Two of Montana’s most scenic blue highways—239 between Hobson & Utica and 541 between Utica and Windham—are also two of its least traveled. That changes the second Sunday of September, when forty to fifty larger-than-life hay sculptures line the asphalt between Hobson and Windham, making the road less of a thoroughfare and more of an “Ag Art” installation.
Welcome to “What the Hay” (please embed link: http://montanabaletrail.com ), an annual harvest celebration in which farm and ranch families compete at building elaborate straw sculptures in the pastures and stubble fields of central Montana’s Judith Basin. “It’s your basic fun with bales,” says Susan Aune, a member of the Utica Road & Gun Club, which helps sponsor the event. “Other towns have a Harvest Ball; we have Bale Day,” she laughs. “I’m just floored by how many people come to our little town for it.
It can be downright dangerous when hundreds of motorists and budding photographers stop haphazardly on the thin-shouldered two-lane to gawk. The bumper-to-bumper traffic moves at a pregnant heifer’s pace past clotheslines, barns, windmills and shelterbelts through painter Charlie Russell’s old stomping grounds, where fence posts still outnumber people.
It can be fairly surreal passing by a 30-foot-tall clock made of hay that has life-size straw statues of Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet strumming guitars to “It’s 5:00 o’clock Somewhere”. (As if using hay as a medium weren’t challenging enough, contestants must also incorporate the words “hay” or “bale” into each entry). Hence rancher Clint Carr’s “It’s 5:00 Hay Clock Somewhere.”
“I’ve had several ideas in the bank for years,” says Carr, who’s mechanized entries are usually a shoe-in for the People’s Choice Award when spectators’ votes roll in. “I think about building them all summer long out there on the swather or the tractor. In my mind, I build it about 3-4 times before I actually start. I can’t tell you what this year’s entry is going to be…but I can tell you it’s going to be pretty large. I don’t go lightly!”
The event kicks off Saturday night with a barbeque beef dinner and auction at the Utica Rod & Gun Club followed by a dance down the street at the Oxen Yoke Inn.
Sunday from 7:30-10:30 a.m., the Mason’s Hall in Hobson serves a breakfast of homemade pancakes, eggs, sausage, coffee and orange juice. Garage Sales abound around town, and then it’s time to grab a ballot and hit the Bale Trail. (I always throw a couple lawn chairs in the back of my dad’s pickup so I can shoot unencumbered.)
You’ll pass sculptures like The Great Sphaynx, a gigantic bust of Hay-braham Lincoln, The Metropolyahton Museum of Art featuring Vanghay’s Star-hay Night, Monhay’s Water Lillies, da Vinchay’s Monhay Lisa and works by MicHaylangelo and PicHaysso.
Children’s entries typically follow the shape of whole bales: Mick-Hay Mouse, Taco Bale. Politics and current events are always popular.
About halfway between Hobson and Utica is the Midway Caf-Hay, where you can buy Indian Tacos and drinks and stretch your legs. (All sales benefit the Hobson Library & Museum.) There’s tons of parking and children’s activities, including a gigantic hay maze.
Then further on down is the town of Utica and the Utica Day Fair. Held on the sprawling grounds of the Utica Club House (where my grandparents’ 50th Anniversary was celebrated in 1979!), vendors sell handmade arts and crafts. There’s live entertainment, food carts, face-painting. But the highlight is inside the clubhouse, where the Utica Women’s Club sells homemade pie and coffee.
It’s just a really fun end-of-summer activity. Un-bale-lievable, really. Fun for the whole famil-hay. There’s something for ever-hay-one. Don’t Bale!
NUTS & BOLTS
The 2011 “What the Hay” Day is Sunday, September 11. Visit http://montanabaletrail.com for a map and information.