Back on the Warrior Trail heading west, US 212 rises out of the Tongue River bottoms and into pretty ponderosa forest. The Northern Cheyenne economy once was dependent on logging, which is apparent in some of the small cuts and reforestation visible from the highway. You’ll see signs prohibiting the shooting of prairie dogs, once considered a varmint it still is in many circles but now valued by many as a symbol of the plains. Look for the telltale mounds in the fields behind barbed-wire fences. Following Alderson Creek, the highway eventually reaches Lame Deer, capital of the Northern Cheyenne nation. Don’t expect your typical small-town diners and motels; they aren’t here. There is a casino, expensive gas, and the Lame Deer Trading Post, a.k.a. The Big Store. Also in town are the sleek and modern Chief Little Wolf Hospital and Chief Dull Knife College, both named after one of two chiefs who brought the Northern Cheyenne here from Oklahoma to meet up with a group led by Two Moons.
If you’ve got real adventurous spirit, drive about 7 miles north of Lame Deer on MT 39, cross the reservation line, perch yourself on a log stool, and have a beer and burger at the notorious Jimtown Bar (406-477-6459) after which you’ll be able to boast that you’ve survived the toughest tavern in Montana. Don’t take our word for it; the Guinness Book of World Records has officially made the claim. If that seems a little intimidating, just go during the day when it’s decidedly tamer.
Returning to US 212, the highway follows Rosebud Creek upstream about 25 miles to Busby, where the Warrior Trail tour is complete.
Hardin: We don’t usually recommend chains, but the Super 8 Motel ($$, 406-665-1700) is well-maintained and includes continental breakfast, Wi-Fi, and flat-screen TVs (yes, this is considered an amenity in these parts). Likewise, the Rodeway Inn ($, 406-665-1870) is similar to the Super 8, but if you have kids in tow, you’ll probably appreciate the waterslide that’s open during the summer. For personality, though, nothing in the area tops the Kendrick House Inn Bed & Breakfast ($$, 406665-3035), an immaculately manicured 1915 Edwardian boarding house with five guest rooms/suites furnished with English and French period fixtures. A garden house was made from bricks salvaged from old Fort Custer when the Smiths restored the property some 20 years ago. The breakfast is typical fare, except for the lingonberry pancakes. We hope the Kendrick stays open, but as of press time the owners were debating whether to call it quits.
Birney: All of this vast country seems at your feet or at your horse’s shoes when you stay at the all-inclusive Lodge at Diamond Cross ($$$$, 406-757-2220), a 1930s working cattle ranch that blends the old and the new with a renovated lodge in the heart of 100,000 private acres. The Tongue River snakes its way through what was once a camping area for the Crow Indians. Laurie and Dick Hosford, licensed outfitters, can accommodate up to thirteen guests and offer a hands-on experience with the muscle, sweat, and simple pleasures of a modern-day cattle operation. camping: The Tongue River Reservoir State Park (406-234-0900) has every option and amenity for campers, ranging from forty busy paved sites with electrical hookups along the reservoir to a peaceful tent-oriented campground along the river about a half-mile below the dam.
The Crow call them awwakkule. To folks who grew up on the forested flanks of the Pryor
Mountains, they’re simply the Little People. Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, nobody actually has any proof of the existence of these mysterious peoples who are said to exist somewhere between the real and spiritual world. The Crow chief Plenty Coups said the awwakkule provided him with a vision of cooperation with the white people that prevented great Crow tragedy during westward expansion. A bar owner in Fromberg swears she has been visited by the Little People and had relics on display in the back of her building that, alas, perished in a fire.
No absolute evidence of the Little People has ever been established, and many Native cultures have legends of pygmy-sized peoples in their midst. But among the believers there is no doubt about the existence of these 18-inch-high humans with sharp teeth and remarkable strength, who fiercely protect the integrity of the Pryors, a little island range with more than 1,000 plant species, 200 types of birds, and plentiful remnants of vision quests made by Natives. Even Meriwether Lewis wrote about seeing 18-inch-high deavals that so frightened the Sioux in South Dakota they refused to go anywhere near them Adding to the legend of the Little People was the 1932 discovery of the mummified remains of a 14-inch-tall human in a mountain range south of Casper, Wyoming. Pedro The Mummy, which (or is it who?) was found in a sitting position with arms crossed, was taken to the University of Wyoming. X-rays were taken in 1950 and again in 1980, with conclusions ranging from identifying the entombed human as a violently beaten 65-year-old man to a preserved infant. Other such mummies have been found as far north as the Pryors as well.
Plenty Coups had two dreams involving the Little People. The first, when he was nine years old, was of a leader telling him he’d one day be a great chief. The second altered the course of Crow history. When he was 11, a Little People chief presented visions of white people one day swarming the land, replacing the buffalo with cattle. Crow chiefs helped him interpret the dream, saying it meant if the tribe listened to what was coming they would survive. The Crow were more cooperative with the coming whites than other tribes, and wound up with one of the country’s largest reservations because of it. Plenty Coups eventually became a farmer.
Legend or legacy, many in the Crow Nation and in area communities are adamant that the Little People exist in the Pryors. Indians traveling the Pryors leave tokens, claiming that Little People have protected them in the wilds, and that they’ve healed sick tribal members. And many Anglo hunters, campers, and hikers report some strange goings-on whenever they’re in these mysterious mountains.
Forest service cabins/lookouts: For a primitive retreat under the stars, the Custer National Forest’s Diamond Butte Lookout (406-784-2344, $25/sleeps four) about forty miles east of Birney is an attractive 30-foot masonry tower. It’s a pretty steep 60-yard hike from the end of the road to the lookout, but there’s a wagon for hauling gear. Also nearby, the 1930s Whitetail Cabin (406-7842344, $25/sleeps four) is easily accessible from the road even in winter, though in snow you’ll probably have to hike the length of a football field to the front door.
Hardin: Kerri and Greg Smith are back in the theatre and food biz. After leasing the restaurant side of the historic Lee building downtown, they’re now running 3 Brothers Bistro ($/$$, 406-545-5133, Tues.-Sat.), formerly Pizza & Java Company, as well as Centre Cinema next door. Their goal: provide a complete entertainment complex in which to nosh, imbibe, and play. Special touches include homemade pizza dough and sauce, house-smoked pork, tri-tip and salmon, 10 Montana craft beers on tap, a wine list (no box wine here), modern casino games, and first-run movies. Oh, and you can get your grub to go and eat while watching a flick next door. The bistro’s name is a nod to the Smiths’ three sons. The Ranch House Grill ($/$$, 406-665-1900, L/D) is a friendly and country-comfortable place, sans alcohol, completed by an active fireplace for cold winter days and an outdoor patio for warm summer evenings. When breakfast sandwich and burger prices are less than $10 and the most expensive dinner entree is a hand-cut, smoked, and grilled 12-ounce rib eye with all the necessary sides for less than 20 bucks, you definitely have our attention. However, as we’ve learned the hard way, if you’re in Hardin after 8 pm on a Sunday night, you won’t find much open except Pizza Hut ($/$$, 406-665-3334, L/D).
Crow agency: The Custer Battlefield Trading Post ($, 406-638-2270, B/L/D) has a variety of road food that comes in sit-down form or to-go boxes. We recommend the Bear Paw (Indian fry bread stuffed with taco meat, beans, cheese, and large enough for two hungry people), the potato or cowboy soup, or what they proudly call the best Indian taco in the West. While you wait for your food, shop for authentic Crow and Northern Cheyenne art, souvenirs, and crafts in their remodeled gallery.
Ashland: The first restaurant you’ll see on the trail after Crow Agency is the Hitching Post Cafe ($/$$, 406-784-2779, B/L/D Mon.-Sat.), which doesn’t offer anything fancy just solid home-style cooking such as fried chicken, burgers, and a sirloin steak dinner that comes with a potato, salad, veggies, roll, and dessert. But it’s the rich Crisco-crust homemade pie you’ll remember (especially if you order the peach variety).