Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Favorite Road in Montana

     What is it that makes a road the "best", or your favorite to drive? Surely beauty is a criterion. Thoroughfares like the Going to the Sun Road, or the Beartooth Highway, are breathtakingly awesome. They are the postcard material of Montana. For me though beauty is only one aspect I desire. Another criterion would be "relaxability". The Going the the Sun Road is amazing, but it's too damn crowded. I spend way too much time trying to not run over bicyclists or rear end the white knuckled motorist in front of me, instead of taking in the grandeur.  My most important criterion though, is solitude. To me, the value of a road increases exponentially the more I feel I am the only soul on it. And that is why the Best F%&#ing Road in Montana is the Gravelly Range Road.
    The Gravelly Range Road rides the crest of the great Gravelly Mountains of southwest Montana for nearly 70 miles. This isn't just a pass between drainages, or a cut in the earth offering the enclosure of canyon walls. It's everything. Offering commanding views of nearly all of southwest Montana's mountain ranges, this road is the high trail of southwest Montana.
    The Gravelly Range is located south of Virginia City. The eastern flank of the range is marked by the long and beautiful Madison Valley. The southern fringes of the range end at the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge that sits sandwiched between the Gravellys and the Centennial Range. The west face of the Gravellys drop down into the Ruby River, above which the mighty and underappreciated summits of the Snowcrest Range shoot to the sky just a little further west. The North is marked by the Greenhorn Range, a subrange of the Gravellys, as well as the Tobacco Root Mountains. These mountains are unique. They are shaped like rolling hills, with grassy windswept summits, and dark forested canyons. Make no mistake though, these are mountains not hills. They rise over 5,000 feet from the valley floors around them to elevations well over 10,000 feet. Spring comes late, usually after the 4th of July, and just last week much of the Mountains still felt fresh and new, with green grass and beautiful wildflowers prospering in the high meadows. Meanwhile, the rest of the state is as dry as dirt.
     Cruisin the Crest
     The Gravelly Range is named because of the course pebble conglomerate that exists throughout the range and especially along its crest. It is similar in nature to the Sphinx Conglomerate of the Madison Range and the Beaverhead Conglomerate south of Dillon. Basement Rock in the lower reaches of the Range has in some places gone from Marble that has through millions of years, been altered to Talc. This Talc is unique to the world because it contains no Asbestos, and therefore poses no threat of cancer as opposed to other Talcs of the world. Few people know that Southwest Montana is one of, if not the, largest Talc producing districts in the world.
     The Gravellys could be a national park. They contain all of Montana's big, seldom seen, and endangered critters. I have seen Grizzly, Wolves, Antelope, Elk, and Deer in my drives across the range. Not only are they a safe place for the big animals. I have never seen so many predatory birds in one place as I have seen in the Gravelly Mountains. Hawks, Falcons and Eagles seem to fly like drones above your vehicle  as you traverse the high meadows. Maybe they are looking for movement in the grass caused by your gas powered chariot, or maybe it is just fun to fly above a car.
      A shady basin
     The way I usually access the road is south of Ennis. A few miles south of the wonderful town of Ennis, the Gravelly Range Road leaves Highway 287 to the west. You cross the plain of the Madison Valley until you arrive at the base of the Gravelly Mountains. From here, you begin to go up, and you will be doing so for a while. Once you are on the top, you cruise south. Staying above 8,000 feet for nearly the entire length of the range, you can see the whole of the Snowcrest Range to the west. To the east, the Madison Range towers above the valley. And in all directions, you see mountains and their ranges- nearly every range in Southwest Montana could be listed. You skip between high meadows along the crest, peaking over the west and east flanks as the road meanders, looking down into dark forested basins, that give way to deep lonely gulches. Flowers are everywhere. Much of this range is leased by ranchers, and there are herds of cows and sheep along the way, but the range is plenty big enough for both of you. Towards the southern end of the range you begin to see a giant bump in the rolling crest the road stays on. As you get closer it only becomes more beautiful and intimidating. Black Butte, the10,546 ft highpoint of the Gravelly Mountains, is a dark steep mass of rock and ice rising out of green and rolling meadows. The road cuts just to the east of it, and I highly recommend getting out and playing here. Numerous ponds dot the locations where snowdrifts last well into August, and climbing Black Butte will offer the traveler one of the finest views in Montana. From here you can head east, down Standard Creek to the West Fork of the Madison River and back to highway 287. If you want to keep on going, you can stay on the crests for another 15 or 20 miles,  until you finally drop down into the the southern foothills of the range, coming out in the beautiful Red Rock Valley. A two wheel drive vehicle is sufficient for the entire length of the road, given there is no snow, and you have good tires.
    Looking south to Black Butte

     This road has the beauty of any of the great roads in Montana -mountains, meadows, wildlife, water, and snow. It also is a very relaxing drive. The road is good, there are no narrow cliffs or traffic. Once you're on the crest you just cruise and take it in. Lastly, this road has solitude. On a beautiful August Saturday, just last weekend, I drove the length of the road for 70 miles. I met one family four-wheeling, two trucks, and government rig. If you are in Montana, or are a Montanan, or want a cool road to drive, drive this one. It's become a yearly thing for our family. I can't stress it enough. A road like this and the experience it offers could only exist in Montana. Drive this one now, before the snow flies, and the grass begins to brown.

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Boulder River and Map Error Posts In Action

     A couple days ago I was flipping through some magazines at the gym, waiting for my wife to get out of the locker room. One of the magazines was Distinctly Montana. This magazine comes out seasonally, with 4 issues a year. I don't  know exactly how I feel about it. It's definitely a publication of high quality as far as pictures and articles go, though it often seems directed at those who can afford 5,000 sq ft log homes and people interested in purchasing 6,000,000 dollar ranches- two subsets of the population I will never belong to. But its got some good stuff, and an online subscription is free if you're interested.One of the articles was an interview with journalist  Tom Brokaw, who owns a ranch in the foothills of the Absaroka Range.  Mr. Brokaw talks about his ranch, what he likes to do in Montana, and some western issues. One of the things Brokaw mentions is starting his days with a dip in the West Boulder River. The thing is, Distinctly Montana seems unaware of where the hell that is.
    I've written before about the existence of two Boulder Rivers in Montana, and the confusion that follows from duplicate toponyms. I've also written before about always cross-checking published maps with the map in your head. So as I sat there waiting for my wife, I looked through the map of Montana at the end of the magazine. Next to the map was the caption: "We thought it would be interesting to show you where some of the stories in this issue took place in our great state."  Being the maphead that I am, I took a good long gander.
      There it was. They put all this effort into creating a smooth and highly polished publication, and then completely misplace the location of Tom Brokaw and his Boulder River. Brokaw lives in the foothills of the Absaroka-Beartooth, by the Boulder River that flows north, out of the high peaks and into the Yellowstone River near Big Timber.  Their map though, has him swimming 150 miles to the northwest, in the Boulder River that flows southeast out of the great Boulder Batholith and into the Jefferson River near Cardwell. 

       And there you have it. Which Boulder River

    The wrong one.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Argumentum ad Verecundiam Applies to the Map

    You cannot trust maps. Even those maps that would seem to come from the most reliable sources are often wrong. In argumentation, the Appeal to Authority is fallacious as to whether or not a proposition is true. The same could be said for geographic information. When it comes to maps, there are no absolute authorities. 
    I have personally caught numerous egregious errors on publicly available maps printed by both Government and Private organizations. With almost any map, if you are aware of the ground truth of a region, you can usually spot an honest error in toponym location or spelling. Errors of geographic location are a little more rare, but satisfying to spot. The best errors to find are those where the cartographer has created an imaginary place that doesn't even exist on the ground. Today I'll point out a funny error from an organization that you would typically apply "authority" to. But, that would be a mistake.
    Imagine you wanted to find a town in Montana and how to get there. You could use Google or Bing, but probably you would prefer a map from those who maintain and catalog the roads themselves: The Montana Department of Transportation. I in no way mean to slight the MDT. They work hard and do a wonderful job, despite constant bitching from the populace regarding snowplows, road conditions, and construction. The road miles per capita for Montana is significant, the country and weather rough, and the miles traveled per person far. They couldn't do it without Federal money.
    Any way, say you and your wife wanted to take a trip from Helena, Montana to Corbin, Montana.  Maybe you want to check out The Alta, one of Montana's great historic silver mines on your way, and then head to Wickes, Montana, to see the old Beehive Kilns, which will probably be gone in a decade due to degradation. You dig through your trunk, and bust out your map. It's an older one from 2007, and this is what you see.

     Alright, so you'll head south on I-15 until you get to Clancy. From there you'll head south a few more miles to Alhambra, and then you'll take a road southwest until you get to Corbin. There is only one problem: This would be impossible. There is no road heading southwest out of Alhambra. Also, Corbin is in the wrong place! So, we have an imaginary road leading to a very real community which happens to be located in an imaginary place. Damn.  But wait, as your wife is berating you for being lost and cartographically clueless, your downcast eyes notice another map on the floorboard under a McDonald's sack. You pick it up and behold, a Montana Department of Transportation 2011 map. You open it up, and things don't make sense.

No longer is there a road that goes south of Clancy to Alhambra. No longer does a road even exit Alhambra to the southwest. No longer is Corbin up in the hills near the National Forest Boundary. Somehow it has migrated ten miles southeast, and is on a completely different road. Now you'll leave Helena and head to Jefferson City, take the road southwest out of that town, visit Corbin, and continue down the road to Wickes. On your way home you better stop in at Tings in Jefferson City for a beer. 

     Is this an egregious error? I'm aware that not alot of people travel to Corbin to sight see, and even less live in Corbin (Maybe 50). But an incorrect road from an incorrect source to a real community in an incorrect location from the folks who keep track of the roads is unexpected. This is just one error, I have found a few similar ones, from MDT maps, to Google Maps, to Bing, to USGS Quads. 
     Cartography is not dead. The world is not mapped. For one, the world is always changing, Geography is not static. Secondly, the data is always improving.  Maps are made by fallible human beings. Notice the elevation changes between the two maps. Between 2007 and 2011, the city of Townsend rose 35 feet, Jack Mountain shrunk by 13 feet, and someone kicked a rock off of Crow Peak, thereby reducing its elevation one foot. Not really. New Geodetic Controls taking advantage of more accurate Geoid estimates with more accurate instruments were probably used. I don't really know. I guarantee those numbers will change in the future as well. Maps are amazing tools. The information provided in the State Map would take Thousands upon Thousands of pages to portray that same information in text. Love your maps, but don't forget about the most useful one you have: the one in your head.