Lincoln County, Montana – No. 1,865

Just now, while updating the admittedly Rain-Man-ish list I keep of which U.S. counties I’ve visited, I realized that upon driving through northwestern Montana’s prolifically wooded Lincoln County yesterday, I’d hit number 1,865. My morbid inner trivia geek really enjoys this – President Lincoln, for whom all Lincoln counties are named, was assassinated in 1865.

Once you cross the Continental Divide near Browning, MT, the landscape shifts from Glacier National Park's soaring peaks (in the background) to sweeping grasslands

(For a wonderfully wry read on retracing the steps of our dead presidents, grab a copy of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation.)

Several new counties later, I’m now in the town of Havre, which rhymes with “cadaver” and is the seat of Hill County. I arrived well after dark, having booked a $54 room at a frozen-in-the-Donna-Reed-era motel called the Hi-Line. I chose this after first phoning the Havre Super 8 and finding the clerk on duty, Cathy, such a bitter pill that I decided I’d have better luck – and more fun – staying at an indie mom-and-pop property. It’s great, too – coral-tile bathroom walls,

The happy colors of my Hi-Line Motel bathroom, in Havre, MT

a white-and-turquoise metal desk, two paintings depicting vaguely Mediterranean island-scapes, and an octagonal wooden bedside table that could very well have come from the set of Bewitched.

It’s challenging describing kitschy motel rooms without sounding either ironic or condescending, but I’m seriously very happy here, as I am in most cheap motels (short of copious blood stains and the stench of rotting flesh, both of which I’ve experienced – but haven’t we all?). I like it when I’m comp’d at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, too. But truthfully, my degree of happiness isn’t remarkably greater at the latter than at the former. I like going places – that alone is enough to put a big smile on my face each day.

Since Monday morning, when I left Spokane, I’ve driven 545 miles through northern Idaho and Montana, spending Monday night in the remarkably cool and friendly ski-and-lake resort of Sandpoint, and Tuesday night in the somewhat sprawling but convenient recreation center of Kalispell (here’s the route on Google Maps). I’ve passed through a bunch of counties I’d never before visited. And, yes, the reason I assigned the domain name to this blog is that I have made it a goal to visit every county in the United States. There are roughly 3,068 of these, and I’m nearly up to 1,900 – so making progress.

I say “roughly” because, although you’d think there’d be no difficulty determining how many counties there are in America, a series of byzantine complications makes the exact number impossible to determine definitely. Alaska has boroughs as well as census-designated places (Louisiana’s use of parishes makes for a more simply converted county equivalent). Hawaii has four or five counties, depending on whom you ask. Virginia has certain cities that function effectively as separate counties. Now that I’ve helped lull you into a sound slumber, I’ll just add that I use 3,068, because that’s the official count given by NACO, the National Association of Counties.

Why would I attempt to visit every U.S. county? Eh, it’s getting late – I’ll save this for another day. But as I wrote above, I truly like going places – this includes returning to cities and towns and observing how they’ve changed since past visits, and it means constantly exploring new ones.

As I’m zipping pretty quickly across country right now, I’ve mostly just been catching a glimpse of each new community I encounter – and snapping lots of photos. My big highlight today was driving a span of the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road

A view from the dock behind historic Lake McDonald Lodge, in Glacier National Park

in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The road is closed for the 2010-2011 winter season between Avalanche Lake and Logan Pass, while work crews make major improvements. But I was able to drive about 15 miles into the park, from the West Glacier entrance, and explore the pebbly shores of Lake McDonald.

About an hour before dusk, I returned to U.S. 2 – the main road I’ve been using since leaving Sandpoint – and continued east through Lewis & Clark National Forest, crossing the Continental Divide as Marias Pass (elevation 5,216 feet).

Through the magic of trick photography, it appears my car is crossing the Continental Divide without me...

I love driving across those relatively abrupt features that mark a radical change from one kind of landscape to another, and the Continental Divide – especially in the northern United States – is exactly such a feature. To the west of this marker that mostly follows the crest of the Rocky Mountains from western Canada down to the Mexico border, all water ultimately drains into the Pacific – and to the east, all water eventually drains to the Atlantic (or, from parts of northern Canada, into the Arctic).

But as you cross the Continental Divide in northern Montana, you can truly see the radical change in topography and landscape. The dense, evergreen forests and soaring, snow-capped peaks to the west, which characterize much of Glacier National Park, give way to a vast, treeless, undulating carpet of grasslands and prairies, which are interrupted sporadically by more angular mesas and occasional “island” mountains. The transition is as sharp as the sheer crests of the Rocky Mountain range, and the climate changes just as dramatically as you cross the divide. It’s wet and comparatively mild, as is true throughout the Pacific Northwest, on the west side of the Rockies, but you immediately encounter a crisp, semi-arid climate – meaning searing hot summers and brutally cold and windy winters – to the east.

If, like most Americans, you live either in densely populated cities or increasingly crowded suburbs, you may occasionally fret about overpopulation. I don’t want to trivialize the serious problems we as a nation – and a planet – face between population growth and diminishing resources, but if you’ve ever driven across any of the states in the Mountain Time Zone – particularly the northern ones of Montana, Utah, and Wyoming (as well as the western sections of the Dakotas and Nebraska), you’re well aware that an enormous chunk of America is virtually uninhabited (although still heavily utilized for farming, lumber, mining, and the like).

Looking west toward the peaks of Glacier NP from the open prairies near Browning, MT

The section of my cross-country drive I’m presently undertaking is just what you should experience if you’re craving a little elbow room.

Tomorrow it’s on through northeastern Montana and across the western half of northern North Dakota – I’ve booked a room at a Comfort Inn in Minot. I’ve got a 487-mile drive ahead of me, none of it on interstates (although the 70 mph speed limit on even relatively minor Montana road helps my pace). It’s likely going to be the longest driving day of my trip, followed by a 320-mile drive to Winnipeg, Manitoba the next day. This is where North America’s wide, open spaces truly reveal themselves.

This entry was posted in Alaska, Cheap Motels, Hawaii, Hotels, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, National Parks, Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

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