The weather had closed in and the Big Sky lowered. I found shelter in the Pump Inn, Stanford, northwest of Great Falls, Montana. It was here I met an arty-farty rancher called Joel.
"We're not real cowboys any more, despite our hats." He tipped his, as if I was a "ma'am".
"Cowboys nowadays goof around on the net and read Harry Potter. We all know about painting and art as well. You grow up with it in Montana. You grow up with Charley. If you talk about Charley in Montana, people will always talk to you."
Lewis and Clark discovered Montana in 1805 but the artist Charles Marion Russell is more famous. Every car licence plate in Montana has a buffalo skull on it. It was Russell's signature and trademark. In front of the Davidson Building Plaza in his home town of Great Falls there is a statue of Russell with his horse, "Monty".
Every March, America's best known cowboy artist and Montana's biggest hero is honoured by an auction in Grand Falls. "Guests are encouraged to dress in black tie/blue jean or cowgirl couture/cocktail wear for this upscale event".
In 46 years St Louis-born Russell produced over 4500 paintings and sculptures depicting an ancient life being replaced by a new one.
Working as a night wrangler, "a bum cow-herder" and a fur trapper's assistant, he carried his paints in his socks and a lump of beeswax in his saddlebag.
The Russell Memorial Trail along Highway 87 and along 200 and 239 takes in the backdrops, sites and inspirations of his paintings, taking you into the heart of the turn of the century. It starts in the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls which is attached to the cabin made out of telephone poles where he was made to paint by his wife, Mame.
She made him give up the "joy juice" and, as one of Charley's many cronies put it, "took an 'o' out of saloon to make salon".
His cabin is full of Native American paraphernalia including the Metis (mixed breed) sash he wore all the time. Russell respected native rights. He learned indigenous sign language and, as in America's First Printer (1926), recorded their rock artwork. He painted Native Americans in Montana before their land was fenced and before there were reservations. Their ancient homelands were "his sweetheart" and the world's "last best place".
In 2005, Russell's 1918 oil work, Piegans, sold for US$5.6 million. In 2008, The Hold Up fetched US$4.6 million. It commemorates the last crime of the notorious outlaw, Big Nose George.
I asked Joel what his favourite Russell painting was. He said it was either The Jerkline, probably painted near Virgellete, or When the Land Belonged to God which can be seen in Helena. "You can hear the rumble of buffalo hooves and smell the steam coming off the bison. You can hear the crack of the whip over the mule line."
He took a swallow of beer and continued the lyricism.
"In all his paintings you can actually hear the boys spitting their baccy and hear the fire crackle around the chuckwagon.
"Our Charley reminds you how beautiful Montana is because sometimes you can't believe it yourself. It's an atmospheric place for somewhere so big and so quiet. Charley teaches you all that. It's easy to get lost in Montana. Charley's the best guide."
He gave an ain't-that-so glance at the bartender who nodded, his face red under the Michelob tubes. Buckhorn racks adorned the walls. Adult male deer headwear surrounded us.
A shadow fell over me. A big brown hand stretched my way. He was another bow-legged embodiment of a back country cow town. He really did say "Howdy".
"Blank by name. Blank by nature."
Joel hawked up some phlegm. "I was just telling this here fella about Charley R, chronicling the closing of the last frontier. And how he takes you to some pretty wild places and shows you some pretty wild times."
With that, there was a clatter of hooves. A horse whinnied. I looked around and saw a cowboy on a horse enter the bar. Horse and rider went to the bar. They both had a Moose Drool beer. I was drinking Pigs Ass.
In 1909, Russell painted In Without Knocking in Stanford for a calendar. It depicts a cowboy riding his horse into a saloon on the eve of a drive. Over the road from the Pump Inn, in the old courthouse of the one-street town, there is a white wolf in a glass case. It is a local celebrity. Russell filled his work with wolves. His Roping a Wolf (1904) depicts a time when there was $1 bounty on the head of every wolf.
Russell's work is a window into the past. To the Montana Lewis and Clark discovered. Like Lewis and Clark, Charley mapped out the ancient homes of the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, and Flathead tribes. He is a historian. In his paintings you can see 11,000 years of American history.
Joel tugged at his billy-goat beard.
"Asking if Charley's the best is like asking, 'does a beaver like willow limb?'. The only thing Charley got wrong , so I've heard , is put the paws the wrong way around on a grizzly. And then only once. Our Charley left the most accurate record of the last days of the Wild West. In Montana. And anywhere."
Blank nodded. "When he died in 1926 one of those obit boys said: 'Now there is someone to paint the sunsets and sunrises in heaven.'
He tipped his hat to the horse, hiked up his hammered concho belt and said he was on his way. He was late for tennis. And had to round up his playing partners.
The horse whinnied. And got served.
Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles. From there a local carrier will get you to Billings Logan International Airport in Montana. airnewzealand.co.nz