Preserving Steinbeck's Highway

Monday, 18 October 2010 02:35 AM Written by 

MOSES LAKE, Wa. -- McDonald's

John Steinbeck didn't need no stinking GPS to keep him on his "Travels With Charley" path.

Once he picked up US Route 10 in northern Minnesota, all he had to do was follow the 10 signs across Montana, Idaho and Washington to Seattle.

US 10 was almost always the main street of the cities on his route.  I-94 and then 1-90 have replaced US 10 from North Dakota to the West Coast.

I haven't seen a US 10 sign since Fargo because they don't exist out West anymore.

But there are still many stretches of old US 10 pavement running parallel with the four-lane interstates.

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Yesterday I checked out the one off I-90 at the Saltese exit in northwest Montana. It's hardly a mile long.

It dead-ends at each end and contains about 20 buildings, but it's like a 1960 time warp.

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Mangold's General Store & Motel is a new name Steinbeck wouldn't recognize. But the grocery store, the six pine-paneled motel rooms and the big "M-o-t-e-l" sign were all there when he and Charley motored by on Saturday morning, Oct. 15, 1960, after camping Friday night on private land about 50 miles to the east.

So were the decommissioned state highway maintenance shed, most of the homes and the building housing the Old Montana Bar & Grill.

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When the interstate was poured on top of US 10's right-of-way in the early 1960s, Saltese's main street -- US 10 -- was frozen in time and the community of about 60 permanent residents got its own exit.

Terri Mangold sure is glad Saltese's main street was spared. She's run the Mangold grocery store and motel since 1995. Her rooms are usually full year round, thanks to hunters, fishermen and snowmobilers who stay for a week at a time. Mangold's rates are absurdly reasonable -- $30 and up.

At the other end of the Saltese remnant of US 10 is the Old Montana.

Part slots casino, part restaurant, part bar, part gallery of local historical photos, it's got dead animals on the menu and hanging all over its walls. Bryan Teeters, 48, owns the Old Montana.

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He's also responsible for a lot of the elk heads, bear skins and the stuffed mountain lion above the pool table.  Except for the moose, the animals were locally grown -- and shot.

Teeters, who lives across the street, used a bow to bag his trophies. He tracked the mountain lion in the snow and when it climbed a tree, it was all over for the big cat.

Teeters came to Montana from California with his parents when he was 12 and he's basically grown up to become a modern Jim Bridger with a snowmobile. He hunts and fishes "out back" -- the deep forests and steep mountains looming over Saltese.

The wilds of Montana are paradise for him and his restaurant is full nearly every night.

But Teeters is miffed that Montana's he-man government is turning soft -- and hurting him in the pocketbook. The state has banned smoking in all public buildings. That's hurt his casino business.

And wolves are being reintroduced by wildlife experts.

Teeters doesn't like wolves for some sensible reasons -- they kill for the fun of it and kill a lot more game than they can eat. He's worried wolves will wipe out the elk and scare off the hunters who come to northwest Montana to hunt them.

When I told Teeters that John Steinbeck drove down the street we were standing on 50 years ago, he had a special reason to think that was pretty cool. He knew more about Steinbeck than the average Montanan because he and Steinbeck had something in common.

Like Steinbeck, Teeters was born in Salinas, Ca.

Update, Feb. 10:

As I twisted west on I-90 through the forestland of the Bitterroot Range, I made a rookie mistake.

I completely forgot about Steinbeck telling his wife in a letter that on Oct. 14 he was camped west of Missoula 60 miles from Idaho.

 I should have stopped near the tiny community of Tarkio to do some drive-by sleuthing and look for old-timers with details or memories, but I just cruised by on I-90.

 It turns out Tarkio is probably not the place, after all.

I recently called about a seventh of the population of the Tarkio Valley – four nice people – from Pittsburgh to seek their help.

Though it’s possible Steinbeck could have slept by the Clark Fork River at the old Forest Grove Campgrounds, even Tarkio’s oldest and friendly citizens were stumped.

Where Steinbeck slept on his second -- and final -- night in Montana remains a mystery.

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