valley that's a Tour of the Montana Wine Country in reverse.
Still, when I turned right at the Big Blackfoot River and headed for home, the sun suddenly came back on.