Road Trip Montana: Heading Home, East Glacier to Billings

There was one last night on the road before flying home, and I felt the distance the minute we pulled away from Glacier National Park. The mountains beseeched me to stay but as the tires rolled along, and the landscape grew flatter, I had to leave them behind.

Down that long stretch of road was home for the night – Great Falls, Montana. There was no commanding reason to stay in sleepy Great Falls except for the fact that it’s halfway between Many Glacier and Billings – and it contains the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge. We booked our room at the O’Hare Motor Inn because of this intriguing on-site bar, which boasts an adjacent pool with mermaids swimming around. We checked in and immediately went upstairs to check out the Sip ‘n Dip and snag a table, which were already in short supply at 5pm. The bar was dripping with kitch – tiki décor hanging from the rafters, monstrous-sized plates of wings, and fishbowl cocktails in shades of neon. And to top everything off – mermaids. The pool sits adjacent to the bar with a glass window connecting the two. Mermaids dressed in bedazzled bras and tails swam up and down and blew kisses at people sitting on bar stools. Sadly, we learned that 85-year-old “Piano Pat” who had played there nightly for 50 years had recently passed away. She was still displayed on all the souvenir postcards.

We ate our way through a 10-piece boneless wings that came out with 30 pieces. After an obligatory photo behind the bar with the mermaids waving in the background, we were tipsy and ready for some air. Outside on the deck we made friends with a few strangers – a 25-year-old who was driving to Alaska to work as a roadside construction sign-holder and heavily adorned 70-something woman on her first date since her husband passed away. The date was going well, she told us in the bathroom, and they were about to leave the bar together to walk his dog.

Nursing our sugary fishbowl-cocktail hangovers the next morning, we hit the road towards billings with a detour to the First People’s Buffalo Jump. It’s a National Historic Site where Native Americans would lure herds of buffalo into a stampede and trick them into going over a ledge that appears flat to the naked eye. This dangerous mission could result in an enormous supply of food and animal parts for the tribe. The site was used for 1,000 years.

You had to drive up a steep dirt road to reach the jump site from the visitor’s center. It was nearly empty. Standing at the top of the cliff in perfect silence was powerful. The land felt endless and whole. Wind howled and crickets (or snakes, as the signs warned?) buzzed inside the dry grass. I lingered to give my body time to internalize it, and maybe carry it home. That perfect feeling of active silence in an out-there place.

As we ended our eventual drive to Billings, the mountains faded away once and for all, and the pieces of wild silence were fewer. I had to let it go. We had a chill dinner in downtown Billings and joked about how much we needed to hike on our first “inactive” day. My body needed to climb but I only had sidewalks. The night air was still and peaceful though, and I stood at the hotel window and let it brush my face one more time. Exhale.

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