#305–Montana & Mission Possible . . .

The trip started with everything going wrong—an absolutely hellish experience—but things got better, thank goodness. In fact, after that first day, it turned out to be a most satisfying trip full of wonderful memories and a mission accomplished. Except for my brother going back with my dad when one of his brother’s died, the last time my sister and I had been in Montana was in 1992. That was the last time we had seen our Montana relatives.

What we needed to do and how to go about it

Back in 2010  my dad died, and he was cremated. Mom took care of his ashes until she died in 2017. After her cremation, my sister took care of both of their ashes. My dad’s wish was to have his ashes scattered on the homestead where he had been born and raised. And my mom’s wish was to be with my dad.

i Chuck and Jean Wilson, my parents, when they were much younger. (Photo Courtesy Harry Wilson.)

The summers of 2018 and ‘19 didn’t work out for us to go to Montana, and nobody went anywhere in 2020. So, 2021 seemed the best time to accomplish this mission. The planning began last January. My brother Harry, my sister Edna, and I had numerous back-and-forth emails and decided to go the last two weeks of August. I would contact the one cousin. Drea, with whom I was still in contact in Montana.

After numerous emails over months, it was decided to stick with the August time frame, and include cousin Drea and her husband, Dick, in our plans. She suggested a gravestone, and we agreed. We decided what to put on it, but I needed an address in Montana to send it to once it was ordered. Drea contacted our cousin Jimmy’s widow, Terry to find out who had the homestead, which was part of a much larger ranch today and to get permission to scatter ashes. And to find out about the family cemetery located on ranch property.

Only weeks before we were to leave, I finally talked to my second cousin Jimmy Dean who was now the owner of the ranch and caretaker of the cemetery and got his permission and address. The ranch is still in the family and has been since it was homesteaded in 1908.

My brother who lives near Reno with his wife Jayne, my sister who lives in Bakersfield, California, and I would all meet in Twin Falls, Idaho, and travel together from there. My sister would come up to Eugene where I would meet her. Then we would spend the first night in Burns and next night in Twin Falls. My brother worked out an itinerary and made some of the motel reservations, and I made the Montana contacts and did the rest of the reservations. It was all coming together.  

The proof of the gravestone ordered.

Then problems emerged, I ordered the gravestone, but it wouldn’t arrive in time. It would be a couple weeks after our trip. Dang! So, I had a placeholder made by having a large photocopy made of the proof sent to my by the gravestone company. I put it in a plastic sleeve and added foamboard to protect it and to make it sturdy. It was not quite as large as the real thing, but it would work temporarily.

Then, my sister, who was coming to Eugene by train—the Coastal Starlight––to connect with me, found out only days before the trip that the Dixie fire had burned some of the train tracks and that route was postposed indefinitely. After some madcap, last-minute scrambling, my sister got to Sacramento where Harry and Jayne met her and then they got started on the trip.

My hellish first day

I had most things packed prior to the day I was leaving, but left clothes and personal stuff til that morning, so got a later start than planned. Finally, got loaded and put the destination on the map app on my iPhone, filled up with gas and hit the road. I had never used GPS before—one of very few, I’m sure. Two mistakes: I didn’t plug in the phone to keep it charged, and I didn’t realize I could choose the route I wanted. So, it chose a different route than I planned, and the phone died at a crucial time.

This viewpoint of a mountain peak was not even visible through the smoke on the first day of the trip.

On the coast where I live, there had been no smoke from wildfires all summer and the temps had been between low 60s and high 60s with an occasional warm day in the low 70s. As soon as I got over the coastal mountains, I was in smoke, not bad though and definitely warmer.

By the time I realized I was no longer on Hwy 126 but on Hwy 58, I didn’t want to try to go back. It’s really difficult to follow Hwy 126 through Eugene. So, I continued on. It got hotter and hotter and smokier and smokier. I began choking on the smoke and feeling sick to my stomach and was quite hot even though the air conditioning was working. Going through the mountains was truly hellish. The smokiness got slightly better on the other side of the Cascades, but it continued to get hotter. The car showed 99 to 101 from mid-day on.

I seemed to be heading north and entering suburbs of Bend. I had run off maps months ahead and planned to take a shortcut to avoid Bend. And so did the GPS. I got halfway through the shortcut and the road to turn on was closed. At that point, the phone died. Not good! I didn’t have a clue where I was in relation to Hwy 20, which I needed to find. And I hadn’t had lunch, and I was hungry.

So, I pulled into a mini-mall parking lot and plugged in my phone and pulled out my cooler. I had packed everything that might spoil from my fridge at home. After eating some lunch, my phone had enough charge to get me out of the Bend area and to Hwy 20. I was very relieved. It was a long, hot but uneventful trip to Burns.

Dinosaur skeletons on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

When I got to the motel, I had a new set of troubles. They couldn’t find that I had previously paid for my room and wanted to charge me again. This is the motel that had a reasonable rate, but a $59 recovery tax or some such thing tacked on, which I didn’t find out about until days after making the reservation when the confirmation arrived via email. It was also the only motel of the trip that billed my credit card before I arrived. Now they wanted to bill me again. AARRGGHH!! couldn’t believe it. It took 1 ½ hours for them to resolve the problem and give me a room. This on top of being so hot I thought I would pass out as well as feeling queasy from the smoke, I was not a happy camper. Definitely won’t recommend this motel.   

What a difference a day makes

The next day, the weather cooled to mid-80s, the smoke became less and less as I traveled north, and I was more confident in using the GPS. I went straight from Burns to Twin Falls with no problems. I stopped at rest stops where I walked and ate more from my cooler. Followed my GPS without getting lost. And Edna emailed me to forewarn me about which of the buildings to go to at our motel in Twin Falls. I found it, parked, turned to grab some stuff, and turned back to see Harry and Jayne outside the car, welcoming me.

Dick and Drea welcomed us into their home.

What a sight for sore eyes. I hadn’t seen them since I was in Bakersfield in December 2019. Then I met my sister in the room we were to share. Within a few minutes of my arrival, the wind picked up and became quite wild. After awhile, it settled down and it was noticeably cooler. Very strange, but I wasn’t complaining. I’m a fan of cooler weather! I settled in, and then we all went to dinner. A lovely evening even though the noodles place we ended up at had so-so food. It was just so nice to be together again.


My sister and I both inherited the non-geek gene, so from time to time, we couldn’t get the iPhone to cooperate in finding a particular place in town or to figure out why sometimes we had a voice directing us and sometimes we didn’t. We always ended up where we were headed, but sometimes took circuitous routes. It was just part of the adventure.

We had a lovely visit with my cousin Ceil.

Our two cars did not travel together which meant we could stop wherever we wanted to take photos, go to the restroom, explore, whatever. We decided to meet in Rexburg for lunch. Since Harry and Jayne got there first, they decided where to eat and then called us. We hunted around until we found it. Then on to Bozeman, where even though we didn’t travel together, we arrived within a few minutes of each other at this motel where I’d made reservations.

It was a nice place to stay. We ate at a trendy restaurant called Plonk and everything was delish! Wonderful food, wonderful conversation—a great evening. We found that everything was very expensive in Bozeman. I wanted to visit the Museum of the Rockies, which we had seen back in 1992. So, that’s where we spent a good chunk of the day. Their claim to fame has to do with dinosaurs, They have great exhibits and work with excavating and preserving dinosaur bones. Very impressive displays of dinosaur skeletons and you can see the paleontologists at work.

Then we headed to Helena. We were to meet in Three Forks for lunch, but did not connect. So, Edna and I ate from my cooler and her own stash of food. We didn’t starve.

Helena & Great Falls 

Actually, we never made it to Helena. Drea and Dick live closer to Lake Helena. They have a lovely home and had two bedrooms and a fitness room with a hide-a-bed for us. Although, we hadn’t seen each other since 1992, we got along famously. We spent that first afternoon just catching up. And more lovely conversation around the dinner table that evening.They were fabulous hosts.

A Charlie Russell painting of himself on his horse Redbird.

The next day, we went to Great Falls to see Drea’s sister and our cousin, Ceil. We had a lovely visit, but she would not be joining us in going to the ranch, since her husband was recovering from a stroke.

Since we were in Great Falls and I had always wanted to see the C.M. Russell Museum, we did. And it was fabulous. I have never seen so many Charlie Russell paintings and sculptures at one time. He was a favorite of my dad. Because of that, I would get Dad a Charlie Russell calendar every year. We also saw and toured his home and saw his log cabin studio where he painted. I was thrilled to be there. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

That evening, we got to see old video tapes taken back in 1992 of when my Dad, and his sister  (Drea’s mom) and his brother—the only ones of eight children still alive—talk about when they were growing up. We had all been there when it was taped and Dick had done the videotaping. It was great fun to watch and remember. We sat up and talked and didn’t get to bed until after midnight. The next day, we would be heading to Roundup.


On the way to Roundup, Drea and Dick had a few places in mind that we might want to see. One was the Charles M. Bair Family Museum. It was a large, lovely ranch house preserved as a museum of primarily western and native art, of which many were Charlie Russell paintings. Charles Bair was one of the largest wool-growers in the world at one time. Then he went to Alaska during the gold rush and made a fortune inventing a way to extract gold from the frozen tundra. He came back to Montana and continued with sheep and built a fabulous ranch house. It was definitely worth visiting. . . . Gee, three museums so far on this trip. Love it!

Harry in the background with Jayne, me, and Edna in front at one of the old, weathered remains of a building on the old homestead.

Although, Roundup is about 45 miles from the ranch, it was the closest place with a motel. It had three motels, and we picked probably the best one. We had three rooms–Edna and I, Harry and Jayne, and Drea and Dick.  We would be spending two nights.

The restaurants were limited in town; both nights, dinners were so-so. But the breakfasts were wonderful at the Busy Bee Cafe.  It was the typical small town diner where everybody knows everybody, so we instantly stood out as out-of-towners. The cook came out to welcome us the first day and the second day, so did the owner. The food and service were wonderful. Too bad they didn’t also offer dinner.

The Big Day

We stopped at a grocery with a deli and ordered a dozen sandwiches and got some sodas and chips. After a wonderful breakfast, we picked up the sandwiches and headed for the ranch. This was the big day. This was the reason we had come to Montana. Harry had the two sets of ashes. I brought some cups to help with the scattering, and I had the placeholder gravestone.

Edna and I rode with Drea and Dick in their large four-seater pick-up and Harry and Jayne were in Harry’s sporty Accura. Unfortunately for Harry, the road from the nearest town to the ranch was 12 miles and unpaved. I was surprised that Melstone, a town of about 300 population, had no paved streets. That’s how I remembered it from when I was a kid visiting Montana relatives back in the 1950s Some things don’t change.

After we had scattered the ashes.

We arrived at Jimmy Dean’s ranch house and his wife, Pattie, was there to greet us. We brought the sandwiches etc into the house. Jimmy Dean was still out bushwhacking the area at the Homestead, so we could drive into it. After he arrived, we chatted awhile, becoming acquainted. We had never met Jimmy Dean and Pattie in person, but we were connected by family.

Before long, we were back in our vehicles following Jimmy Dean in his pickup. We headed to the homestead where no buildings were left standing in good shape. The couple that were there were in ruins. We looked around, took photos, got out the ashes, and scattered them. It was a gorgeous day in the 70s, sunny with high clouds and a light breeze—perfect for out purposes. Then Pattie arrived with Terry, Jimmy Dean’s mom. She had been at the 1992 reunion, and I remembered her.

The placeholder gravestone looks small with its rocks to keep it from blowing away.

We went to the cemetery, where we scattered the last of the ashes. Jimmy Dean got a rake out of the back of his pickup and smoothed a spot for the placeholder gravestone. We laid it down and had to anchor it with rocks. That way, it would not blow away. We spent some time there checking out all the gravestones of dad’s parents and brothers and sister that surround where he and mom’s gravestone will be. After awhile, we all headed back to the ranch house, where we chowed down on the sandwiches and chips we brought with potato salad and other goodies that Pattie had prepared. We sat and chatted late into the afternoon. Jimmy got out the cemetery book that went back more than 100 years. And we had at least three copies with us all trip of the book I had written back in 1991.

The actual gravestone has been set in place between two of Dad’s brothers. This photo was taken two weeks after we had returned home about the first of September. (Photo by Jimmy Dean Wilson.)

I had sent Jimmy Dean a copy just before we left for Montana. The book was called “Jean and Chuck, the Interesting Years.” And Dad’s part was his first 18 years growing up on the homestead. I had my copy and Drea had her copy, that I’d sent her and all the relatives back in 1991. More than once I heard someone say, “Charlie said . . . “ when reading from the book. Because of that book and because Drea had just been to Dick’s family reunion, Drea helped spearhead the family reunion back in 1992. And this trip had turned into another family reunion.

That night we had a so-so dinner of pizza at the Mavarick bar and casino in Roundup, one of the only places to eat in town that was open. The next morning after another fabulous breakfast at the Busy Bee, we headed our separate ways. Drea and Dick headed back towards Helena. And Harry and Jayne and Edna and I were off to Yellowstone and the Tetons.

On this first half of the trip, we accomplished our mission to scatter the ashes of our parents. And we got to reconnect with cousins we hadn’t seen in decades and met a second cousin, all of which was quite wonderful.  

About crossingsauthor

Judy Fleagle spent 22 years teaching 1st and 2nd grades and 21 years as editor/staff writer with Oregon Coast and Northwest Travel magazines.Since 2009, she has written five books: "Crossings: McCullough's Coastal Bridges," "The Crossings Guide to Oregon's Coastal Spans," "Around Florence," "Devil Cat and Other Colorful Animals I Have Known," and "The Oregon Coast Guide to the UNEXPECTED!!!."
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