Planning a road trip from Missouri to Montana

You can use your own imagination as you drive thru the tall prairie grasses with the sun shadowing your trail. The covered wagon or Indian travois in your imagination is in reality your silhouetted family truck. Reality be damned. You are on vacation from reality.

March is a month at the end of winter when the thoughts of spring travel emerge with the greening of grass.

This year the duties and visits that culminate around Easter will be over by April 1, which leaves the rest of April and all of May a time to travel when families are NOT.

March Madness is over and all the sports fans are home again. Only schoolchildren on school-sponsored trips are centering on the cities, which makes those cities a place to avoid for the rest of us during this time.

Why not strike out and go north through the unfettered and unpopulated prairies our ancestors crossed with courage and gumption, laced with a fair amount of determination and even some justifiable ignorance.

Daniel Boone opened the Wilderness Road passage through the Cumberland Gap in March of 1775. President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in April of 1803.

Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea crossed from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean in the northwest. This trip took two years, 1804 to 1806.

Judy Haas Smith

You can do the same trip in two weeks and you will get the better feeling of it all if you drive.

I am not a tour guide or agent, and I am not in the pay of any Chamber of Commerce luring you to any community.

I am just a curious American with a minimum of knowledge of the history and geography of the Midwest which has always been my home.

But having seen what I have seen, the “teacher” in me wants to urge others onto the trail.

Like others did for the western trails, I suggest starting from Kansas City or its suburb, Independence. Missouri is a beautiful state from its southern border, up both sides and through the middle.

Whether you begin at Neosho, Branson or Cape Girardeau, getting to Kansas City will be beautiful.

Strike out for Nebraska City and experience the width of the Missouri River Valley unencumbered by dense population centers.

At Nebraska City (which, believe it or not, was also part of the Santa Fe trail) you can begin your circle of discovery. I have enjoyed the places I am going to list, but it is not an exhaustive list and as you will be “on the road” you may wander at will.

Just be careful to stay gassed up as there are long and lingering empty stretches.

The suggested route is to turn west at Nebraska City. They have a Lewis and Clark museum and the home of Arbor Day with Arbor Lodge and Arboretum.

The Leids Conference Center is a great stopover, built in the style of the sturdy log lodges of Depression days but modern in every way.

Continue on toward Lincoln, Neb. This is a nice university town as a place to spend time or, if not, it is easy to drive through.

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I have stayed at B&Bs at home and abroad but this one is the favorite my husband discovered nine years ago. Every room has authentic historical items. We were in the Pony Express room. Google it!

And if you stay there, take all the advice of places to see from the owners… I hope those I met are still there. The gentleman has a fascinating personal history of long trail rides and builds sheep-kitchen wagons.

Make sure you drive through Nebraska along the North Platt River. I heard it said, “It’s a slow moving river they USED going west.” The “they” are geese, ducks, and sand hill cranes and, of course, the occasional pioneers.

Don’t miss lunch at Wall Drug Store, or the Train Tower at North Platt. It never occurred to me to wonder how trains get all their cars lined up for going to differing destinations, but you can watch this mammoth operation from a tower at the Union Pacific Bailey Yard in North Platt.  Think of it as the forerunner of Air Traffic Control.

I suggest you think of Great Falls, Montana, as your turn-around destination. On the way there, lots of places in Wyoming are worth the visit, and I especially like the long authentic western Main Street in Sheridan.

Midwestern towns have squares — which computes to four streets of storefronts plus ones leading to the Square with the ubiquitous courthouse.

Western towns seem to have Main Streets and Sheridan’s is 19 blocks long with the courthouse at one end.

At Great Falls you can visit the Charles M. Russell Museum, and home. “Charley” Russell’s family lived in a “well-to-do” neighborhood of St. Louis. Born there in 1880, Charley traveled as a teenager to Great Falls, known then as Great Falls of the Missouri River.

He made Great Falls his home. When an artist chooses to live in a place, you can bet it is beautiful.

Russell, along with Fredrick Remington, is today recognized as a classic painter of Western life and landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In fact, the Charley Russell Museum, which holds much of his art, is recognized as the Mecca of the Western genre art with its show and auction held each March since 1969.

This past year 1,000 people attended the three-day event and sales at the auctions surpassed five million dollars. One story from the press office relates that one fellow guest fell in love with an original art piece at the Friday night auction.

He had never before bought a piece of original art, but he sold his truck to buy his first piece of original art at the Charley Russell auction.

The last stopover, or the first if you reverse the route from Nebraska City, should be Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Last year the Wall Street Journal marked Sioux Falls as a place not to be missed.

It is not big, but it is old and grand as well as trendy with boutiques and a world-class bakery. The walks laid out along the falls are a treat for the eye and physical well-being.

There is a type of red granite through there that is unique and the grand granite buildings really look like they are built of marble stones, not facing. The bed of the falls is also of this granite and, therefore, exceptionally beautiful.

The nearby city of Brookings has the beautiful McCrory gardens and is also a university town. Towns that have colleges and universities are by definition full of things you can choose to learn about.

Mixing learning and beauty is a wonderful sort of vacation. I urge you on to plan something for yourself.

(Judy Haas Smith lives in Neosho.)

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