An ode to the (free) official state highway map

And here’s to you, Robert Jordan

June 13, 2021 7:49 am

His name was going to be Robert Jordan. It was my nod to Hemingway’s hero in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” His Jordan was a fictional young man who left his job teaching Spanish at the University of Montana to blow up railroads and bridges during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.

Coincidental or not, Montana’s Gary Cooper played him in the movie.

I’ve searched through piles and files in search of the start to yet another aborted Great Montanan Novel, this one from at least 25 years ago. I can’t find it. As I recall, my Bob Jordan lived in a luxurious penthouse suite high above some big Eastern city. We might as well make it New York. He was a successful businessman but held the key to something greater, something with worldwide impact. His wife was lovely and well-educated. They’d met as graduate students at, say, Columbia University and had two wonderful children with wonderful kids of their own, a couple of which he’d never met.

Like many characters in Great American Novels, Robert Jordan’s life was in shambles. She wanted out of the marriage, the kids and grandkids lived in far-away states and he had, go figure, a drinking problem. Or maybe it was drugs. I was still channeling Hemingway.

As I recall, Jordan was alone in his study on a cold winter night seeking escape from his demons. He paced the floor, hoping that his (desk) telephone would ring with a friendly voice on the other end. He wound up in front of one of his ceiling-high bookcases. It was crammed with leatherbound first editions and modern classics, most of which he’d never read. Bob Jordan reached between two books and pulled out an Official Montana Highway Map from 1979-80. He unfolded it to unleash its wonders, an act that always brought him happiness.

His right forefinger found Jordan’s childhood home near the Rocky Mountain Front, perhaps Valier on Lake Francis, country of golden wheat and large fish, oil rigs, missile silos, a Hutterite colony and, these days, grizzly bears, just off the Blackfeet Reservation. Back then the map showed the confluence of Dupuyer and Badger creeks but did not designate Rock City, perhaps because it was on private land. It had been and remained Jordan’s favorite spot on earth. The hoodoos, otherworldly mushroom rock formations, were a smaller version of those found on the east side of the state at Makoshika State Park. But they belonged, or at least seemed to belong, to only him, him and Jenny, his junior-high crush and high-school sweetheart. She had graduated and gone the other direction, to California, where she was solidly married the last he’d heard at their 1993 class reunion.

Years before they had spent an eerie Halloween night together at Rock City, sitting on one of the prominent rocks overlooking the river below, ice storm clouds roiling to the west and north. Blackfeet friends from Heart Butte had warned about the water people who lurked in the depths of the rivers. It became a teenage dare to step in. In his New York high-rise, Jordan still pondered the ramifications if he had.

He squinted to smell the high-prairie darkness that once he’d vowed never to forsake, and to which he later said he’d never return. Nostalgia overwhelmed him as he opened the map to its fullest. It was beautiful. Though long outdated, it documented the broadcasting radio stations of Montana, back when FM (frequency-modulated) was the coming thing. KSEN 1150 AM and 96.3 FM out of Shelby had been his home base, with their noon Ag reports and broadcasts and rebroadcasts of high school games. And what memories our Jordan retained of CFAC out of Calgary, Peter Maher’s call and the rise and fall in volume of the crowd of a Flames hockey game. Yeah, baby. It hooked him more than any hockey he’d seen on television down here.

But Montana to Robert Jordan reached far beyond Valier. At my word-processing command, he brushed his hand over the highway map, from left to right, Idaho to the Dakotas. Tall pines tickled his palms, and he poked a finger into the icy swales of Flathead and Holland lakes. Wilderness areas – Cabinet to the north, Selway-Bitterroot down south, the immense, mystic Bob Marshall complex, and up and over the Great Divide. He traced famous river courses, swooshed over old gold diggings and, in small red type, Browning’s Museum of the Plains Indians, Ulm Pishkun, Robbers Roost …

And then the rises and falls of the rolling plains, where tiny rushes of antelope squirted beneath his hand. He lingered at fascinations: Sluice Box State Monument out of Great Falls, Granville Stuart’s ranch and Calamity Jane’s hangout at Giltedge, Deadman Basin, the Old Mission and Natural Bridge in the Little Rockies, War Horse National Wildlife Refuge at Winnett. Out to the true plains, imagination running free over coulees, alkali ponds and rattlesnakes.

Instead of monotony, Robert Jordan found intrigue in the white of the map, possibilities that he never could put into words. All that blue at Fort Peck and the witch’s leg inlet of Dry Creek, the purple map swales of the Terry Badlands, unexpected national forest lands outside of Ekalaka … You’d have to be mad not to love them with a fever.

In my memory Jordan’s hand paused and stopped at the Dakota border. His euphoria drained to an unquenchable sadness at the morning skies, mountain roads, Charlie Russell buttes, and tumbling creeks he’d never see. It was too late to recapture them, save the world or not.

And so the bare-bones start to another Great Montana Novel ended in a fizzle. Guess I’ll never know what happened next. Still I’m convinced that as hyperbolic, dogmatic, pragmatic, romantic, hypocritical, mean-spirited or well-meaning as our legislators in Helena may seem, each has and always had a piece of Robert Jordan II in her and him.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.