Montana Jones

Montana n: A state of the northwest United States bordering on Canada. Admitted as the 41st state in 1889. The fourth largest state in the union, it includes vast prairies and numerous majestic mountain ranges.
Syn: Treasure State, Big Sky Country, Last Best Place.

Jones n: slang. An addiction or very deep craving.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ask Montana Jones

Saw your blog and was wondering if you could give some insider knowledge on what it's like to travel I-90 in the beginning of December. We are thinking about relocating to Montana and would like to travel through on our way from Seattle to Florida. Any advice would be great!

Hi, nice to hear from you. I hope you enjoy your travels here in Montana.

Winter travel in Montana is all about the weather. Most of the time the roads are fine and you will think it no big deal. But if you are caught traveling during a snowstorm or right after a snowstorm life can get sucky in a hurry. Keep one eye on Montana weather conditions for about a week before your planned road trip and watch the forecast for when you are getting on the move. If there is little to no precipitation in the previous week, no worries, your trip will be a breeze. But in the spirit of doom and gloom and all things that could go wrong let's assume the worst to get you prepared.

The interstate highways, like in most of the country, are well maintained and easy driving. Except for that stretch past Missoula. I heard once that Missoula gets the lowest highway maintenance budget out of all of I-90. It has something to do with how the Missoula hippies tried to vote down and not allow interstate construction back when it was getting built. The hippies grumbled about pollution and congestion and wanted everyone to just hug trees instead of driving on big highways. Modern progress paved over the hippies with the compromise that Missoula gets the smallest slice of interstate maintenance pie and has the crappiest stretch of interstate highway in Montana as a result. Of course this could just be Montana hearsay and myth. Besides I am getting way off the point.

In general I-90 tends to get plowed quickly during and after a weather event. During a snowstorm and the next few days thereafter expect plenty of icy condition. And by icy I mean your vehicle can and will attempt to go down the road sideways. The locals, they love their 4-wheel drives and snow tires for this very reason. Just drive slow. Even if you are equipped with a decent winter vehicle none of the locals will appreciate digging someone from Seattle or Florida out of the ditch. So go slow. And every place you see one of those white cross markers on the roadside, go a little slower. Even when one of the locals tears past you in a humongous, noisy, rusted out pickup truck with a gun rack in the window, that is not a sign that the road is safe for you. That local has probably been driving on snow for most of his life and he certainly knows the local roads better than you. Or he is just in a big hurry to become one of those white crosses. Either way, don't imitate, be safe.

Now as you travel through our treasure state you will find in the western portions several mountain passes. What this means to you is that as you climb to higher elevations the roads can go from dry to icy without any warning. And to make it worse, you will be going up or down hill with lots of curves and turns on these sketchy roads. I am not ashamed to admit that Montana Jones himself has white knuckled the steering wheel while crossing the continental divide in the winter. Trying to negotiate icy corners, see through the backspray coated windshield, dodge big rigs, and not cut off the reckless locals while riding the breaks down a steep hill. Woo-hoo. Now that is driving excitement. Oh and if you are going to be doing this when there is recent snow on the roads, have some tire chains handy.

The eastern portion of the state has it's own problems. There is a lot of nothing out there. That stretch of I-90 between Billings and Sheridan Wyoming goes through some of the coldest, cruelest, harshest land I know of. Montana Jones fears a vehicle breakdown out there. Even if you are sticking with I-94 to the Dakotas, there is still a lot of nothing out there. I would hate a breakdown halfway between Billings and Miles City too.

If the weather is turning ugly and throwing snow I would like to recommend getting off the highway for a day or so. I like the Motel 6 on the west side of Billings because it is walking distance to a couple restaurants, a gas station, casinos and a porn shop. Not that I have ever used casinos and porn while held up in Billings or anything, just sayin'.

In my opinion the worst part about a winter Montana road trip is the darkness. At best you will only get about eight hours of decent daylight driving. If you are making your leisurely way through the state this is no big thing, but if you are on a schedule to get somewhere expect some driving in the dark. I recommend getting started early. Like 5:00 am sort of early. It will be nasty cold out, but I think that driving in the dark is a lot easier and safer when you are fresh and rested. I don't like driving in the dark in the evenings when I am tired. I think it's plain dangerous.

I am curious if there are other Montanans that have winter travel tips. Put 'em in a comment. What is the inside scoop on road construction these days?

So to sum up:

  • Watch the weather. Good weather means good driving, bad weather means bad driving. Give yourself extra time because you can't get through bad weather quickly.
  • Be sure you and your vehicle are prepared for ice and snow. If those weather reports you have been watching indicate lots of snow and precipitation you may want to have tire chains with you. Especially in the mountains.
  • You are going to need plenty of wiper fluid and some ice scrapers for the windshield.
  • Carry some food, water, and blankets just in case.
  • Be safe out there.

Oh, and one more thing, props to the highway workers who maintain the rest areas. I think that Montana has some of the nicest rest areas anywhere in the country. When I am road tripping through Montana I like to drink plenty of fluids and try to visit them all.

Montana Jones is not really a knowitall, but he plays one on the internet. Questions about travel, science, pornography and anything else are welcomed. Just write to

"That stretch of I-90 between Billings and Sheridan Wyoming goes through some of the coldest, cruelest, harshest land I know of."

That's my stomping ground you're talking about and your very harsh. Thinking about it maybe your not, but it is beautiful country.
I'm sorry Sarpy, I don't mean to disparage your back yard. You are right, it is some beautiful country. In fact one of my favorite parts of the drive in the summer months. The phrase 'big sky' is much easier to understand out where you live. The photos you post on your blog are remarkable. I could probably come up with a dozen more good things to say without difficulty.

But looking at it from a winter travelers perspective; there is more ice, cold and wind and less shelter or people than almost anywhere else in the nation. A fearful place to be a stranded traveler.

You are a better man than I for being able to live there.
Montana uses a chipseal pavement on highways that has more gravel in it than most parts of the country. Try to keep some distance between you and the vehicle in front of you, otherwise there's a tendency for bits of gravel to shoot up from their tires and leave a chip in your windshield.
Oh - but at least half of those nice rest areas - are closed in the winter. What's up with that?!
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