Gillette, Wyoming to Missoula, Montana. 576.8 miles. 8 hours 41 minutes on the road. 111 songs.
So, I’m driving down I-90 out of Gillette this morning, and all of a sudden I notice the mood I’m in. I’m feeling calm and relaxed, I’m enjoying the drive. Given the bundle of insecurities that is normally my baseline, I start to wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because I have a huge stretch of road all to myself, something nearly unheard of on the east coast. Maybe it’s because, so far, the planning I’d done on paper (and internet) was actually falling in place; we were right on schedule, the distances between stops were what I’d expected, and Hugo was contentedly chilling out in his ersatz nest.
Or maybe it was because I was on something of a bucket-list life experience.
Oh, right. I’d nearly missed that.
* * *
I’ve always liked driving. I don’t like driving at night when somebody’s right on my tail with their high beams on, and I don’t like driving in downpours or blizzards when it gets hard to make out the lines on the road. Other than that, I’m good. I have no problem spending the day in the car; The Knucklehead can attest to the hours we’ve spent on the road. I especially like driving roads I haven’t been on before. I like the idea of coming around a corner or over a rise and finding something unexpected, either natural or man-made. So driving across the country is something I always thought I’d like to do someday. And amidst all the preparation and worry about the destination, I’d almost forgotten how much fun the trip itself was going to be. How much of the country I was going to see from ground level.
Just a week earlier, I’d written to The Knucklehead, “I’m about to drive across the country with a great dog. If that doesn’t make you envious, it should.”
And here I was on the penultimate day of my road trip. I was excited about reaching Olympia tomorrow, but also a little sad that I was nearing the end of the road. What had I seen so far?
* * *
When you spend most of your life on the east coast, you get a certain view of things. For example, the Appalachians. They’re not the craggy, snow-topped mile-high peaks of the Rockies. In fact, they’re seldom “peaks” at all; in Pennsylvania especially they don’t outgrow the tree line, and you don’t usually see them from further than the next county over. They’re beautiful; there’s nothing like seeing the green wash over them in the spring, or the reds and golds of fall. Geologically, they’re far older than the Rockies, so they’re less dramatic. You don’t need any special training or equipment to climb an Appalachian. Just decent boots, common sense, and a little endurance. The Rockies have a sort of other-worldly look about them. You can’t imagine living next to something like that. They’re foreign to what’s around you. You don’t think of them as being in the same America you know. They belong on Coors cans. They belong to ski bunnies. We don’t have ski bunnies.
Sure, you can fly out there. But when you fly, you lose any feel of distance, only of time. You don’t see the changes in the landscape that leads to the Rocky Mountains, so you lose any sense of being connected to them. You’re taken from one place that has its own weather and topography and foliage, and dropped in another that has its own. There’s no sense of connection. Not to the land. And the people who belong to that land, well, they belong to a different place than you do. They’re not your neighbors.
But driving, I’ve discovered, actually shrinks the country. Five days can go by pretty quick, and during that whole time you’re on paved roads that are connected to where you began. It’s all one circulatory system. And the changes in environment start to coalesce into a narrative. The old, wizened mountains of Pennsylvania, after a last gasp in the Alleghenys, yield to the farmlands of Ohio and Indiana. You watch Wisconsin add the lush green grass, turning the land over to dairy farms. Minnesota flattens out again, and the elegant Tai Chi of prairie windmills reaps a different harvest. South Dakota corduroys the land into the Badlands and the Black Hills, and you begin to get into the acres – no miles – of cattle and horse ranches of Wyoming and Montana. By the time you first glimpse the Rockies on the horizon, well, they make sense. You expect them to be there. The land has been telling you this story all along. This isn’t something you’ve been dropped into. You realize it’s all one country.
And since you can trace a line of pavement from the Appalachians to the Rockies, doesn’t that make them just down the road? Doesn’t that make the people who live there your neighbors? Sure, it’s a dedicated drive, but it can be done, you’ve just done it in less than the space of a work week. These aren’t people who live in a different place than you do. They’re just in a different part of the same story. You can connect them right back to where you live. Just like the land.
What if I could drive to France? Or Syria? Or Afghanistan? What would I think then?
* * *
Tomorrow we’ll end up in Olympia, at the last hotel of our road trip. Actually, I can start to see it already in the Montana trees; I’m beginning to see the same evergreens I’ve seen in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Montana is already telling me about my neighbors just down the road, just a day’s drive away. I’m ready to settle in, but I’m also glad to have one more day of driving ahead of me. I like having a front-row seat.