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Brody Leven strides along a sunset-lit road with Flathead lake in the distance; Photograph by Max Lowe

Montana by Dirt: Trail Running and Driving on Dirt

Wiggling toes (and tires) in the dirt

We all know the distinct freedom provided by the outdoors. The melodic silence of nature conspires with our earthly, if not primordial, desires for escape from what the world has become. Our indulgence in the modern norm blinds us from the dirt beneath our feet. For most of us, being (literally) dirty is rare. Humanity has invented endless barriers, deliberately shielding us from the natural. From dirt.

Before the Montana by Dirt road trip with Max Lowe and Graeme MacPherson, I hadn’t driven much on dirt roads. The rural Ohio road that I was raised near—one of the last of its kind—was paved soon after I learned to drive. To approach the 147,040 square miles of Montana with the intent of accessing our destinations via dirt roads was foreign and intimidating. The experience itself, though, was grounding.

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Brody Leven and Joe Johnson run across a glacial runoff creek in Glacier National Park; Photograph by Max Lowe

Dirt facilitates an escape from the layers of technology that separate us from pure earth. Driving through Montana on dirt roads allowed us to see the terrain beneath us in the same way that trail running allows me to see the terrain over which I travel—unhindered by pavement. By centering on the dirt, both activities offer a focus on the experiences and the surroundings. In Montana, that equates to Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin River, Glacier National Park, the Bridger Mountains, and more. An area worthy of a trip without unnecessary barriers.

In 2012, a rock climbing partner suddenly went evangelist during a climbing trip. She espoused upon me the advantages of dirt between one’s toes and the necessity of a symbiotic relationship connecting us with the earth’s dirt. Something about the soil bringing us back to nature. I nodded off. In response, I admitted what is nearly universal: Yeah, I rarely wiggle my toes in the dirt or walk through the forest/mountains/park without boots/shoes/adventure sandals designed for the approach/hike/run with impermeable lugs/insoles/crampons further separating me from it. The preacher was barefoot while she belayed me. She didn’t scoff, but didn’t agree.

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Brody Leven runs through fleeting light in trees near Black Tail Mountain, Montana; Photograph by Max Lowe

I don’t trail run barefoot. But I do trail run with far less gear than I use for any other outdoor adventure. It’s a simplistic approach to nature, carrying nothing and moving quickly. Montana has numerous mountain ranges—including one of the longest continuous ranges in the Rockies, the Bitterroots—linked by glacial plateaus, U-shaped valleys, and rushing rivers. The Continental Divide splits the state, with basins, soaring mountains, and clear alpine lakes, promoting a vast network of trails suitable for running. During Montana by Dirt, I was only introduced to it.

Some people link various areas by feet on dirt trails. Others link them by tires on dirt roads. But there is a trait shared by these adventurers: each chooses a challenging approach to the landscape. Montana dirt roads aren’t lined with road signs and safety precautions; Montana dirt trails trace ridgelines and summits instead of sidewalks. But the more difficult approach lends itself to a meaningful experience devoid of superfluous separation.

Running is one of my favorite ways to see a mountain range. To see a steep, winding, single-track trail and not run it is to tease me. And while I am personally not an avid or recreational motorized vehicle driver, I now understand the popular reaction when someone sees a long, winding, dirt road dropping from the foothills of a mountain, looks at me in the eyes, and says, “I just have to drive that.” I hear what they’re saying, and I translate it into my language: “I just have to run that.”

For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all the Montana by Dirt posts.

The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.