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A Thursday tour around Phillips County with the PCN

As the COVID-19 shuts down much of the country, the PCN heads out into the county


Mark Hebert

Whitewater Penguins Kinlie Cummings and Lucas Pewitt take a break from chores and school last Thursday to talk with the PCN.

A day after Montana Governor Steve Bullock announced citizens of this great state were to "stay-at-home" to keeping residents indoors and limit travel to hopefully stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading, last Thursday to be exact, daughter of mine and cub reporter Sophia and I took off for an all-day trip around Phillips County.

Now before you rush to judgment and scold us for being out and about during this time, keep in mind that the Governor has declared the media essential and, to be honest, we had planned the trip ahead of his announcement, hoping to set sail on Wednesday, but if you'll remember, it snowed heavily that day so we delayed our trek by 24 hours (and if it feels like the last snow fell two months ago instead of just last week, I know that feeling, too).

Using the "hub and spoke" concept made famous by Walt Disney and his layout for Disneyland, Sophia and I used Malta as the hub of our trip and drove to most spokes on the wheel, starting in the hub before going to Wagner, Dodson, Loring, Whitewater, Saco, Zortman, and Landusky before getting home in time for dinner.


The first stop of our trip was for coffee and breakfast at Westside Self-Service. The store was alive with activity and when we went to pay for drinks and grub, we talked with Ilene Martin and Linda Beadle and asked how they were doing with the COVID-19 outbreak as they, like most cashiers in the county, have a lot of contact with the public.

"We had to change our hours so we can clean at night," Beadle said. "It is what it is, and our customers have adjusted."

Martin said she hadn't noticed an increase or decrease in customers since COVID-19 started making headlines in Montana, but the entire process has been unsettling.

"It's kind of scary," she said. "We are constantly cleaning the store. After every customer, I take this (disinfectant wipe) and wipe everything down."

Martin then handed me a bottle of hand sanitizer, I juiced up and handed it to Sophia, who followed suit, and out the door, we headed.


Down Short Oil Road and toward Wagner we headed with a breakfast sandwich and burrito in hand. We didn't see much (aside from the beautiful landscape, some turkeys and peacocks) and besides one gentleman taking his daughter to school, and another gentleman who passed us in his truck, waving a hello, our Wagner escapade was delightfully uneventful.


Onto Dodson and across People's Creek we ventured. The parking lot at Dodson Public Schools was full of vehicles as the high school teachers were having an emergency meeting and discussing how to proceed with schooling (calls went out to Sophia and her classmates on Monday from their teachers and she is "excited" about starting school work.) Other than the school and post office, not much was going on in Dodson. We tried to stop by Town and Country to see Al Minugh, but he wasn't around yet and all that met us there was a black and white cat who seemed happy to see us on what would turn out to be a critter-filled day.


From Dodson, we headed back to Malta and then turned left to head up Highway 191 toward the Port of Morgan. Along the route, we saw a few vehicles, a large herd of antelope running across the prairie, and not much else...I.E. a regular trip up 191.

As we arrived in Loring, the only activity we saw was at the post office so we pulled up and got ready to say a quick hello to Postmaster Whitney Blunt. Before we could do that, and before I could get my car door all the way open, Loring's Mayor rested his head in my lap.

"Good morning, Boris," I said.

Boris, a big, white fluff ball of a dog, full of love, gave a "roooof" back and let me know he wanted to be pet. I'd first been introduced to the "Mayor of Loring" at last summer's Loring Sunday Fun Day and I like to think he remembers me, but he'd never met Sophia before and was just as fond of her, begging that she pet him as well.

"He doesn't like me very much," Blunt said of Boris when we finally entered the post office. "I yell at him when I see him peeing on my tires and post office."

"I am always yelling at the Malta mayor for peeing on my stuff," I said (sorry Mayor Demarais, it couldn't be helped.)

Blunt said that other than some people staying home more often in Loring, not much has changed in the past few weeks.

"Farmers and ranchers still have to work, and I still need to get the mail out and Kenny (her husband who owns a mechanics shop a few doors down) still has to run the shop," she said. "All the kids are home, but this time of year, because of calving, most people don't go to town a bunch anyway."

The Loring Post Office is open five days a week, but only receives mail on three of those days. Blunt said that it isn't very often that more than one person at a time comes in to retrieve or send mail, but when they do, social-distancing is encouraged.

"And then I wipe down the counters when someone has been here and make sure everything is clean and safe," she said.

Sophia and I stopped in to see Kenny Blunt in his shop, but he was away from the shop, another of his customers was at the shop and said Kenny was likely in Whitewater fixing something, so with that, we headed back toward the highway.


As we pulled into Whitewater, there was some movement about the town (a lack of activity in our prior visits likely had as much to do with the time we were there as anything else.) On the left, a gentleman dawned a yellow rain slicker and was washing a Whitewater Public Schools bus. As schools have closed in Montana since March 16, students are being asked to do their learning from home. As we rolled through town, we saw Penguins Kinlie Cummings, a seventh-grade student, and Lucas Pewitt, third grade, playing in their yard.

"We still have to do school work, and our chores, and I miss my friends," Cummings said. "So, in some ways, it's harder, and some ways easier."

Cummings said that she is taking all of her regular classes and communicating with her teachers via Facetime. She said that breakfast and lunch are provided to her and her school mates – adding she had just had a chicken, bacon wrap which was "really good" – but wished that everything could go back to normal and regular school could commence.

"Not me," Pewitt said. "I love this. I like doing school from home."

The two children posed for a picture atop a haybale and were spotted about 15 minutes later riding their bikes down a steep hill as Sophia and I headed back to Malta.


We hit up Dairy Queen on our way through town – drive-up window only because of COVID-19 - and headed east toward Saco. We stopped short of Saco and went to take a look at Nelson Reservoir (frozen and windy) and the Sleeping Buffalo Rock (left a cigar there) before pulling into Saco Pay N Save for some meat snacks (because, it would seem, I am going to put on 20 pounds before this "stay-at-home" is all said and done.)

Robert Plouffe was busy with a customer, as was Betty at the front till, so Sophia and I made our way around the store, searching for our favorite flavor of beef jerky and meat sticks. Unlike Malta, where the toilet paper shelves are almost always empty (at least when I stroll by around at 2 p.m.) Pay N Save had a few different brands of TP, each with a handwritten sign on the shelf stating, "Limit of 1 only." Being that I hadn't seen this on the shelf in a while, my immediate instinct was to purchase. I quickly reminded myself that I had plenty at home and figured I'd best leave them for others who might not.

With that, we grabbed our snacks and headed out to look around Saco. It didn't take long before we had found the biggest amount of activity of the day. Ben Costin was affixing a tarp to one of the greenhouses behind the Saco Public Schools as he helped Patty Simons (of Patty's Floral fame) make some last-minute alterations to the structures she rents.

"We got these tarps put down and it is not as easy as it looks," Costin said, the wind whipping by quickly.

Simons - who also rents greenhouses in Malta for her business - thanked the young men with her on the day for their help and hoped everyone is safe and being vigilant.

"We are saying our prayers and hoping this doesn't get to Phillips County," Simons said.

Zortman and Landusky

Back to Malta, then south on Central Avenue and onward down 191. Sophia might have fallen asleep a few times during our travels but was game to hit some more towns in the county so toward the Little Rocky Mountains we headed.

More antelope greeted us on our drive, but it seemed like fewer cars than usual along the highway. The closer we got to the mountains, the more snow that covered the ground. It was hard to believe that Zortman and Landusky had received over a foot a snow two days prior, as nice as the weather had been all day, but when we pulled into Zortman, some white piles remained, as did a snowman in a front yard of a house...though it was evident his days were numbered.

Not much was going on in Zortman (par for the course on the day...regular life in Phillips County or COVID-19, I will let you decide) so we pulled into the Buckhorn Store and Campgrounds to chat with Rod Boland.

"It's the same here, after every customer, I clean up," he said. "Everyone who lives out here is staying home and not traveling, so there are less people going to Costco and more staying home shopping local...I hope the shopping local continues when this is over."

Aside from binge-watching Stephen King's "Haven" ("it was a good show," five seasons, took Boland three weeks to watch, and he recommends it) Boland felt that it was pretty much life as usual in Zortman.

"Our lives haven't changed much," he said. "We are always here working. Our question is 'How long does it last' and we hope everyone is safe."

Sophia and I, now armed with ice-cold cans of Arizona Tea, hopped back into the car, back down the mountain, and hooked a right at the DY Store before heading toward Landusky. We arrived there just as the sun was beginning to set and the only one outside to meet us was a large, muscle-bound dog who had nowhere near the sunny disposition as Mayor Boris and instead chased my car for a fair stretch. We turned around in the Landusky Community Center's parking lot, headed back down the road (where we were met by "Muscles" again) and headed back toward the highway.

Mark Hebert

PCN reporter Sophia Hebert and Loring Mayor Boris meet for the first time.

An hour away from town, and on our way to 400 Phillips County miles in about nine hours, we were ready to be home to do some self-distancing of our own.


As of Monday morning, Montana has a total of 171 cases of COVID-19 and a total of two deaths. The "stay at home" edict is supposed to be in full effect. But it seems like some people aren't taking it seriously. Phillips County still has no cases, thankfully, to report and I hope and pray it stays that way. As a reporter, I will try to continue to travel around the county to find news, but as a regular citizen, it is kind of frightening to do so (and I won't be taking Sophia on any more reporting trips for the time being, better to be safe than sorry.)

If you made it this far, thanks for joining my daughter and me on our day-long journey. Stay safe, stay vigilant, and aloha.


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