Montana Remains "High, Wide, and Handsome"

Big sky views from prairie country

Big sky views from prairie country

“Colorado is high, having more peaks within its borders than any other state. Wyoming is wide, with the breadth of the plains between the Bighorns and the Grand Tetons. California is handsome, with a splendor of success. It takes all three adjectives to describe Montana.”

In 1941, Donald Curloss Peattie, a naturalist of the 1920s through the 1950s, included these words in his book “The Road of a Naturalist.” In 1943, Montana newsman and writer Joseph Kinsey Howard took the three descriptives and titled his book “Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome,” which when first released received wide critical acclaim. Today, this classic history of the state is considered, according to a survey by Humanities Montana, to be one of the best Montana books ever published. It is “a spirited, appreciative testimony to the great prairie and mountain landscapes, their indigenous peoples, geography, climate, land wars, economy and environment.”            

As a journalist and historian who made every effort to draw attention to the social, political and economic struggles of Montana, Howard was one of the most influential and controversial figures in the state during the 1930s and ’40s.

Howard’s legacy lay in words and thoughts. Clear and vibrant, they tell much about the man and his love for this state. In Montana Margins he wrote, “In Montana … the elemental values of life have been too often overlooked — space and freedom, sun and clean air, the cold and majesty of the mountains and the loneliness of the plains, the gaiety of the country dance, the easy friendliness of the people. There are the margins around the sometimes-fretful business of earning a living. And these are what Thoreau meant when he said, ‘I loved a broad margin to my life,’ these are the beauties in Montana.”

With only a few pockets of growth, most of Montana remains long on magnificent scenery and open spaces – high, wide, handsome – and short on the human imprint. Long stretches of roadways traverse geography where the sight of anything more than an old cabin or a piece of farm or ranch equipment – wildlife or domestic stock would be more likely – is uncommon. A fine example is “lonesome” U.S. Highway 200, which climbs out of the small central Montana community of Lewistown, crosses a pass between the Judith and Big Snowy mountains, tumbles down the east side and opens to the true land of big sky – Montana east of the mountains.

From the tiny ranching community of Grass Range at the foot of a passage and the Highway 200 and U.S. 191 intersection pointing toward the sunrise – itself a lonely location – it is possible to travel 100 miles and rarely see a car. And in 250 miles, the distance between that pass above Lewistown and North Dakota, only a few small settlements are encountered and the population of those places combined does not surpass 3,000 people. Every quadrant of the state has these great distances, where people and their structures are few.

As of the last census, Montana’s headcount was 989,415. Only one Montana city, Billings, had a population over 100,000, and just barely at 104,170. And this prairie community is Montana’s largest by far. The residents of the six most populated places make up about 38 percent of the total. The space these six towns occupy could be placed side-by-side in any corner of the state and only take up not much more land than an outsized ranch. Assemble their surrounding areas (beyond the town limits) into the equation and the percentage isn’t much greater. In this case, perhaps two significantly sized ranches could handle the blend of boundaries and inhabitants.

The balance of our state population is well scattered in towns of less than – and in most cases far less than – 5,000. To put that into perspective, consider the scope of Montana. Heading east from the far northwest corner across the northern tier of the state, an odometer will log 660 road miles before reaching the “Dakota” line. Following an angle from northwest to southeast, 752 miles will register.

Both designated and de facto wilderness, including vast forestlands, wild river canyons, prairie badlands and uncluttered vistas, make up most of Big Sky Country. Peattie’s language, then, penned in 1941, describing this state of ours as being high, wide and handsome, still rings loud, clear and true.

Rick and Susie Graetz | Department of Geography | University of Montana

The high peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

The high peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)