Maybe this is a familiar feeling: You wake up feeling restless. Chores are mounting. There’s no bread in the house and no plans for dinner, so a grocery trip is required.
There’s only one thing to do: Put off the must-do’s a bit longer and head out for a meandering drive. Maybe you’ll spot trees and bushes turning gold or crimson, or geese on their way south, or bucks bulking up for winter. All you need is a few hours and a tank of gas.
A favorite procrastination destination for me is the National Bison Range because it opens early: I can leave Missoula at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., take a slow ride through the park, maybe see antelope or a bear or a hawk, and be back in Missoula by noon. The shorter Prairie Drive is open year-round, but the longer Red Sleep Mountain Drive closes sometime in October, depending on weather. It takes about two hours; now’s a good time to go for a season finale through the entire park.
Recently I’ve been meandering along Highway 12, which I hadn’t done for years. It’s a beautiful drive in the fall, and certainly a route that has all of the iconic reminders of Montana history and landscape: ranches, cattle, horses, timber, scars of wildfires past, Lolo Peak, creeks, Lolo Hot Springs, lands where Native Americans hunted and gathered and lived, a spot where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition camped in 1805 and 1806 (Traveler’s Rest in Lolo), and a place where the U.S. Army intended to intercept the Nez Perce as they traveled from Idaho over Lolo Pass (Fort Fizzle, whose name suggests the outcome).
Lochsa Lodge in Idaho is about 75 minutes from Missoula off Highway 12, so timed right, it's a great place to go for breakfast or lunch and still be back in Missoula to accomplish a few afternoon hours of shopping, yard work and housecleaning.
But for a shorter trip, if a simple burger-and-beer lunch sounds tasty, here’s another suggestion: the Jack Saloon at 7000 Graves Creek Road, less than 2 miles off Highway 12. It’s just 16 miles from Lolo, 45 minutes from Missoula, and an iconic Montana spot.
You might guess the bar was built in the 1930s but it actually went up in the early 1970s, created from gorgeous Western cedar logs that came from stands in the Lochsa River area of Idaho, according to owners Stuart and Patricia Larkin, who can be found at the saloon many hours of the week.
The bar was built by Butte native Don Babcock and his wife, Mary Ellen. Stuart Larkin bought it in 1994.
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The Jack — it was called the Lumberjack in earlier times — celebrates the deep history of logging and timber in the area, Patricia Larkin said. Loggers help build the bar and they enjoyed the food and drink on their days off (and on work days, too).
Inside, there are reminders everywhere of life in the woods: chainsaws, tin signs and wildlife mounts adorn the walls and beams. Some of the bar chairs are carved from old logs.
Bands draw in dancers and celebrants on Saturdays through the end of the year, but lunchtime is usually quiet, a good time to grab a Patty’s Melt (bacon, cheese and chipotle aioli, $14), a mushroom-Swiss cheese burger ($13) or the Jack Steak Sandwich, made with black Angus sirloin and Creamy Horsey Sauce (17). Appetizers are popular too, especially when you can share — jalapeno poppers, gizzards and fried mushrooms are favorites — and for the hungrier, the Jack’s Loaded Sirloin Dinner is bacon-wrapped sirloin topped with grilled mushroom and onions for $22, or the smaller sirloin or fried chicken dinners.
The Jack has a full bar, but for lunch, a Montana beer tastes mighty good.
After eating, follow Graves Creek Road northwest, until it turns into Petty Creek Road and ends up in Alberton. It’s a winding road, unpaved part of the way, so the drive is 20-mph slow, perfect if you’re in a meandering, avoid-the-highway mood. In less than four hours you’ve gotten away from the city, contemplated Montana history, eaten fries or tots and burger, enjoyed a beer and returned via a bumpy but restful backcountry road — and maybe seen a wild turkey or eagle.
It’s not waist-friendly, but it satisfies, especially on a fall-crisp day.