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Exploring America's Forgotten Border

A new book goes deep into the history and significance of our country's 4,000-mile northern boundary

Big Sky Country averages seven people, one pronghorn antelope, one elk, and three deer per square mile. (Photo: Sara Fox)

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Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border (available for preorder now) offers searing portraits of the people and places that live on the line between the United States and Canada. Author Porter Fox, who also wrote Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, spent three years exploring this line—from Maine to Washington—on foot and by canoe. During his travels, he found lots of forgotten places. The Medicine Line, which gives its name to this excerpted chapter from the book, in northeastern Montana, is one of them. Named by Native Americans for how the U.S. Calvary magically stopped pursuing them at the U.S.-Canada boundary, the Medicine Line was one of the last safe havens in North America for northland tribes. Today, Medicine Line country is crisscrossed with freight trains, highways, wheat fields, missile silos, oil patches, and all the trappings of 21st-century resource extraction and life. About the only things that haven’t changed are the endless prairies and the endless wind, which sounds like someone whispering in your ear if you stand in it for a while.

Power lines glided over the road. Ribbons of asphalt, steel, water, soil, and trees ran parallel with the highway, cutting the northland off from the rest of the country. I was on U.S. Route 2, somewhere in eastern Montana. The two-lane “Hi-Line” shadows the northern border 2,500 miles from Maine to Washington, with a break over the Great Lakes.

There were curves at the western end of the northland: river bends, winding train tracks, Swainson’s hawks banking low, wide arcs over the road. The earth slanted to the east. Sage flats skirted the road. There were sacred formations south of the highway: the Black Hills, the Bighorn Mountains, the headwaters of the Missouri.

“Montana” is a Spanish name, though Spanish explorers never made it that far. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado crossed the Rockies in 1540 near present-day Santa Fe, but he chose to trek east to Kansas instead of north. Montana license plates call their home Big Sky Country. It was easy to see why. The state is larger than Japan. You can see a good chunk of it from almost any vantage point. Humidity averages in the low sixties. The whipsaw crest of the Rocky Mountains is visible from a hundred miles away. Big Sky Country averages seven people, one pronghorn antelope, one elk, and three deer per square mile. Eighty percent of the counties are still classified as “frontier,” meaning they are occupied by six or fewer people per square mile.

There are more elk, grizzly bears, loons, and trumpeter swans in the state than anywhere else in the continental U.S.

The air was so clear that I could see the legs of an antelope five miles away. A stand of whitebark pine three miles beyond that swayed in the breeze. A teenage boy cruised past in a beige 1970s Lincoln Continental. Square head, square shoulders, pale blue eyes. Looking in the mirror, he parted his hair with his left hand while dangling his right hand on top of the vinyl steering wheel. He didn’t have to steer; the car steered for him. He didn’t look like he was driving at all. It was like something was pulling the road out from under him. Time stopped moving in eastern Montana sometime around 1973.

Montana and “Oregon Country” were some of the last unexplored and unmapped regions on the planet in the early 1800s, along with interior Africa, Australia, and both poles. Oregon Country stretched 250,000 square miles from the Pacific coast to the Continental Divide in western Montana. Thomas Jefferson considered it the last piece of America that would create an “Empire of Liberty” from sea to sea. It was a pipe dream. America was having a hard time managing the territory it already had. And the Northwest was already claimed by Russia, England, France, Spain, and dozens of Indian nations.

The Northwest was the final stretch of the northland for me as well. I was 2,500 miles from home, 1,500 from the Pacific. It was fall again and getting cold. The last miles were not going to be easy. Montana, Idaho, and Washington are home to some of the tallest peaks on the continent, scattered across remote wildernesses, rainforests, alluvial plains, and a matrix of lake and river systems. I would be camping the whole way. The weather forecast predicted a hard frost by the end of the week. I needed to make it to the coast before the first snow.

Low-angle autumn light glanced off buttes alongside Route 2. Barn swallows flitted over hay fields. Dirt driveways in Culbertson and Blair were dry and dusty. Covered porches had been closed up for winter and storm windows installed. The Continental floated ahead of me. The car was an apparition. Wheat and flax fields moved by like they were on a studio set. The land wasn’t flat like in North Dakota. Combines ran up and over knolls and ravines, harvesting wheat.

Bright-red fire hydrants had been installed every quarter-mile in one field, 30-foot-tall iron sculptures of birds in another.

Sitting Bull made his last stand near here. Shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he had led what was left of his tribe through Montana’s northland. They camped and hunted across the northern plains, outwitting Colonel Nelson Miles and six companies of the U.S. Fifth Infantry Regiment. America wanted blood after Custer’s defeat, and Generals Sherman and Sheridan initiated a policy of killing every Indian their troops could find. Mainly they found women and children headed to a reservation to turn themselves in, most of whom were shot or hung.

The winter of 1876 was severe, with fierce wind and temperatures dipping to minus 30. Miles outfitted his men with buffalo robes, mittens, and face masks cut from wool blankets. Sitting Bull went largely undetected, but freezing temperatures and a lack of game weakened the tribe. They retreated farther north and, the same month that Crazy Horse and 900 Sioux tribal members surrendered at Camp Robinson, Sitting Bull crossed into Saskatchewan over what Indians had begun to call the “Medicine Line.”

The “strong medicine” of the 49th parallel stopped U.S. forces in their tracks, allowing Indians a measure of peace to the north. American officers wouldn’t have thought twice about pursuing an enemy across the U.S.-Canada border 20 years earlier. But cross-border bootlegging skirmishes in the 1860s had alerted Canadians to the porous and dangerous state of their southern boundary. After Britain granted Canada dominion status in 1867, and the line along the 49th was marked in 1873, Canadians and their North-West Mounted Police let it be known that the border was real.

Montana’s “Medicine Line” was not the first in America. The Iroquois, who lived in Ontario and upstate New York, used the same sobriquet for the French-British boundary in the Seven Years’ War. The Iroquois documented the border on their wampum as a white line between two black ones. Great Lakes tribes used the term as well for the line between British Ontario and the American colonies.

Wallace Stegner wrote about Medicine Line country. He grew up 30 miles north of the Montana border in a small Saskatchewan town called Eastend. Like many northland settlers, Stegner’s father was a roamer. The author spent time in an orphanage when he was four, then lived in an abandoned dining car near the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Saskatchewan. The family moved to a shack on the border in the summer, where they farmed wheat. In a memoir of his childhood, Wolf Willow, Stegner wrote about the evolution of small towns in the region: “The first settlement in the Cypress Hills country was a village of métis winterers, the second was a short-lived Hudson’s Bay Company post on Chimney Coulee, the third was the Mounted Police headquarters at Fort Walsh, the fourth was a Mountie outpost erected on the site of the burned Hudson’s Bay Company buildings to keep an eye on Sitting Bull and other Indians who congregated in that country in alarming numbers after the big troubles of the 1870s.”

I drove Route 2 past draws, moraines, hollows, arroyos, rift valleys, and mesas in the east near Frazer and Nashua. This is the language of Big Sky Country: laccolith, dike, shonkinite, marine shale. The state is split in two along the Rocky Mountain Front. East is prairie; west is the Northern Rockies. The front is a 50 million-year-old thrust-and-fold jumble of wetlands, forests, and vertical subranges. The wall of rock is so formidable that it shapes weather across America. Western-flowing air from the Gulf of Mexico hits the front and reflects it back onto the plains, helping to create a vortex of wind and storms across the Great Plains known as Tornado Alley.

The single-engine plane sticking out of the roof of the Hangar Bar in Glasgow, Montana, looked like it had seen some weather. Another plane, a U.S. Air Force T-33 trainer, sat in the front yard of the Valley County Pioneer Museum. There were six casinos, one rodeo arena, one Taco Shack, three car-parts stores, and the Busted Knuckle Brewery downtown. Afternoon light dropped out of the sky on my way through, touching the tips of Sudan grass growing along the soft shoulder.

The sun became a spotlight just before it set, shining through an opening in the clouds and splintering on my bug-splattered windshield. I’d been following the Continental for hours. A barbed-wire fence bordered the road most of the way. Rifts and mesas lifted, fell, vanished, then reappeared. The bluffs on the horizon looked bigger than anything I’d seen in a while. I drove past a steak house, a bowling alley, a hundred wide-screen TVs shining through double-paned windows. A pharmacy at the edge of town was closed, but a string of Christmas lights had been left on.

I passed a grain elevator at the end of Main Street, and the sky darkened like an eyelid closing. A sliver of sun held out just above the horizon. A silver moon shone through the clouds before the sun went down. It was simultaneously night and day for about seven minutes. A freight train rushed past, and the rumble shook the car windows. The train was a mile long and stacked double high with 40-foot containers. A string of black, cylindrical oil cars took up the rear. The train blasted east, and the eye closed. Then everything was gone: traffic, tracks, Continental, casinos, town. It was 35 degrees. Snow tomorrow in the high peaks, the radio announcer said. The last of the light leaked out of the clouds, leaving me at the dark edge of the Rocky Mountains.

Filed To: MontanaWeatherBig SkyNature
Lead Photo: Sara Fox
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