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The Beauty and Opportunity of Isolation in Montana

This large and largely unpopulated western state with a rich history is pioneering a new future by setting aside several million acres of public and private land to serve as natural habitat for returning bison and other displaced animals.

The White Cliffs section of the Missouri River in Montana.
The White Cliffs section of the Missouri River set against the Big Sky Country of Montana.
(Clay Jenkinson)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.

The great American novelist John Steinbeck liked North Dakota well enough when he passed through with his poodle Charley in October 1960, but then he crossed the border at Beach, N.D., and Wibaux, Mont. At that juncture he wrote, “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

I’ve had the good fortune to spend about half of this summer in Montana’s vastness, some of it in pursuit of Governing’s new initiative Listening to America, but also traveling in the wake of America’s most famous explorers, Lewis and Clark. Every year I lead a weeklong Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour in Montana and Idaho: three days canoeing in the remote White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, then three days hiking and camping on the Lolo Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s the happiest journey of my whole year. I come home leg-sore but renewed in important ways. I always drive to the embarkation points because the best way to see Montana is by automobile. That’s the only way to come to terms with just how much Montana there is.
Canoes on the shores of the Missouri River in the White Cliffs area.
A stop on the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River during the weeklong Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour in Montana and Idaho.
(Clay Jenkinson)
Karl Bodmer’s painting at Eagle camp in Montana.
Karl Bodmer’s painting at Eagle camp where members of the tour camp spend time at Le Barge, a famous landmark east and south of Fort Benton, much used during the steamboat and keelboat eras.
Montana is the fourth largest state, but only 43rd in population. You could fit Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Virginia into the boundaries of Montana with room to spare. It is home to two of the greatest National Parks, Glacier (1910) and Yellowstone (1872) and two of America’s premier rivers (the Yellowstone and the Missouri). Montana may not seem in our national mythology to be as empty as Texas, but it is in fact more than a dozen times emptier. Texas is just under two times larger than Montana and it has a population of 28.6 million. Montana’s population is merely 1.2 million, and much of that is concentrated in Billings, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, and Great Falls. The outback of Montana is barely inhabited at all.

That’s what I love most about it.

Over the last month, I’ve had the good fortune to drive some of the most remote stretches of Montana highway. There are landscapes east of Great Falls, Helena, and Bozeman that are so open, so lightly populated, so economically marginal, so far from everything, so long between village and town and crossroads post office, that even people who grew up here on the Great Plains feel a little agoraphobic — “I wouldn’t want the car to break down here.” The West signifies many things — mountains, great rivers, wildlife, National Parks, Native Americans — but its most salient characteristic is space. The feeling of being swallowed up by sheer space and overwhelmed by the big glaring sky reminds you of your insignificance and somehow makes you feel wonderfully alive. I get out of the car and stretch, all alone on a forgotten Montana landscape the size of Rhode Island.

I know driving a gasoline-powered car alone for thousands of miles around the American West for mostly recreational purposes is problematic — in the minds of some, this takes on planetary importance — but I just have to admit that I love it, love it almost more than anything in my life, and regard it somehow as one heart of the American dream: a reliable car, a credit card, blacktop highways, some synthetic red licorice, and nowhere that I really have to be.

When I cross these endless plains, I turn off the radio, open the windows of my car, slow down, and drink in the landscape. Gently rolling hills recede towards the far horizon. The plains are almost entirely treeless, but with a few scraggly cottonwoods in the coulees and along the creeks. Grass. Millions of acres of grass. Some sagebrush, a few juniper bushes, some yucca. With any luck, it won’t just be Angus and Hereford cattle on that grass, but a herd of pronghorn (America’s most elegant creature) will race across your viewshed for no apparent reason.


Lewis and Clark entered what is now Montana in the last days of April 1805, three weeks after leaving their winter quarters at a place they called Fort Mandan, and just one day after they reached the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers, the most significant tributary of the Upper Missouri. They found Montana dazzling and challenging in equal measure. In May and early June 1805, the vigorous winds of the Great Plains flummoxed them, reducing their forward progress to a few backbreaking miles per day. In fact, at one point Captain Meriwether Lewis wondered if the northern plains winds ever abated. (They do — sort of.) A month later they had to work an 18.25 mile portage around the waterfalls of the Missouri, five total, at today’s Great Falls. That took most of a month during which the heat and Herculean effort of moving tons of gear across the cactus plains exhausted men possessing the same capacity as today’s Navy SEALs. Meanwhile, they were hailed on with such violence that the captains feared their men might be killed by the concussions; and the ubiquitous grizzly bears were so menacing that Lewis and Clark killed every bear they could, with or without provocation.

All of that was before they butted up against the Rocky Mountains, which proved to be twice as high as predicted, so dense as to be nearly impenetrable, void of food, and no Cumberland Gap (1,631 feet high). I say I lead annual Lewis and Clark “adventures,” but they operate at the glamping end of the comfort spectrum.

The most amazing single fact of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s westbound time in Montana is that they made the entire transit without ever seeing a Native American — except for the only woman of their party, the Shoshone-Hidatsa woman Sacagawea, who was hired at Fort Mandan to help them purchase horses from her natal people the Shoshone. Expedition members saw plenty of “Indian sign,” but no Natives. The Crow, Blackfeet, and Assiniboine certainly saw the 33 mostly bearded pale strangers (plus an African American slave), but they chose not to invite a parley. Lewis and Clark saw nearly infinite numbers of four-leggeds, but no humans.

Nobody Wants to Live Here Anymore

Members of the Cultural Tour sitting on a grassy overlook.
Members of the Cultural Tour have wide swaths of remote Montana to themselves during their journey.
(Clay Jenkinson)
Gertrude Stein said, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.” It’s true — 340 million people but most of them are clustered up together in a fairly small amount of space.

Eastern Montana has been emptying out (of white people) almost from the moment it was first settled at the end of the 19th century. For one thing, the 1862 Homestead Act dumped a lot of earnest and innocent people, often Europeans, onto semi-arid rectangles that did not get enough rain to sustain crops. The homestead failure rate on the western reaches of the Great Plains was staggering. The plains of eastern Montana were and are so remote from markets that it doesn’t make perfect sense to live there. Add to this long, often brutal winters, semi-incessant winds, periodic droughts, a thin gene pool, and few amenities. What could go wrong?

Some people have heard of the infamous Poppers Thesis (1987), the sensible view by Rutgers University professors Deborah and Frank Popper, that as the Great Plains (inevitably) loses population until it reaches something like the bare minimum density to justify public services, it might make sense to contemplate establishing a “buffalo commons” in the abandoned zone, where the semi-arid plains would revert to a vast contiguous grassland, on which bison (also known as buffalo) and other plains animals could thrive again. The Popper’s modest proposal more or less drove the actual residents on the Great Plains nuts. They were denounced, be-damned, and derided — for reading accurately the likely demographic future of the region. They weren’t the first to imagine a buffalo commons, however. As far back as the 1830s, the painter and ethnologist George Catlin proposed designating the whole Great Plains north of Oklahoma a vast national prairie park:

“And what a splendid contemplation too, when one (who has traveled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A Nations Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

The Dream Realized?

More recently, an entity called the American Prairie Reserve (APR) has materialized, to piece together several million acres of public and private land into an unfenced grassland on which tens of thousands of pure buffalo will be able to thrive in their full natural habitat, side by side with all the other animals that will return once we sapiens withdraw. It’s a glorious, world-class idea, and I support it heartily. And yet, I feel sympathy with ranchers of east central Montana who see the APR as a threat to their pastoral heritage. What the Poppers would say, of course, is that the threat to heritage ranching is not from the prairie reserve, but from much larger economic and social forces that humans cannot control.

I’ve talked with some of these ranchers and I have deep respect for their work and their character. They and their families have toughed it out in one of the most unforgiving landscapes of North America for several difficult generations — the fires, the grasshoppers, the dust bowls, the killing blizzards, drought, low commodity prices, corrupt or inefficient railroads. And now suddenly along come extremely rich outsiders with their notions about “conservation,” outbidding longtime residents for ranches that should be raising cattle, not buffalo, and then flying away in their private jets without having the slightest idea of what it takes to live here!

Fortunately, it is not really a zero-sum game.

In my view, the American Prairie Reserve is an extraordinarily enlightened organization and it has bent over backwards in every way to respect, understand and accommodate the ranch and town concerns of the region. If the APR achieves its vision, the 3.5 million acre buffalo reserve will attract hundreds of thousands, even millions, of eco-tourists from all over the world, new enterprises on the main streets of Malta, Jordan and Lewistown, and wind up being one of the most noteworthy success stories in the history of rural redevelopment.

Still, I smile a bittersweet smile when I see the roadside signs: “Save the Cowboy. Stop the APR.”

Loving the Empty, Not Forgetting the Erasure

One of the best books about the Great Plains is Dan Flores’ American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, published in 2016. I once asked him in an interview to imagine himself being dropped into Montana in 1804 by a hot air balloon. “Turn around 360 degrees and tell me what you see.” Flores joyed in the experiment and spontaneously delivered one of the best descriptions of the Great Plains I’ve ever heard or read. An unplowed empire of grass in every direction forever. Remarkable quadrupeds clustered in gangs dotting the landscape: elk, several varieties of deer, bighorn sheep, buffalo, grizzly bears, beaver, prairie dogs, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, even some moose. Undammed rivers. No industrial noise: no cars, airplanes, tractors, grain dryers, oil derricks, or railroad slamming and hissing.

I said, “So you are saying that when I am camping or hiking now in a vast landscape where I have to concentrate to see signs of civilization, I’m still not really in American Serengeti, am I?”

“Nope,” he said. “The tragic truth of American history is that we Euro-Americans weren’t comfortable living here until we had erased much of what was synonymous with that Serengeti: bears, buffalo, wolves, mountain lions and the great majority of every other plains animal species — including, of course, the Native Americans who had been living here for centuries before Columbus bumped into America: the Lakota, Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Arapaho, Ute, Shoshone, Blackfeet, Assiniboine, Cree, Flathead, Nez Perce … .”

Erase and only then embrace.

There is a lot to ponder there, some of it troubling. I believe there will have to be a reckoning before there is a reconciliation, but the post-reconciliation social dynamic of Native and non-Native Americans living in some lovely symbiosis that cherishes the distinctions between the cultures would be one of the most redeeming moments in American history. It can be done. It’s going to take great leadership from both directions. In other words, the American Prairie Reserve is only the beginning of the project of creating a sustainable community on the Great Plains.

And Then the Yellowstone

A modern interstate highway (94) traces the path of the Yellowstone River all the way from Glendive (east) to Livingstone (west) or vice versa. The Yellowstone (692 miles, beginning with stunning beauty in Yellowstone National Park) is widely called “the longest undammed river in the continental United States.” Just how the Yellowstone escaped the “great industrialization” of the American West, I don’t know, but it reminds us of what an untrammeled American landscape might be. It is a living rebuke to its slightly larger cousin, the tamed Missouri, one of the most industrialized waterways in America, with six giant mainstem dams in eastern Montana and the Dakotas alone. Every couple of miles on that enchanted highway, you get a good look at the Yellowstone, now just to the right, now a mile off to the left, leisurely lacing its way to the Missouri, sometimes bright blue, heartbreakingly blue, sometimes shimmering silver in the hot Montana sun. Drives like that always put me in a Lee Greenwood mood: “God Bless the USA.”

But the Yellowstone corridor was also Custer’s Road to annihilation in 1876.

As I drove back to the Midwest a few days ago, I noticed that the grass of Montana had turned from pale green (early July) to a kind of tawny yellow with some remaining hints and highlights of green. It looked exactly like the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer’s “Landscape with Buffalo on the Upper Missouri,” painted in 1833.

Except there were no buffalo in my viewshed.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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