Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day 7: Fairmont Resort to Great Falls

Fairmont to Helena: 83 miles
Tour Montana Historical Society and Cathedral of Saint Helena
Helena to Great Falls: 88 miles

Spectacular scenery alternated with art, history and architecture today. What more could you want?

Soon after we left the Fairmont resort, we passed Butte, and we could see the huge Berkeley Pit, a mining operation which is obviously even bigger than when we toured it some years ago.

East of Butte I-15 follows a natural pass through a sharp wall of mountains, climbing as high as 6368 feet and crossing the Great Continental Divide at Elk Park Pass. A divide is a geological term referring to a place that divides rivers that flow toward the Pacific ocean from those that flow toward the Atlantic. The Great Divide runs along the whole continent.

The highway descends to about 4100 feet, then goes up and down a curvy route through lower mountains, sometimes wooded with conifers, sometimes bare. I took a lot of video footage from the car but no still shots.

In Helena our first goal was the Montana Historical Society, known as Montana's Museum. Dan was interested in photographing the McKay collection of Charlie Russell paintings. The collection is a little disappointing because it is mainly his early work, not the best stuff. The best of his work is at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth and the Gilcrease in Tulsa, but it is good to see the development of your favorite artists. Dan photographed just about every painting—perhaps 30. I concentrated on the few works that depicted women or were not on the Western theme.

Here's an unusually intimate portrait by Charles Russell. The portrayal of a Native American woman is very convincing, but the model was actually his wife Nancy.

Charles M. Russell, Keeoma, 1898
Here's a Valentine that Russell painted as a prize at a charity auction at Nancy's suggestion, before the were married. To me, this model also looks like Nancy. It shows that Russell could have painted in a more traditional style if he had wanted to and that he was aware of the art around him.

Charles M. Russell, Valentine
In addition to the Russell collection, the museum has exhibits on various aspects of Montana's History. I was interested by wedding dresses for three different ethnic groups among the early settlers: white Europeans, Chinese, and Native American.

Three styles of wedding dresses in 19th Century Montana
One display had historical wedding garb—or modern versions—that kids could try on. Here are a couple of girls trying stuff on.

Playing dress-up to learn about history
Lunch almost turned into a crisis. It was late, maybe 2:30. Should we do fast food or something interesting? Research showed a trendy place called No Sweat CafĂ©, which had no website. We decided to check it out. It was nearby in Last Chance Gulch, which turned out to be the main street of the historical town, which now has several restaurants and shops. We had a hard time finding the place and a hard time parking, and it was so hot that it was befuddling. It turned out the restaurant closes at 2 p.m. By then I was too hot and hungry to be particular. In the next block I could see Bert and Ernie's Bar and Grill. I said, "We're eating there no matter what they serve." The air conditioning gave us immediate relief. The wait for the food was painfully long, but Dan got exceptionally good homemade vegetable beef soup, and I had a delectable poached salmon salad. So we were happy that we persisted, though it meant we had to skip the Capitol, which has a large mural by Russell that Dan wanted to shoot.

Late lunch
Just a few blocks up the street was the Cathedral of Helena. In case you've forgotten, a Cathedral is not just any old Catholic church, but the administrative seat for a huge area. This one is the most elaborately and tastefully decorated cathedrals in the late Gothic style west of the Mississippi river. Two levels of excellent stained glass windows and all the carving and gilding you could possibly hope for. We really enjoyed being there and shooting the windows. The only fly in the ointment was that two people were tuning the organ so there were long keening notes playing.

Cathedral of St. Helena
Outside it was so hot I could hardly walk. In the shade it was bearable, but in the sun it was like standing before a roaring fire.

The drive to Great Falls on I-15 north was very scenic going through the narrow canyons of the Missouri river. High cliffs, alternated with beautiful meadows and cottonwoods along the river. We spotted a few trout fishermen trying their luck.

We arrived in Great Falls around 6:30. The Best Western Heritage Inn is huge and sprawling. It has a restaurant, lounge, casino, and an espresso bar. It was great not to have to go looking for a dinner place. And the restaurant was actually quite good. The asparagus was freshly steamed for each order, and it never tasted so delectable. Dan enjoyed his flatiron steak.