Why I Drove All the Way to Malta, Montana

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Does anybody end up in Malta, Montana by mistake?  I don’t think so.  You’ve really got to make an effort to end up 70 miles from the nearest McDonald’s and 90 miles from the closest Wal-Mart (in opposite directions, I might add).  Malta could be considered the middle of nowhere, except when you’re here, you’re somewhere.  Sure, you’re somewhere that none of your friends will probably ever visit.  You’re somewhere that will never end up on the pages of a travel magazine.  But that’s exactly why I drove due-east for the better part of two days — to end up in a town that deserves to be visited, even if that visit doesn’t last very long.

Location

Malta, Montana is located at the crossroads of US 2 and US 191.  Billings is about 200 miles south.  Regina, Saskatchewan is about 250 miles northeast.  The North Dakota state line is about 200 miles east.

My Visit

Most of Malta, Montana is developed along US 191, south of US 2 and the railroad tracks.  I decided to explore the area along the tracks before turning south.

Malta has a beautiful old railroad depot that’s served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder line.  I must say, hopping on a train and traveling to Chicago or Seattle seems a lot easier than driving for days on US 2.

There are, of course, the ubiquitous elevators along the railroad tracks.  But, I was about to say goodbye to sights like this, as I turned south, away from the Hi-Line.

At the north end of Central Avenue, you’ll find Trafton Park.  This park is nestled inside a bend of the Milk River, and there’s a walking trail along the banks of the river.  I must say, I thought this was the kind of project that I would find in a larger town, and I was impressed to see it here in tiny little Malta.  I also, at first glance, thought that old US 2 bridge had been repurposed as part of the hiking trail.

That assumption was incorrect.  While the bridge’s old frame appears to be in good condition, the decking is gone, so you can’t walk across it.

If you were to get back on US 2 and head to the east side of Malta, you’d find the Phillips County Museum and the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, where a wide array of dinosaur fossils are on display.  It turns out, many excellent dinosaur fossils have been discovered in northern Montana.

Oh, and you’d also find (what I believe to be) the town’s only franchise restaurant, a Dairy Queen, on US 2, east of Central Avenue.

I said goodbye to US 2 as I turned down Central (US 191), crossed the Hi-Line railroad tracks one last time, and found a parking spot in the middle of town.

Malta, Montana: Downtown

The Great Northern Hotel is probably one of the better places to stay in Malta, Montana.  It’s right in the middle of town, and impossible to miss.

There are a couple of old movie theaters.  The Villa might look like it’s been taken over by H&R Block from this angle, but I’m pretty sure it’s still showing movies.

The Palace Theater, however, hasn’t shown movies in decades.  According to a post on Cinematreasures.org, a local family originally ran the Palace, then closed it down when they built the Villa.

I don’t know what’s happening with this funky little old building, but I bet it has an interesting history.

My award for best sign in Malta, Montana goes to the Maltana Motel.  If you aren’t in need of the “full service” of the Great Northern Hotel, and you like staying at mom-and-pop’s, I’d suggest taking a chance on this place.  It seems to have some great reviews posted online.  And that sign.  Oh, that funky sign.

On my way out of town, another great old sign beckoned, and I suddenly realized I needed to eat lunch. Joe’s In & Out isn’t quite the In ‘n’ Out you’d find in southern California, but it did deliver a respectable hamburger at a great price.

And as an added bonus, there’s one more funky sign to admire before leaving town.  This Sputnik-inspired sign is a great survivor from (probably) the 1950’s.  You’ll find it in Joe’s parking lot.

As I finished my burger and fries, I was mentally psyched for the lengthy drive across the nothingness of mid-Montana.  But I didn’t get very far, before realizing I needed to make one more stop.   On the outskirts of Malta (and believe me, it doesn’t take very long to go from urban Malta to the outskirts), I saw a sign for an antique store.

 

This was a really great place to stop.  The picture shows just one of the two buildings filled with rusty treasures at great prices.  I bought more than a half-dozen items, including several old gears from a tractor, and a beet defoliator.  The owner of the store explained that these old parts can be found all over the fields of Montana.  When tractors broke down, they were repaired, and the old parts were simply left to rust.  They go out and find them, and in a small way, keep the local farming history alive.

Needless to say, I had no idea that I needed a Beet Defoliator.  And I’m very happy to report, it fit (just barely) in my suitcase.

Before I left, the owner walked me out to the parking lot, specifically to show me a sculpture that I had failed to notice on the way in.  She told me that a local teenager made this out of an old transmission, some fencing, and a few other scrap metal items.  It’s not for sale — unless you can do some persuading.

With the last of the distractions behind me, and a suitcase that just got about 20 pounds heavier, it was time to head south.  This time, I would really do it.  The loneliest stretch of US 191 awaited, and the Hi-Line adventure was over.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive eastbound on the Hi-Line, from East Glacier Park Village to Malta, Montana:

… and here’s a closer look at just the cities on the Hi-Line:

The Bottom Line

So why did I spend two days driving east across rural farmland in northern Montana?  I did it just to see what was there.  I did it to go someplace that most people will never go.  I did it to see small towns, farms, and grain elevators that look about the same as they did before I was born.  And I did it because I may never get the chance to do it again.

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