They say Montana is one great big small town, but the differences between Alberton, Baker and Choteau don't come alive unless you've been there to breathe it in yourself.
In September, Keren Wolhart, owner of the Montana Valley bookstore in Alberton, and her husband Jerry made the trip to each county seat in the state.
Any road trip requires a vehicle, and that's where this story began. It was a hardtop 1948 Packard hauled up from the Bitterroot when the property it sat on for many years sold. Jerry worked nearby, and when it looked like the old rig might be crushed for scrap, he brought it back to Alberton.
With some elbow grease and experience from a career in auto mechanics, Jerry finally got the Packard running last Father's Day.
"Let's go see Montana," Wolhart recalls telling her husband.
The map was already drawn: in 2015 a retired computer science professor at the University of Montana found the most efficient route through all 56 counties in the state, solving what's called the "traveling salesman" problem.
With "56 Counties Montana" written across the Packard's back window, the trip kicked off Sept. 23. Wolhart said they traveled about 150 miles a day, puttering along between 55 and 65 miles per hour, snapping several hundred photographs along the way. The county courthouses opened a window to architecture of the past. The sites of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Battle of the Rosebud brought the history to life. The landscapes underscored the distinction of the Treasure State's four corners and everything in between. The Packard drew attention wherever they went.
"The car opened a lot of discussions, visits and talks with people," Wolhart told the Missoulian last week.
They camped most nights in city parks in a tent. Some nights were especially memorable, like under the full moon in Virginia City's cemetery, the guest cabin in Philipsburg or the divey hotel in Glendive.
The route is by no means a straight line, and Wolhart cherished a few detours off the computer-generated path. They stayed one night in Rapelje, 25 miles north of Columbus, on the one night of the week the town's restaurant was open.
En route to Capital Rock, a ragged limestone feature thrusting out of the Custer National Forest 40 miles southeast of Ekalaka in Carter County, Wolhart and her husband met a man from the same town in Pennsylvania where she was raised.
Some points of the trip were more sobering. Wolhart told a friend she would tend to a family member's grave in Lame Deer. When they arrived, the cemetery groundskeeper had died and no one had taken on the task. The overgrowth was so unruly they couldn't find the grave.
They had made it across the southern half of the state when a broken pipe back at the Alberton bookstore forced a detour back home from Miles City, 520 miles away.
"I was in tears," Wolhart said, now laughing at the incident.
The hiatus on the trip lasted a few days before they hit the road again, where the Packard made for an easy ice breaker for some and a genuine connection with others. It certainly stood out. A few folks on the Hi-Line passed it a few times before approaching Wolhart and her husband to ask about it.
In Stanford they settled down for the night in the city park beneath a gorgeous pink and orange sunset, the kind that spans the entire sky. In the middle of the night, Wolhart heard some pattering outside the tent like rain; she hoped it was just some rain, and went back to sleep. They woke up to find two inches of October snow covering the ground. The wind had blown so hard overnight that snow had built up on the Packard's side as if someone flocked it like a Christmas tree.
A few friendly locals with jumper cables got them on their way again, and the Alberton couple continued east to Lewistown, the last stop of the trip. There, they met a man from the Missouri River Breaks. They asked him how he liked Lewistown; he did, but couldn't help mentioning the "outsiders moving in and bringing their ways," Wolhart said.
She said the same has been said of Missoula, the urban center for rural places like Alberton.
"It's funny to bump into people all over the state and have those" same discussions, she said.
Wolhart has always been a bit of a traveler, whether it's through Europe or on a bicycling excursion from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone. She had visited only about 40 Montana counties before the trip last year.
"Not everybody has that wanderlust," she said. "I don't ever want to sit right here."
Wolhart said she'd like to make the trip again — maybe backward next time.
"When do you get sick of Montana?" she said.