I went on a road trip last summer. Across, Montana to visit a dear friend, a park ranger from Glacier National Park who I guided hikes with two summers before. A lovely woman, and a model of warmth and kindness – not to mention a knowledge of wildflowers that I can only aspire too.
All the way to Heleana, it was just me and Rusty, and borrowing from adventures past, I pledged to follow my cardinal rules of road-tripping:
1. Avoid interstates at all costs. Take the most off-the-beaten-track road possible.
2. Stop every single time something catches your eye.
3. Pull over, stretch, and breathe every time your eyes glaze over.
4. Go in to the sketchiest bars. Order a ginger ale and chat up the bartender.
5. Talk to everyone.
6. Let your plans change.
Willie Nelson keeps me company as I put miles behind me. His Greatest Hits are stuck in the tape-player, and I sing along to Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys and Amazing Grace over and over again.
At JD’s wildlife sanctuary, I talk to the bartender in the otherwise empty bar. He just bought it, figuring fracking in the area will bring crowds soon enough. “I’m banking on the oil,” he says. It was his wife’s idea; “it’s her dream,” he tells me, “ya know she loves to cook.” He stretches out “loooves,” for emphasis. The bar is covered in stickers and, of course, dollar bills. One sticker reads “Save an elk, shoot a wolf.” I ask him about it, and he looks around, as though someone might hear him, before he admits that he actually, “loves wolves to death.” Around these parts though, that’s not something you admit in polite company.
He gives me a tour – the place isn’t as interesting as it used to be, he says. He shows me the bullet holes from what were once frequent shootouts between drunken patrons. He smiles ruefully – those were good times. Way back when, the place was a bank – in the 1920s. I hesitate before stepping into the dark vault with him, now used to store boxes of Corona and dimly lit by a hanging light bulb.
Before I leave, he gives me directions to the next town, to avoid the interstate. “Nice to meet ya,” he says as he hands me a stack of bumper-stickers.
“I’m a god-damn country bumpkin!” says Butch Allen, with emphasis, at a bar in Augusta, Montana. “Faces change, people are all the same. Doesn’t matter where you go, people are all the same.” I watch his face as he imparts this wisdom on me. He’s pulled up a chair now, left his rowdy gang of friends standing at the bar. He’s probably in his 70s, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, a plaid shirt, and a white Stetson. His face is crinkled with age, the folds in his face move as he talks. His face is faded and rugged, but his eyes are as bright as they ever must have been. It’s a warm, sunny afternoon and we’re out on the patio, the raucous laughter of seniors gathered for an afternoon tipple making for a festive feel in the air. It seems Butch has settled in for a good chat.
He orders himself another Budweiser and pulls out another cigarette, seemingly needing one to be dangling out of the corner of his mouth at all times. We talk about Mormon and Blacks – or rather, he talks. He’s only left this area once, he says, he took an airplane to St. Louis. “Blacks everywhere!” he waves his hands to demonstrate. “Couldn’t believe it.”
I steer the conversation to politics and he looks disgusted. “I’d rather have this son of a bitch than that guy get it. All us poor people might as well get out of the country if that rich bastard gets in.” “This son of a bitch,” I gather, is Obama, while “that guy” is Romney. He doesn’t want to talk about politics much. He lights another cigarette and asks where I’m headed.
I tell him that I don’t know – I’ll just drive until I don’t want to anymore and then sleep in the truck. He eyes my face carefully and then chuckles. “You’re a good girl. I like you. I’ve had the pickup motel a few times myself,” he gestures to his truck – older than mine he points out, with that pride that comes with rusted pick-ups. It’s an old Ford, and the bumper sticker reads “Don’t steal, the government hates competition.”
As I drive on, I start looking for payphones. I need to call Mary to let her know that I’ll be there tomorrow. In Wolf Creek, a woman wearing a ‘Liberty’ baseball cap laughs when I ask. “Closest phone you’ll find around here is the Walmart in Helena!”
She’s right. And standing outside the Walmart are three cyclists. I walk past them before remembering rule #5. I turn around and ask where they’re heading. Cross country is the short answer -they all just met. Plans are made, and we head to a Chinese buffet for dinner. I order an iced tea and watch them heap their plates with food. They’re all in their 20s and they’re all voracious. It’s been a long, hot day on the highway. “Waste not, want not!” says John as he cleans his plate and gets up for thirds.
One thing leads to another, and we all end up staying at an alpaca farm outside of Helena with a girl named Cate (the sister of a friend of one of the cyclists who none of us has ever met). As I lay in bed that night in a king size bed with a moose themed bedspread, propped up with multiple fluffy pillows (also moose themed) and close my eyes, I am well aware that I most certainly could not have planned this.
We make a big breakfast together in the morning and I say my goodbyes. Mary and I meet up for bagel sandwiches in Helena and we hike way up above the city. It’s a beautiful, sunshiny day.