That morning, we had seen on our map that the only choice for overnight accommodations was a campground at the crossroads of Montana Highway 200 and U.S. 287. It was named Bowmans Corners, and Bowman's Saloon was the building we had seen from far away — a lonely, dilapidated wood structure, right out of Gunsmoke but without Miss Kitty or the rest of Dodge City.
In the course of our conversation [with Elaine, the mother of four young girls we met outside the saloon], Alice said, "Do you think it's OK for us to spend the night here? Aren't people apt to get rowdy when it gets late? No one else is camping here and it looks like we'll be alone when the bar closes."
Elaine laughed. "You'll be perfectly fine. It's a Wednesday night, not the weekend — and this is Montana!"
When the men finished their business inside, one of them, in a crisp white shirt, the westerner's requisite blue jeans, and well-worn boots, strode over to our campsite. He had a guitar slung over one shoulder. The little girls followed close behind.
"Elaine here tells me you gals are worried about your safety," the cowboy drawled, a smile splitting his handsome, weathered face. "Well, let me just tell you — this is Montana."
There it was again. Without explaining further he picked up his guitar and began to sing. We don't recall the name of the first song in his serenade, but it was a medley that included strains of "Home on the Range." Alice snapped his photo as he sang one tune after another, while I wished just for a moment that I could trade in my bicycle for a horse and live the cowgirl life. He ended the impromptu concert with "Cowboy Jack," a tragic tale of love and loss on the frontier, allegedly the oldest cowboy song in the West. After singing, he shared some Montana lore with us and answered our questions about ranching. He talked about a rancher's "brand book" and drew pictures in our notebooks to show how brands are designed and how they are modified and passed down through the generations. He even showed us how our own initials might be used to design brands for our families. We learned his real name, but we will forever remember him as Cowboy Mike, the man who set our minds at ease about our safety in Montana.
Honeywell, Alice and Bobbi Montgomery. Across America by Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi's Summer on Wheels, 2010 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin system. Reprinted courtesy of The University of Wisconsin Press. Read an interview with Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery.
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