On the plains, we spot towns, like Augusta, by clumps of cottonwoods. In the heart of cattle country, Augusta hosts one of Montana's oldest small-town rodeos (Jun 26; 406/562-3477). Here, on July 8, 1806, Meriwether Lewis rejoiced "at finding ourselves in the plains of the Missouri which abound with game." We happily eat pie at Mel's Diner, then saunter across Main Street to check out the elk-skin purses at Latigo & Lace.
The real action, however, is in the mountains that rise to the west, ragged as the back of a stegosaur. We drive along Gibson Reservoir Road ― a route bordered by brown-eyed Susans and the Sun River ― past huge, upended slabs that look as if giants had a rock fight. At Tobin's fifth "when are we going to be there?" we reach the JJJ Wilderness Ranch, tucked in a swale of aspens.
What I will remember of the guest ranch is the ample log lodge, the peach cobbler, and the 60 quarter horses thundering from corral to pasture. My kids will remember their steeds, Taylor and Bob. On our trail ride, we pause at a high meadow to see the dazzling "steel-blue army of mountains," as writer Ivan Doig describes the Front, which "blade up ... as if charging into the air to strike first at storm and lightning." Tobin turns in his saddle and tells me this is the second-best day of his life.
Choteau: dinosaurs rule
Now we enter dinosaur country: Choteau. After buffalo burgers at the Log Cabin Café, we listen to the "Diggin' Up Bones" selection on the Antler Bar jukebox. Built near the more than 10,000-year-old Old North Trail, Choteau has an orderly Western feel, with a 1906 sandstone courthouse and wide, cottonwood-shaded streets.