It took much longer to get going Thursday morning than it was supposed to. Surely Lewis & Clark had those days when getting all their stuff together just seemed to take a while? It was very overcast as I headed out of Fort Peck, stopping by the interpretive centre, which is big on dinosaurs. And dinosaurs are big around these parts. There’s a dinosaur trail and everything. Turns out this bit of Montana is a goldmine for dinosaur fossils, including a T-Rex and a pleiosaur.

I drove up to the Lewis & Clark overlook (most of the places they camped around here are now submerged beneath Fort Peck Lake (the 5th largest man-made lake in the US). It started to rain.

I reached Havre, 180 miles away, some time later. It was still raining. Highway 2 had been busy and wet. This was also the furthest I’d been from the river since the journey began. Fort Peck Lake is in an enormous wildlife reserve and the road goes nowhere near it.

I had harboured vague thoughts of stopping in Havre (pronounced Harver) for a while. It has a strange-sounding underground city that’s 100 years old and is now a tourist attraction. I needed to get some supplies for my forthcoming two nights in a log cabin cooking for myself and of course get some petrol.

After doing my chores I left Havre without troubling its underground city. The rain was harder and I was conscious that I had 8 miles of unpaved road still to negotiate, which was going to be interesting in this weather.

Interesting it was. A combination of high winds, muddy paths, water-filled ditches, a hilly road and a two-wheel drive made for 8 miles of driving over which I didn’t have a great deal of control. Still, I made it in one sodden, muddy mess to Virgelle – a tiny community on the banks of the Missouri where I was going to be for the next two days.

Danny was inside the antique shop when I arrived, and it turned out was destined to be my guide the next day on the river. Although right now the chances of getting on the river seemed slim. Danny, 23, with a wispy red beard, baseball cap and a couple of piercings was a laid-back kinda guy. He’d only just starting working at Virgelle, home of the Missouri River Company.

He showed me to my log cabin, which was pretty small, but perfectly serviceable and surprisingly warm given that the wood-burning stove wasn’t on yet and given the conditions outside.

Later I met Don and Jim who run the operation – it’s part antique shop/part lodging/part outfitter (i.e., canoe & kayak rental + guides when needed). The outfitting is obviously the lucrative bit of the business. It’s run out of two buildings, the old Virgelle Mercantile shop and the Virgelle State Bank. I peered round both – chock full of vintage memorabilia and furniture – a real mixed bag of stuff, some of it really fantastic (see the next blog entry for photos of the main buildings).

I took a very squelchy walk to the riverbank to see how intimidating Big Muddy looked after all this rain. The sludgey water was moving at some speed and was very high on the banks. I wasn’t encouraged. It wasn’t the gentle sunny drifting-between-cliffs image from the website.

Back in my cabin and there was water on the floor. It was leaking from the back wall. Not badly, and turns out that happens when it’s windy and rainy. So, much of the year then. I decided to ignore it. I lit a fire, boiled some water, and proceeded to have one of the better meals I’d had over the past few days. This was the rustic life – only with Budweiser and Kalamata olives! Homesteading West Hampstead style!

The wind howled outside and the rain beat against the window. The light from the oil lamp wasn’t really enough even to read and the dark clouds wiped out the midsummer light. I crawled into bed at about 9.30pm and quickly fell asleep.

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