Spring 2001

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About the Montanan
Back Roads Fever
by Patia Stephens

When the production team for the Montana PBS series Backroads of Montana is on the job, lunch and dinner become a culinary adventure. Fast food joints are rare along Montana's rural roads, and often the nearest town offers only one dining establishment.

The four men who produce the series have their own favorite road-food memories. Ray Ekness, who originated Backroads nearly ten years ago, remembers going to lunch in Shawmut and being served a "turkey dinner with all the fixings — in this little ghost town." William Marcus relishes the food at Yesterday's Calf-A in Dell, featured in episode eleven.

Other shows herald Montana specialties like Lloyd Wolery's pitchfork fondue in Chinook or the iced pickles on a stick called Chilly Dillys served up at the Hi-Line Theatre in Rudyard. But the gastronomic standout so far would have to be the spaghetti soup ladled up at the Hobson Lounge.

"When we said 'What's the soup?' and the waitress said 'Spaghetti soup,' we went 'Ugh,'" Gus Chambers says. "You just had this idea of leftover spaghetti in liquid with fat floating on the top.

"William and Ray ordered the soup, but I didn't," he continues. "Ray went to use the phone. When the soup came, it was so good I ate his before he came back." When the guys left the Hobson Lounge, they had with them the recipe for spaghetti soup.

The "Backroads guys" straddle the headwaters of the Missouri River (front to back): Gus Chambers, producer/director; William Marcus, host; and Ray Ekness, associate producer.
Backroads videos are available for purchase online at The program is produced by KUFM-TV at UM with funding from Travel Montana, the Greater Montana Foundation and the University.
Since the debut of the program in May 1991, the Backroads crew has produced fourteen half-hour episodes that air regularly on Montana PBS. The show has won three Program of the Year Awards from the Montana Broadcasters Association, and episodes are available for checkout at more than 150 public libraries statewide.

John Twiggs, producer/director.
Backroads has a tradition of getting to know Montana's special places through its people — "neat, quaint people who are kind of quirky," Ekness says.

Emphasis on the quirky. But in a good way. The respect, appreciation and homespun humor that comes through from the crew as well as those featured makes Backroads a kind of Northern Exposure of Montana's own eccentrics, experts and just regular folk.

There is the "Doorknob Lady" — Sonia Tetlie of Columbia Falls — who collects antique doorknobs, by stealing whenever possible. (She carries a screwdriver with her.) There's Bill Seward, proprietor of the Jersey Lilly Cafe in Ingomar for decades and inventor of a bridle-like device that keeps his eyeglasses from slipping off his nose. Or Marion and Margaret Pyeatt, proud owners of a teepee they constructed out of used baling twine on their Wise River property. Or Bob Corbett, who drives around Butte in an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight he covered with mirrors — just to amuse his friends. And Jean Wrobel of Hamilton, who went to New York City as a young pianist and talked jazz great Teddy Wilson into giving her lessons.

Bob Corbett's Mirror-Mobile photo by harrod blank courtesy of the oxo foundation
For a few days or a week at a time, various combinations of crew members take off from their regular campus jobs and hit the road looking for stories. They agree it's the most fun they have all year.

Coming up with ideas is the easiest part. Many are sent in by viewers or suggested by people along the journey. "We never run out of ideas," Marcus says. "A lot of the stories we end up finding on the way to someplace else."

Chambers uses an aquarium to get an underwater shot.
The team has developed a nearly foolproof technique for tracking down potential story subjects. "We call up the post office," Chambers says. "And we'll say, 'I heard that some guy in your town does this, is that true?' And they'll go, 'Oh yeah, that's so-and-so. You need his phone number?'"

Ekness calls the segments an oral history in the grand tradition of storytelling. Backroads is not only a chronicle of Montana's unique people but also a visual journal of its landscapes and historic features.

Chambers enjoys Joe Burman's metal sculpture in Wibaux
"One of my favorite stories was Mann Gulch," Marcus says, referring to the site where thirteen firefighters lost their lives in 1949. "There are places in Montana that really do have ghosts. Little Bighorn Battlefield is one of them. Mann Gulch is, too."

Episode three's segment on the Polar Bar, a charming watering hole in Polaris, remains one of the team's favorites. Shortly after they filmed the establishment, 85-year-old owner Walt Melcher sold his liquor license to an out-of-town venue. Townsfolk still gather in the old saloon, but they have to bring their own bottle.

"We just happened to be there at the twilight," Marcus says.

Episode seven featured an abandoned railroad trestle and track bed that slowly are crumbling back into the earth. The crew won't divulge the exact central Montana location on request of the property owner.

The Pyeatts in their teepee made of baling twine.
"That was a great story for us," John Twiggs says. "We had no idea what we were getting into. We had to go through caved-in tunnels. Or drive up around them to get back down onto the track. Or drive on the trestle, which was scary. We were calculating how heavy the Suburban was, how long it would take us to get out if we fell. We didn't have a snakebite kit, so we knew we'd be in trouble."

The four crew members clearly have a creative rapport. All are UM graduates who enjoy recalling highlights of past road trips and gleefully poke fun at each others' faux pas.

Backroads bloopers that didn't make it on the air include the time Chambers received a head wound while trying to film through the blade of a ceiling fan. Or the time Ekness was following Chambers through a swampy area in the Centennial Valley.

"It was all mucky and murky. . . . I went in up to my waist," Ekness says. "Gus turns around and looks at me and walks away." Chambers deadpans: "There was nothing I could do. The show must go on."

Even the distinguished host of Backroads doesn't escape ribbing. "This one trip I'd been wearing jeans while everyone else had been wearing shorts," Marcus says. "So we get up one morning and I put on these bright blue shorts and head out to the parking lot, and they're both dressed in jeans. And they go, 'William. We're going to a rodeo.'"

On another trip, this one to the Madison River, Marcus failed to catch any fish but did hook fly-fishing instructor Maggie Merriman.

Though he is director of UM's Broadcast Media Center, Marcus says he isn't the boss. "Backroads is produced by all of us," he says. "We all do individual segments. But we scream at each other a lot."

Joking aside, these guys clearly love what they do. And they say Montana residents make the state a great place to film the show.

"People aren't as guarded here," says Chambers, who hails from Georgia. (Ekness is from Crosby, North Dakota, near the Montana border; Twiggs is a former Virginian; and Marcus, with his cultured elocution, is an unlikely Wibaux native.) "They're so upfront and friendly. There are times we're pulled off the road, standing in the borrow pit getting a shot of the sunset or whatever, and people pull over and ask, 'Do you guys need any help?' Montana just makes it easier."
The Calf-A in Dell, a converted schoolhouse, is known for its down-home cookin'.

Marcus adds, "You go to people's houses, they cook you dinner, they show you their family pictures. . . . They're so welcoming."

Backroads contributes to that neighborly feeling by bringing small-town Montana to living rooms across the state. Future episodes will include segments on a leather artist, Fort Union and Medicine Lake. And a 10th anniversary celebration, including a daylong marathon of Backroads of Montana episodes, is planned for Montana PBS in May.

"We'll probably have some kind of party, too," Twiggs says, "maybe with a huge vat of spaghetti soup."

Patia Stephens is a news editor and Web designer for University Relations. One of her life's goals is perfecting the fine art of road-tripping.

Photos by the Backroads crew, except as noted.


©2001 The University of Montana