Asphalt Intrusion

I seem to have run out of things to say as of late. Ironic, considering words are my bread and butter. Literally. (Though nowadays, it’s whole wheat bread and nothing more than a schmear. Damn you, diabetes).

But then I remembered today is Flashback Friday, and who says that only applies to photos? Memories are flashbacks, too. So I’m going to write about the loneliest road I ever traveled. I mean that literally, but you can also take it metaphorically, I suppose.

The place: U.S. Route 212, somewhere in eastern Montana. The date: June 24, 2011. Late morning.

It was Day 3 of my solo road trip from Vancouver, WA to Dayton, Ohio. I’d had a rough evening in Billings the day before; I was far enough from home by then to realize there was no turning back, and the fact that I was alone hit me pretty hard. It was the only time I seriously questioned the wisdom of my journey. But on this, the third day, my mood changed completely and the whole thing began to feel like an adventure. It all started when I crested a hill on Interstate 90 E and saw what looked like the whole world spread out before me. I had a view of the wide open Montana prairie stretching from one end of the horizon to the other, and it took my breath away. I had always laughed at the nickname “Big Sky Country” thinking, come on, the sky is the same size everywhere! But I was wrong. It really is bigger in Montana. Maybe because there is nothing else to distract from the view.

Shortly afterwards, my GPS had me turn off the interstate onto U.S. 212. I had not been expecting this, and debated whether she (yes, I’m referring to my GPS as if it were a woman – remember, I was single then) had screwed up by having me detour onto a two-lane highway with a reduced speed limit, especially when the little traffic I had encountered dwindled to an occasional car passing by every twenty or thirty minutes, but I had long ago learned to trust Maggie (yes, she even had a name), so I went with it.

I ended up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless miles of gently rolling hills dotted with rock formations and trees, and a carpet of purple and yellow wildflowers that made the landscape look as though an indecisive artist had dragged his paintbrush over the whole thing. At one point I pulled over and got out of my car to stretch my legs. I stood in the middle of the highway, looking west at the road I had just traversed. It stretched on seemingly forever, a twisting black line that narrowed to a distant speck before disappearing from view entirely, snuffed out by the horizon. There was not another soul around; in that moment, I felt like the only person on the entire planet.

And it was liberating.

U.S. 212 in Montana. I found enlightenment here. And not much else.

There was a field beside the road, which now felt like an asphalt intrusion; a stream meandered through it haphazardly. There was no sense of purpose to the trickling water, no rush or need to be anywhere. It doubled and tripled back on itself serpent-like, as directionless as I was. I walked through the grass, the hot summer sun beating down on me, nearly hypnotized by the constant buzz of a thousand cicadas and the realization that I had found one spot on earth where time did not matter.

Nothing mattered. And that mattered more to me than everything.

Go, my brain urged, instructing my legs to just keep walking. Where to, exactly? I did not know, nor did I care. Anyplace else sounded like a good enough plan as I stood in that lonely field, and besides, isn’t the journey more important than the destination? It wouldn’t take long for the prairie to swallow me up and make me disappear. I felt the pull of nature, the allure of the unknown. Like Chris McCandless, suddenly I contemplated ditching it all and taking my own trip Into The Wild.

And why not? My life at that time was in shambles. I had been unemployed for eight months with nary a prospect in sight. “What if somebody calls you for an interview when you’re on the road?” my dad had asked before I set out, and I had to choke off a laugh. Nobody was calling me for anything. I was burning through my savings, hopelessly upside down in my mortgage. And mired in the quicksand of a relationship that had run its course the previous year, but had been oblivious to the circling vultures with gleaming eyes and blood on their lips, despite the very obvious empty passenger seat beside me. How much deader could I get? I reasoned.

One step, the voices whispered.
Very good. Now another.

The tall grass tickled my knees. I became keenly aware of every minuscule droplet of sweat trailing down the back of my neck, gravity working its humdrum miracle. Counting each step away.

Away from the road.
Away from my car.
Away away away away AWAY.

Quite unexpectedly, just as the abyss was looming, a new realization dawned, something I had previously overlooked.

I was, in fact, alive.

Maybe I hadn’t actually overlooked the obvious. Perhaps instead, I was born in that moment.

All I know is, I stopped. Told my subconscious to quit its yammering. Drank in my surroundings one last time before settling behind the steering wheel and continuing east. Where sunrises are born, I might point out. A compass direction as an allegory, no need to spell out phrases like dawn of a new day. Some stories just write themselves.

Is it any wonder I look back on my trip with great reverence? It was nothing short of a life changing experience.

Maybe even a life saving experience.

Two and a half months later, I found myself on the realloneliest road in America,” U.S. Route 50 in Nevada. And yet, I couldn’t have felt less lonely if I’d tried. I was on my way to see a girl, after all.

But that chapter had yet to be written.

Getting My Griswold On – Day 3: Rapid City, SD

Miles traveled today: 434.5
Total miles traveled: 1380.4

A Parting Shot or Two

Pulling out of Billings this morning at 7:30, it occurred to me that I might have been a little harsh on the town. Perhaps the outskirts would prove to be a little more, umm…Montana-like. So as I drove past on the interstate, I snapped another photo of Billings. (Click to enlarge).

Billings 2.0: Still not impressed.

And then another.

Billings 3.0: NOW we're talking!

Ahh…that’s more like it! Never let it be said that I don’t try my best to give a place the benefit of the doubt. This makes Billings look quite charming. Montana town, you have redeemed yourself!

133 Miles of Absolutely Nothing

Once I left Billings in the dust, the great plains opened up before my eyes. There was a moment when I crested a hill and saw, spread out before me, as far as the eye could see – from one end of the horizon to the other – absolutely nothing. Pure, uninhabited countryside, an uninterrupted rolling golden prairie, and I thought, this is why Montana’s nickname is “Big Sky Country.” Because truly, the sky did seem a whole lot bigger in that moment than I’d ever seen it before. Conversely, I felt very tiny.

After a short while, Maggie (my GPS unit, whom I’ll be referring to by name for the rest of the trip, as she’s my only traveling companion – she does talk to me, after all) had me turn off Interstate 90 E and head onto Montana US 212. I didn’t question this – I’ve learned that Maggie is wise in these matters – but after awhile, I kinda did question it. US 212 turned out to be a two-lane highway that took me through the middle of nowhere. And I mean, nowhere. I hardly saw another car the entire two hours it took to traverse, just a few random Native American outposts. Modern, of course. Tract houses – no teepees. And, as per usual, miles and miles of beautiful countryside. Hills, rock formations, trees, and a blanket of purple and yellow wildflowers seemingly everywhere. At one point I stopped the car to stretch my legs and take photos (from the middle of the road, no less). A gentle breeze stirred, the sun beat down upon my skin – warm but refreshing – and I could hear cicadas buzzing and birds chirping. I felt completely at peace in that moment. There was absolutely no thought of my joblessness or money woes or other issues that plague me back home. I was tempted to leave the car on the side of the road and wander off into the great, desolate unknown, Into The Wild style. I get the appeal now. I do. It was a gorgeous morning without a cloud in the sky.

That, it turns out, would not last.

Great Faces, Great Places

After several hours of nothingness, I crossed the Wyoming border, and was greeted with – more of the same nothingness. I could barely reflect on this, however, because I was suddenly in South Dakota. Seriously, my trip “across” Wyoming took a little more than twenty minutes. If I’d have blinked, I’d have missed it.

The Black Hills loomed on the distant horizon, growing larger by the minute. I pulled to a stop at the sign announcing South Dakota, and I swear, I got goosebumps. Twenty-five years ago, I left this state, and vowed always to return. When I actually crossed the state line, it was an emotional moment for me. I’ve talked about returning to Dayton, my favorite childhood place, but South Dakota is where I spent my most formative years: 1983-1986. All but my senior year of high school. I learned to drive there. Dated my first girlfriend. Went through adolescence. South Dakota holds many warm memories for me; I enjoyed my years living here, despite the often harsh weather. Fittingly, my 80s mix CD was playing as I entered the state.

I passed through Belle Fourche and stopped to grab lunch at Taco John’s. TJ’s was a “hangout” for me in high school. I know they’re a chain, but we don’t have them in the Pacific Northwest. The tacos remain good – not great – but the Potato Ole’s? Yum. They’re just round tater tots with a nacho cheese dipping sauce. They are every bit as good as I remember. After lunch in my car, I traveled through Spearfish and Sturgis, and was then suddenly on the outskirts of Rapid City, my old stomping grounds. Again, another goosebump moment for me…and suddenly, there it was, laid out before me. Over and over in my head, I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m back here. You have to understand, I’ve been wanting to come back for many years. I’d even planned a trip with the kids in 2008, but that fell through. It felt surreal to be back. I found my motel, a Super 8 on one of the main drags, and even though check-in was an hour away, I convinced them to let me in early. I had places to go and didn’t want to haul my valuables around.

After a few minutes of debate, I settled on the Crazy Horse Memorial, Korczak Ziolkowski‘s monument to the fallen Sioux leader. He started work on this momentous carving (it will dwarf Mount Rushmore when completed) in 1948, died in 1982, and his family continues work to this day. They still have a long way to go – it won’t be completed in my lifetime, that’s for sure – but it has changed a lot since I last visited in 1986. I spent a good two hours in the museum and gift shop, and watched a traditional Sioux dance on the veranda beneath the gathering clouds.

Be Careful What You Wish For

About those clouds…when I checked in, I learned a severe thunderstorm watch had been issued for the area. Ominous looking dark thunderheads built up over the Black Hills and blotted out the sun. Driving back toward Rapid City, the sky turned black and eerie, and though sunset was a couple of hours away still, it grew as dark as night. Fantastic, jagged streaks of lightning sliced through the sky, and it started raining just as I pulled into the motel parking lot, accompanied by deafening claps of thunder. Man oh man, I was loving it! And then, suddenly, I was a little frightened by it all. The rain came down in sideways buckets, winds gusted to almost 70 mph and it began hailing. Not just little hail like at home, no sirree…golf-ball sized hail up to 4″ in diameter. I was a little intimidated by it all, as I haven’t experienced a thunderstorm like that since…well, since I left here! It turned out to be quite the storm. There were downed trees and power lines, flooded roads, and a huge section of downtown lost power…literally, my Super 8 was the first business in blocks with electricity. Whew!

After the storm quieted down, I headed out to dinner. When we lived here in the 80s, we used to frequent a Chinese restaurant downtown called Great Wall. I looked it up online, and surprisingly, it was still there, in the same spot as always. I picked up an orange chicken combo dinner and brought it back to my room, driving down storm-ravaged streets through a steady rain and continuous lightning and thunder. The food was very good…and there was an awful lot of it. Too much for me to finish. But it was another happy memory relived.

I’m in Rapid City for two nights, so I don’t have to travel tomorrow. I can also sleep in a little longer – I’ve only managed about 10 hours total the past two nights, but hey – I’ll sleep when I get home, ya know? This is all about having fun, and tomorrow, that’s the plan. I’ll be hitting Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, and checking out some places around Rapid City and Ellsworth AFB, where I lived.

The enormity of the vast Montana landscape is staggering.
The middle of nowhere, Montana.
Wyoming! Blink and you'll miss it.
Welcome back to South Dakota, 25 years later.
The Black Hills, growing larger on the horizon.
Crazy Horse: what it will look like someday...
What Crazy Horse looks like now.
Lakota Sioux performing a traditional war dance at Crazy Horse.
I know the foreground is blurry, but check out the lightning!
Rain! Wind! Hail!

Getting My Griswold On – Day 2: Billings, MT

Miles traveled today: 570.6
Total miles traveled: 945.9

Next Time Remind Me to Write a List

I was served a reminder today – in the form of an early morning thunderstorm as I was loading my car to depart Spokane – that I forgot to pack a jacket. Or a sweatshirt, of any sort. All I’ve got are t-shirts, shorts, and a single pair of jeans. Granted, it’s summer, but you never know when you’ll be caught in a surprise downpour. The weather is unpredictable pretty much everywhere east of the Cascades. It’s my own fault; I didn’t bother writing a list because I was relying on my mental acuity to remember what to pack. Note to self: do not rely on your mental acuity.

White Supremacists Have Beautiful Vacation Spots

Twenty minutes after setting out from Spokane, I crossed the Idaho border. The scenery was breathtaking – Idaho is criminally beautiful. Especially Coeur d’Alene and its namesake lake. This resort town has traditionally been linked with the Aryan Nations white supremacy group. I hate to have those idiots associated with such a gorgeous part of the country. I was traveling through the panhandle portion of the state, which means it took me only about an hour to reach the Montana border. For some reason, I was really excited to be driving through Idaho. Probably because it’s one of a handful of states I had never been to before. Now I can cross it off my list.

Why Did The Turtle Cross The Road?

Fortunately, the wonderful scenery did not change once I crossed into Montana. Neither did the speed limit – 75-mph in both states, baby. Love it! Unlike yesterday’s journey through a rather dull landscape, today was a smorgasbord for the eyes. The Rocky Mountains were a feast of snow-capped peaks, and the rolling prairie was dotted with pine trees and the occasional swiftly-flowing stream. I was reminded of the movie A River Runs Through It which was set in Montana. The only downside to my drive through Big Sky Country? An annoying series of lane closures due to construction, which caused me on several occasions to switch the cruise control off from the 75-mph I’d become accustomed to and crawl at a miserly 55-mph instead. Or slower. At one point a car in front of me swerved to the left, and a moment later I saw why: a turtle was inching his way across the busy interstate lane. I managed to avoid him, but I have my doubts he made it safely to the other side.

The weather was interesting. I experienced a little bit of everything – bright sunshine, overcast skies, and at one point, a torrential downpour that reminded me just how hard it can rain out here. Thunderclouds built up over the mountains and began drifting across the prairie. I love thunder and lightning, which is sadly much too rare in the Pacific Northwest. I’m hoping to experience some big storms on this trip.

Western Outlets, Gun Shops & Casinos

Montana is a breathtakingly beautiful state. Until you get to Billings, that is…and naturally, that’s where I’m holed up tonight. In a motel room that cost about twice what I wanted to spend, no less. I found a coupon book at a rest stop advertising a great deal on a room at the Days Inn, so I loaded the coordinates onto my GPS and made my way over there. I walked in the lobby, they quoted me a price, and I turned my nose up at them. “That’s a lot more than I want to spend,” I said, and left, because there was a Super 8 right across the street. Which turned out to be just as expensive. And the other two motels I tried were even more expensive. Exasperated, I asked the clerk at the Howard Johnson’s what made Billings so special it could afford to charge an arm and a leg for a motel room, because from what I’d seen of the town so far, I was unimpressed. She said it’s summer, people are traveling, and there’s a special event coming up this weekend. Well, it’s summer, people are traveling, and there’s a special event coming up in Spokane this weekend, too, but they didn’t rake me over the coals for a motel room. In retrospect, I should have gotten back on the freeway and stopped, I don’t know, twenty or forty miles further down the road in some tiny little town where I’m sure the rates would have been much more acceptable. Oh well, live and learn. Fortunately, I’m spending considerably less than I’d budgeted for gas so far, so hopefully it’s all a wash.

Once I returned to the Days Inn with my tail tucked between my legs, I decided to give Billings the benefit of the doubt and check out its downtown. Maybe it was hiding a gem or two. Sadly, no…it’s really nothing more than one big strip mall with western wear outlets, gun and pawn shops, and dozens of casinos. What’s up with that? I returned to my motel room with takeout yakisoba chicken from a surprisingly good Asian place and watched a thunderstorm drift by from my motel room window. Billings may not be very impressive, but tomorrow I reach the Black Hills, and I’m very excited for that!

Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Typical Montana scenery. Look - a river runs through it!
Thunder clouds building over the Montana prairie.
"Downtown" Billings, Montana.
The view from my motel room window, and a passing thunderstorm.