Alberta and Montana – the Ian Tyson way

We’ve been on the road, heading down through Alberta, then into Montana and eventually beyond, but there’s no hurry. What a pleasant way to spend a couple of days. Empty roads, empty heads, big skies, huge views and Ian Tyson as the soundtrack, with solid support from Paul Brandt. Those boys sure are capable of setting it down in a song when it comes to Alberta and Montana. Take your time…

Highway 2 from Calgary through Lethbridge, and then on to the U.S./Canadian border at Coutts/Sweetgrass is pretty scenic for a fast road. Almost all the way down you have the Rockies on your right, and it takes real willpower for me not to turn west, take a route into the mountains or at least over to the Cowboy Trail, and run parallel to Kananaskis Country and some fine rolling hills. I resisted the temptation, happy in the knowledge we’ll head home that way on the return journey.

Stopping for gas or a cup of coffee is a little like time travel, perhaps to an era grandparents would recognize, but some are still lucky to enjoy. It’s all “yes sir, and thank you ma’am”, to steal a phrase from Paul Brandt. Oh, I know there are real issues and problems with living in small towns and rural communities, but who can begrudge some  hopeful/wishful thinking when you’re on the road, the sun is shining, and you’re welcomed by smiling faces and no guile?

Small towns have their problems…

It isn’t all sunshine and scenery – if you’ve ever crossed at Coutts/Sweetgrass, you know that a first timer there might be forgiven for asking “Why is it called Montana? Where are the mountains?!” Squint hard in the haze and there are a few hills, but in truth, the landscape the road follows is a little desolate, somewhat scorched and wind blown in summer – there are prettier road crossings into Montana – but stick with the interstate (I-15) and by the time Great Falls approaches, it’ll all seem, well, more Montana-like.  More like Montana!

The Lewis and Clark expedition did not enjoy the heat and mosquitoes they experienced along the Missouri in Montana. We stopped and admired the view and the fortitude of the expedition members over two hundred years ago. There wasn’t a proper road between Great Falls and Helena until the 1930s, and today we can zoom through in comfort – so, heat and all, it is no hardship to stop every now and then to snap a picture or two.

Hills and mountains

After Great Falls, I love the I-15, the way the route rises and falls, curves and straightens through gentle hills, rugged mountains, rolling open range, and almost always shadowing rivers. What a wonderful landscape! Sometimes, evidence of human intervention in areas of natural beauty is irritating, yet I can’t help but admire Western trappings across this part of Montana, and wonder at how human endeavour shapes the land. I enjoy the wires strung along telegraph poles, the nodding donkeys of oil pumps, even the variety of fencing employed to keep livestock in or out. I always stare at the giant, insect-like watering contraptions that trundle steadily across arable land, sprinkling precious droplets to maintain growth. These machines remind me of the Wright brothers or Louis Bleriot – spindly yet almost early aeronautical in their design, just missing wings – which is a strange notion given their grounded and slow purpose. 

A lengthy watering contraption (and artfully-framed window photo by Mrs PlaidCamper)

Gazing at the view, taking care not to be too lulled by it (eyes on the road, PlaidCamper), it is easy to understand why the West exerts such a pull on our – my – imagination. The colours aren’t vibrant; ranges of grassland that stretch in yellows from straw gold to dun, and some shades of beige, with a little pale green in the mix every now and then. There are dark greens where stands of trees indicate rivers, streams and trusty water sources, and never far from these you’ll find black patches of cattle, small herds chewing contentedly. (How do I know they’re content? They must be – wouldn’t you chew contentedly with those views?) Acres and acres of grey-green dusty sagebrush, and mauve mountains behind blue mountains, with seemingly infinite ridgelines beyond ridgelines beyond… 

Rolling grasslands

There I go again, admiring a landscape and romanticizing a life I have almost no knowledge of other than in books and movies. I’ve never worked on a ranch, ridden a bull, or been on a cattle drive or roundup; I can barely get comfortable on a horse. This is where Ian Tyson is a compass for the misguided like me. Listen to his album Cowboyography; when you hear him sing Old Cheyenne, you’ll know what I mean. In a few brief verses he captures the bitter yearning love and loathing of being trapped doing something you can’t leave. Other songs on the album are about regret, loss, the wrong kind of pride, outlaws, and mistakes related to drinking and womanizing. I don’t think I’ve sold this very well – there are also songs full of good humour and love (although some of that might be mixed in with the drinking and womanizing…) One favourite is Springtime, an optimistic ranching poem, looking back then forward having “made it through another winter on the northern range.”

A shady picnic spot

This wasn’t meant to be an album review, I was supposed to be sharing a few thoughts about heading down through Alberta and Montana in the summer. Listening to Paul Brandt and Ian Tyson in these settings seems to help unlock these thoughts, ideas and Montana mumblings. Really, all I’m trying to say is that these are amazingly beautiful spaces and places, perfect for emptying your head of all the “important” stuff, and filling it with essentials instead. I’ll leave you with one unrealistic hope I have for this Montana trip, inspired by Ian Tyson singing about Charles Russell; that I’ll truly capture a Montana sunset. (Listen to Tyson singing The Gift, and you’ll get why it is an unrealistic hope!) 


Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a story, and keep your guy ropes secure.

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I am a would be outdoorsman - that is if I had more time, skills and knowledge. When I can, I love being outdoors, just camping, hiking, snowboarding, xc skiing, snowshoeing, paddling a canoe or trying something new. What I lack in ability, I make up for in enthusiasm and having a go. I'd never really survive for long out there in the wild, but I enjoy pretending I could if I had to...

23 thoughts on “Alberta and Montana – the Ian Tyson way”

  1. Great post! The countryside is beautiful and it sounds like you had a killer soundtrack for your adventure. I’ve never been that far west. Nor have I ever listened to Tyson. But I can totally understand romanticizing about a life you know nothing about! I sometimes think I’d like to be a cowboy – even though I’ve never done anything remotely close to that line of work and haven’t ridden a horse since 1994. More often, I imagine myself as a Hudson Bay trapper, living the mountain man life and surviving by my wits.

    For those of us not physically or mentally prepared for such difficult lives, that’s probably the best way to be a cowboy or a mountain man – in our daydreams.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Duncan. As an almost outdoorsman, I think you’re absolutely right – daydreams are where I’ll be found on the range or up trapping near the timberline. Maybe we were born in the wrong age…
      Enjoy your weekend!


  2. A fantastic post, pc! There’s something about roadtrips that sets our priorities straight, and your writing captured this, as well as the contemplative appreciation of moving on. I enjoyed the photos immensely–the vistas, exquisite–and I have the feeling you’ll be successful and capture a Montana sunset. Have a blast! 😀


    1. Happy you enjoyed the post, Jet! I love being on the road (we made it down to Twentynine Palms, here) but really looking forward to heading up to Montana and an attempt to capture the Montana sunset – although Charlie Russell owns them!
      Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Plaid, Wonderful post! I miss traveling through and fishing in Montana, as well as romanticizing life there in the mountains, but surely enjoyed riding through it vicariously in the Plaid mobile. I’ll give a listen to some Tyson tunes very soon. Enjoy your visit to the states, and make sure your ride through that MT sunset is a safe one.


  4. I really enjoyed this post, but of course I tend to enjoy all of your post.

    I, still, often find myself romanticizing a life in Wyoming or Montana tucked away in the mountains. I can only imagine the kind of thoughts you had driving through. It does open up the mind and the imagination. I also kind of the fact that you mentioned Paul Brandt….love some Paul Brandt and now because of you, I’m going to be checking out some more Ian Tyson. That song “The Gift” is quite addicting and I can see why that sunset you seek might be slightly unrealistic :). Have a great weekend!


  5. Great post! I have said more than I can remember, if I didn’t call Idaho home I would move to Montana. I love traveling through there, especially the western portion, and do so every chance I get. I have lost track of the road trips through Montana’s high rolling plains and mountains. Many years ago I was even privileged to help build a road through a very remote portion near Polaris & Wisdom (where several of our company saw Hank Williams, Jr. – he has a house there). Love Montana! Thanks for the excellent post and I hope it inspires many that have never been there to take the time.

    I have been to Twenty-Mine Palms, but didn’t enjoy it near as much. 🙂

    Stay safe!


    1. Thanks for sharing a story or two! Montana does have a pull…
      It is hot down here, and not scenic in the same way as Montana, but the desert early and late in the day has a certain attraction!
      I hope you are enjoying the weekend!


  6. I love driving through Montana. I could easily see myself living there at some point. As always when I read your posts I feel inspired to do something…this time a road trip to Montana seem very tempting. I hope you’ll share more from your trip 🙂


  7. Hello, and thanks for visiting my site. I loved this post! I am very familiar with the route, having traveled it many times as a teenager with my family. The pictures are beautiful and brought back a lot of memories.


  8. Tyson s set — with story-songs about his father, his daughter, travelling saddle salesmen, timber wolves and big Alberta skies — may have come off as creaky Canadiana if the tunes weren t so well-crafted and performed with such sympathetic, heart-tugging harmonies. Yellowhead to Yellowstone a song about change, loss, what to keep and what to let go, and handling all that, told in the voice of a wolf who is relocated from western Canada to Montana.


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