Big Sky Country? More like Bug Sky Country…
I never excepted there to be so many bugs in Montana — I thought it classified as Northwest, like Washington State, where so many bugs would signal Armageddon. I pulled over earlier, as the sun was setting over the vast emptiness of the Montana desert, to take some photos of the sunset — a mediocre sunset, but one of the largest I’ve seen, it seemed to stretch around me, the horizon sloping off toward third world countries at the edges. I had to pull onto a little dirt road, only to get off the highway where the speed limit is 70 and everyone goes 80. I rolled down my window, stuck the camera into the thick air, and within seconds, my car was full of about a thousand mosquitoes. I panicked, not knowing whether the potential photograph was worth fighting my weight in mosquitoes, but alas they were too thick to handle and I whipped my car through the fastest three-point turn of my life, zipped out to the highway, and had my car just up to 100 mph within seconds, all four windows down, the sunroof completely open, a melange of mosquitoes and curse words whiplashing into the cavity below my back window. I kept the speed up for two minutes (there’s no one in Montana), satisfied that I had taught those damned bugs a meaningful lesson. I rolled up the windows and soon, once again, the mosquitoes were resurrecting themselves, pulling life out of the calm air, and swarming around. One by one, they’d land on the window beside me and I’d laugh maniacally as I rolled the window down just far enough for them to be sucked out the window, a hole in the vacuum of space.
I had to keep myself entertained like so all day, all ten hours of driving, some 700 odd miles. It wasn’t the most pleasant drive, sometimes frustratingly empty and lonely and wretched, but I was actually pleasantly surprised with the whole experience. North Dakota even had some surprises in store for me. I was prepared for the worst, an ugly and flat, dry, boring, empty wasteland of highway and monochrome sameness, mirrored on both sides of the highway’s center line. And indeed, there was a lot of that, but at least contained to Eastern North Dakota, the first leg of my drive. I had actually been mildly looking forward to the drive, to experiencing this terribly desolate part of our country, but the novelty only lasted the first couple hours. I had to find hope in the unexpected: the wide neon golden fields, the impromptu ponds, perfectly reflecting the bright blue of the sky, the geographical center of North America, marked by a limestone cairn, out of place in front of the Cornerstone Cafe, alongside Hwy 2.
The terrain in Western North Dakota changed decisively, huge flat-topped hills, mesas, pulled up from the ground at random. The highway bounced over irregular, confused hills, between and over an impressive array of ponds and lakes. The pattern continued into Montana, finally Montana (hours upon hours later). I stopped briefly in Williston, ND, just a couple miles from the Montana border, hoping to find a city swimming pool for an hour’s diversion, an escape from the 106°F temperature, give my car a rest after six solid hours of doing 80mph, stretch my legs, get some sun, et cetera. But there was no pool, no pool in this town. I stopped at a convenience store and checked the phone book. The nearest one en route was in Culbertson, Montana, 40 miles onward.
I pushed on, knowing the pool would be closed by the time I got there, fenced in and taunting. The quiet town, population 796, is dropped in the middle of nowhere, as all the towns for a 1000 miles are. The tourist brochures brag of the “ever-expanding SVO Oilseed processing plant,” apparently a must-see for anyone not already completely set on driving straight into the next lake. Indeed the pool was closed for the day, but I stopped anyway, wanting at least to get some sun and read a little. I took my beach towel and spread it out on the grass in the nearby park. I laid down to the sound of grass crunching, the razor grass, the kind with rough edges capable of drawing blood. Doing so drove a myriad of houseflies and grasshoppers and other manners of unpleasant insects from the grass, making new homes on my legs and ears and back and clothes. I didn’t last long.
Which was okay, because I still had a long drive ahead. Montana is capable of holding more than two North Dakotas — a big state, the Union’s 4th largest (44th in population). And I wanted to make it through as much of the boring stuff as I could, leaving just a little bit of boring for tomorrow when I’ll make the contrast-of-a-lifetime drive to the Rocky Mountains at Glacier National Park — one of my most anticipated destinations.
I had a late start this morning from Grand Forks, didn’t get out of town until noon, after noon maybe. I bought a fruit tray from the local supermarket and a vanilla fruit dip and ate everything but the cantaloupe, but only because the strawberries, grapes and honeydew completely filled me up. It was roughly my only meal of the day and quite a good one. I found the Grand Forks Carnegie Library very easily and embraced the fast, modern computers — a loving embrace that lasted over an hour. So I got a late start, a leisurely slow start that probably should have been avoided, knowing the magnitude of drive that lay ahead.
I got a bit homesick today for the first time in weeks, a feeling that reminded me of South Carolina. It’s a homesickness borne of being alone, being the minority (here among Native Americans, in Charleston, Black Southerners), and most importantly, being tired. Northern Montana is scattered with Indian Reservations, easily identified by the absence of caucasians, their Suburbans, and yes, even McDonalds. Another key indication is when any building serving any purpose whatsoever (gas station, museum, accountancy, hotel, bar, church, garage) also serves as a casino — marked with “Casino” in spray-paint. It wasn’t a terrible homesickness, just a desire to be somewhere else, out of this vast wilderness. And knowing that it lies hundred of miles ahead.
My only real sightsee today was the Fort Peck Dam, 15 miles south of US-2, in Montana. The world’s second largest earthen dam collects the waters of the Missouri River into the enormous Fort Peck Lake. The project was one of the largest of the New Deal era, occupying over 10,000 civilian workers for seven years as they hacked, dug, poured, sweated, and wrestled a sea out of High Plains desolation. The result is 20-million acre-feet of water behind a four-mile long dam — a maximum depth of 220 feet and a shoreline longer than California’s at 1600 miles! The lake is dotted with campsites (public and free, I think), swimming areas, and other recreational areas, as well as a museum in the old powerhouse. The brings some much-needed bright green and soft grass to the area, but I had no time to really enjoy it, needing to move on.
I planned to make it to Havre, a place only a few hours out from Glacier National Park (so I’d get to experience the ascent, the sudden emergence of the mountains as I crest that hill, wherever it is) and far enough out that tomorrow won’t be dominated by the drive that nearly killed me today. I had read about a campsite (more so an RV park) in Havre that’s a Coop between a Conoco and a Best Western, where you can shower at the convenience store and avail yourself to the sauna, spa, and pool at the hotel. I showed up, but their tent sites were terrible, despite how lovely the sauna and pool sounded. One group of tent sites were behind the Conoco, under floodlights with someone’s dog chained to a picnic table — a boxer who barked the whole 10 minutes I looked around. The other sites were back in the back, quiet and dark, but I was warned that I’d probably get wet when the sprinklers came on in the middle of the night. So I passed, very discouraged and frustrated, tired as hell (now 11:00 p.m.), sick of driving, feeling dirty (no shower or shave in four days — but I didn’t smell), and ready for a goodnight’s rest.
And so it didn’t take much convince me to treat myself to the forty dollar hotel room — a Super 8. A clean room, comfy bed, a good night’s rest, a shower and shave and TV. I haven’t spent any money on accommodation since Boston — except once, $10 for a lovely tent site — so the decision came easy.
I got an email from my cousin Sarah this morning, saying something about an article re my trip in the Humboldt Union, so I gave my friend Sarah — a different Sarah — a call and she read me part of it, just the lede and little snippets of stuff from my journal that he used in the article (not the most interesting stuff, or best written, but it’ll do). I’m glad others might know about my trip now and can follow along with the last month, even though it will be hard to do much “catching-up” with the volumes I’ve written already. I need to implement some way to signal the “good parts,” the parts people should read if they’re just skimming, just “catching-up.” And not to be greedy for press, but maybe I’ll write an article later, nearer the end of the trip, or sooner, or later, and maybe he’ll print it.
Tomorrow I’m off to the mountains.