The Big Sky of Montana was obscured by smoke clouds. The air was dry, the ground was dry. The corn and sunflower fields were dry, Really parched corn so prices are peaking. We picked up a local agricultural newspaper and read that beef prices are falling because ranchers are selling their cattle because they cannot afford the feed to fatten them. Every county in Kansas has been declared a disaster area. The story here is drought.

Driving through Montana and across the North Dakota-South Dakota border, we looked at fields and pastures, pastures and fields, with here and there a creek or swamp or pond. The little towns on the maps sometimes turned out to be one ranch, or a small collection of abandoned buildings. We occasionally worried a bit as our gas gauge reached one-half and there were no towns near, and for several days in a row (we are slow learners) we ended up having late lunches. Because the towns are so small, unusual events like Smallest library - Roscoe, SD a road repair project fill the local motels; we always found a place, though.

But the country is beautiful. The landscape changes continually. Often the fields and pastures are edged by windbreaks of evergreens or cottonwoods or other trees; we imagine the windbreaks are greatly appreciated during winter blizzards. One can locate creeks or rivers by the mass of trees along the water's course. Antelope share pastures with cattle. A trio of horses found shade under a metal dinosaur. One morning the fog was so thick we couldn't drive and pulled into a roadside lot with access to a lake. We Harold "Poker" Kruger watched first one, then another truck pull up, each hauling a small boat -- we could only catch the outlines, but the fishermen moved quickly and confidently, unhooking their trailers and launching their boats. Maybe the fishing is better in fog; we don't know.

In Great Falls, Montana, we visited the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center which emphasized the difficult portage made by the explorers around the falls of the Big Sioux River. We were happy to find this national museum because many of the little local museums have now closed for the season (Memorial Day to Labor Day).

Near the western edge of South Dakota we picked up a brochure describing the Yellowstone Trail, the first transcontinental highway. It was the brainstorm of J. W. Parmley, a prominent resident of Ipswich, South Dakota, who wanted a reliable road from his town to Aberdeen, and the project grew, attracting boosters from towns all across South Dakota and Minnesota. Today, Ipswich has Tyrannosaurus equus made Mr. Parmley's home and office into museums (closed after Labor Day) and travelers can follow the yellow circles along U.S. Route 12, through Roscoe and Bowdle and Lemmon. And through Groton, where we stopped to visit the grave of some great-great grandparents, the Bells.

Somewhere along our road in Montana, we decided to leave the West and venture to the rich farmlands of the Central States. Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas are some of our least populated states. We're eager for country that is fully inhabited, where we can find more motels and supermarkets and book stores and people. Sooner or later we will want to return to this changeable, beautiful and difficult land, but now we're ready for a little more civilization and a little less frontier.