Pioneer Road Trips: Montana

Oregon Trail diorama

The Great American Road Trip

Destination: Montana

Book: The Way West (1949) by A. B. (Bud) Guthrie, Jr.

(And be sure and click over to Music Road to get your recommendation for the perfect CD to listen to on the road in Montana).

The United States of America, a heady mixture of people from all over the world, has a distinct mix of restlessness and the contradictory desire to settle down and cultivate the land, personified by the mountain men and the farmers who settled the West.

The tension between exploring and settling plays out in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Way West as Conestoga wagons bump over rough and dusty paths.   Dick Summers, the mountain man, becomes uneasy with civilized ways while Lije Evans, the farmer looking for new expanses of fertile fields, shows a penchant for organizing and civilizing the awesomely raw land over the Rockies.

I have to confess to cheating a little here, because this book is not exclusively set in Montana, nor does it exclusively portray the landscape of Montana, although journalist and author Bud Guthrie lived most all his life in that state.  My excuse is that no book I have read has done a better job of portraying the far western United States. This book covers many states with a story that I believe is important and essential.

Ken and I have road tripped through the glorious state of Montana (see a paean from now part-time resident Donna L. Hull.) There is a sense of “anything is possible” in those big skies and towering mountains. We headed for Glacier National Park on that trip.

We also took a road trip that followed the Oregon trail in Idaho and into eastern Oregon. We got out of the car and walked along ruts in the ground that were made 150 years ago by wagon wheels as settlers headed west.  We  looked out over the endless sweep of brown grassy  hills under the big skies of the West and tried to imagine how thrilling–and intimidating–that sight would be to people who came from little towns with clapboard houses and general stores and genteel entertainment.

Stagecoach on the road to Oregon

One of the most interesting museums I have ever visited stands on a high hill outside the small town of Baker City, Oregon. The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, shows dioramas, maps, and more that brings to life the experiences of families on the Conestoga Wagon road trip west.

I am particularly drawn to the history of these pioneer road trips because my great-great-grandfather Jesse Morgan left his mild life as a school teacher, not to mention his family, in Ohio and went west in search of gold.

In his recreation of the westward movement, Guthrie sensitively draws believable characters. For instance,  the young boy Brownie shows the awkwardness of late teens when the boy ponders as he rides:

What a person wondered was, were other people like him underneath or, more likely, solider and properer and not moved by crazy notions?

Guthrie gets inside his women characters as truly as his men. He made me suddenly realize why the western states gave the vote to women before the East. Lije ponders the role of women on the trail:

They had a kind of toughness in them that you might not think, seeing them in a parlor. So, on a trail, women came to speak and men to listen almost as to other men….They’d never quite believe again a woman was to look at but not to listen to.

Families on the Oregon Trail

There was a lot of time for thought as the oxen plodded along, and Lije thought:

Each reach of trail had taken toll…And yet–and yet–the thing was worth the cost.  No prize came easy.  Free land still had its price. A chance at better living had somehow to be earned. A nation couldn’t grow unless somebody dared.


Guthrie did not like the 1967 movie based on The Way West, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark, or the movie based on his earlier book ,The Big Sky, either.  He knew something about movies, having written the film script for the famous  Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955), always exploring that tension between settling and traveling on.

Do you have any ancestors who traveled on the Oregon/California Trails? Have you taken a road trip west to follow in their footsteps?  If you enjoy this discussion, please share it on Twitter or Facebook, or tell a friend. Thanks!

(By the way, Ken and I took the pictures on this post. Please no reuse without permission.)

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

12 thoughts on “Pioneer Road Trips: Montana

  1. Hi Vera,

    I just finished reading The Way West, a wonderful and moving story that takes the reader into the mindset of patience and perseverence required by pioneers who made the trip from eastern US to the West.

    I’m an Australian but have enjoyed two trips to the US. My enduring memory is hiring a car to drive from Havre Montana to the Little Big Horn battle field outside Billings. What a magnificent state Montana is, and replicated in parts of Australia. Another great book on journeying to Montana is the classic Lonesome Dove, which noone cannot enjoy.

    I hope to return to Montana again, and having read your blog, to visit the Oregon trail and enjoy the vistas seen by those hardy pioneers.

  2. Thanks, Vera for mentioning my post about falling in love with Montana. I’m particularly attracted to the mountain areas of Big Sky Country. When Alan and I took our Montana road trip this summer, we often remarked about what it would have been like to arrive by wagon train. I can’t imagine the hardships the early pioneers endured. I’ll be adding The Way West to my Montana reading list.

  3. I’ve always been fascinated with the early pioneers. Many of my own family members were amongst those who came across in covered wagons. I think this would be a great read!!

    (Happy New Year- congrats on how well your blog continues to do- Happy Birthday to the Blog)

  4. This sounds like a fascinating read. I recently saw True Grit and if I’m not mistaken much of the filming was done in Montana. Beautiful. The movie was amazing too.

  5. Haven’t (yet!) read Guthrie, but I’m a real admirer of Ivan Doig, many of whose books are set in Montana. Although any of his novels can be read alone, many characters appear in more than one book, even if only in the briefest of references. And most of the places are real, a fact I’m reminded of every time I drive across that beautiful and varied state.

    Doig’s latest novel, The Whistling Season, is set in very rural Montana in 1909. Like any really terrific story, it’s about so much more than a synopsis of the action.

  6. I have many connections to the Oregon Trail, not least of which is that I live in Boise, and the trail runs within a block of my home. :^) My wife’s ancestors traveled over the trail! Interesting note: The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center shows a film about the Oregon Trail featuring many actors from Boise! -r

    1. Our road trip through Idaho happened before I “met” you here at A Traveler’s Library, but we did go through Boise, and we stopped off at that fossil site that has wagon trails. In the West we’re fortunate to be so close to history, aren’t we?

  7. this reminded me of an exhibit in the Museum of Texas History — a family, a small covered wagon, some of the things they’d have brought along, and on the wall, a map of how that journey might have gone from central Mexico up to Texas and New Mexico. pioneers from that part of the world took long journeys too.

    1. Yes, the Oregon trail is so famous that we forget about all the other trails that went West. I was also surprised to learn last year that many Chinese immigrants came up through Mexico instead of through San Francisco.
      Met a guy last year who is curating a road trip exhibit for the Autry Museum in California, and they will feature the old trails that eventually became highways. The Museum of Texas History exhibit sounds like a smaller version of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Living in the West has made me so aware of those trails. Game trails-indigenous people’s trails-trappers trails-soldier’s trails-wagon trails- roads-superhighways.

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