Jul 27 2014

The Wild West

Published by at 8:18 pm under Travel

I just got back from a road trip. Would you like to hear the highlights?

Friday, July 11: Hauling a suitcase jammed with hiking boots and trekking poles and biking shorts, I hitched a ride with Anna to the Emeryville Amtrak station. On the train I met a fortyish man named Darren whose conversation entertained me all the way to Sacramento. He showed me the scar on his ankle from surgery, and requested that we exchange phone numbers in case I wanted to go hiking with him sometime. I complied. Seconds later, as we stood together waiting for our respective rides, my phone buzzed. It was him, checking to make sure I’d given him the right number. A little creepy. [Editor’s note 1/6/19: I never heard from him again.] Minutes after that, right on schedule, M showed up and whisked me back to his house where we did tasks preparatory to our departure. I got my first glimpse of the camper that would be our home in the coming weeks. For dinner: a delicious M-made broccoli pasta with peanut sauce.

Saturday, July 12: It takes a long time to drive 500 miles, the distance between Sacramento, CA and Wells, NV. The latter locale featured 100-degree temps and a parking lot of an RV campground. There, I spent my very first night ever in a camper. Twenty feet long, it’s got a tiny bathroom, sink, stove, shower and icebox, a slide-out room with a table and padded chairs, and a double bed. Being slightly more petite than my companion, I was assigned the more claustrophobic inside slot, making for a challenging night’s rest.


The Bedroom


The Living Room

Sunday, July 13: Another almost-500-mile day through Nevada and Idaho and into Montana, and another parking lot of a camping spot outside of Ennis, and a third night of peanut-broccoli pasta. M asked if I wanted to drive. The very thought of it made my palms sweat with fear. I’ve never even driven a truck, leave alone one with a camper behind. I declined. I think that part of my role here was to help with the driving, but I’ve proven a failure on that front.

Monday, July 14: Now, this is nice. We pulled our camper to a new spot, Valley Garden outside of Ennis and just inches from a pleasantly noisy riffle in the Madison River, world-renowned for fly fishing. The Madison Valley is flanked by scrubby mountains with the occasional patchwork of snow.



After securing a fishing license in town, M strapped all kinds of gear all over his body, looking like an exposed suicide bomber. He stepped into the river and vanished for a few hours to have his way with the local piscine population. As the sun set, we polished off the pasta and barbecued some Alaska-caught salmon to go with.

Home on the Madison

Home on the Madison

Tuesday, July 15: I awoke at 3:00 a.m. to rolling thunder and couldn’t get back to sleep, trying till 7:00 a.m. to lie still so as not to disturb my trailer-mate. After tea and breakfast we drove to a new fishing spot on the Madison. While M reeled them in, I knitted, read, listened to birds and killed abundant deer flies. At MacDonald’s in West Yellowstone, there was a boy with struggling strawberry blonde facial hair who wore a t-shirt with this inscrutable slogan: God made my hands for battle and my fingers for war.

When you turn 62, ten dollars will buy you a lifetime pass to U.S. national parks. I have to wait two years, but M was able to take advantage of this incredible bargain. We decided that we didn’t want to brave a visit to Yellowstone today because of the vast number of gomers who stop in the middle of the road to observe every groundhog, but at the last second we pulled a u-turn and headed in. We saw a buffalo, some elk, a bear, and some fumaroles and rivers, but the most exciting part was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with water-carved sandstone and waterfalls and wheeling hawks.


Yellowstone River


At an overlook, a fat man wore a t-shirt declaring that Remarriage is Adultry. My equally devout belief is that if you’re going to condemn someone, you should at least spell their sin correctly.

Chili and bread for dinner.


Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Wednesday, July 16: Coffee in Ennis and a mournful farewell to our wonderful campsite, hitching the camper back up and hauling a few hours to Helena. From thence to another parking lot-esque campground at Black Sandy, on the shores of a dammed lake. Unhitched and drove up the Missouri to check out potential fish activity. Chili and bread for dinner again.

Thursday, July 17: Up early to drive 45 minutes to Gates of the Mountains for much-anticipated adventure into Mann Gulch. In 1949, thirteen Smokejumpers were burned to death in a blowup in the canyon. Norman McLean wrote about the disaster in Young Men and Fire, which chronicled the last minutes of their lives. He observed that, over an hour before their demise, their fates had been sealed; no matter which way they went, what decisions they made or what they did, after a specific signal moment, death was unavoidable. They were running for nothing. Lessons learned from this tragedy changed the way future generations of Smokejumpers, like M, fought forest fires.

The only way to get to the mouth of Mann Gulch is by boat.


Toward the mouth of Mann Gulch

I’d been anxious about this hike because, while M is very fit, I am not. I knew the temps in the canyon would be in the 90s, so I’d pictured myself keeling over with heatstroke if I didn’t slide off a cliff first. I didn’t do either, but I was ever-panting to keep up with my speedy hiking partner who had slowed his pace for me.


Amazingly, we encountered another pair of hikers on the trail, and—more remarkably—the man was someone that M had jumped with back in the day. We learned that the crosses dotting the steep slopes, which are supposed to mark the final resting place of the dead jumpers, are in fact incorrectly placed. There’s a lot of controversy about what actually happened during the fire, and it seems that some facts were covered up in an attempt to deny the National Forest Service’s culpability for the deaths. These pictures flatten the landscape so you can’t really see how rugged and folded it is, but, as Mom says, they “give an effect.”

Back at the mouth of the Gulch we soaked our feet in the river until our boat driver, Chris, appeared with ice water and Montana huckleberry ice cream sandwiches. Later, salmon and corn on the grill by the lake.

Friday, July 17: Today’s goal was to find a remote campsite in the Crazy Mountains. A 1.5-hour drive down a “good gravel road”  punctuated with Private Property: No Trespassing signs got us there, but there was nary a camping spot available.


Into the Crazies

After a few miles the road turned into the worst “good gravel road” I’ve ever seen, leading me to distrust the Moon Guide for all eternity.

Thwarted by the lack of a place to sleep, we made our way to an RV park in Big Timber, next to the fast-running, sheep-infested McLeod Creek. Chili cooked in the can for dinner.

Saturday, July 18: Today was an exploring day. It’s hard to believe the trip is already more than half over. Still in Montana, we drove remote roads into the Absaroka Mountains: very beautiful country.


Natural Bridge

We stopped by a place called Natural Bridge, notable for its conspicuous lack of a natural bridge, which had fallen by the wayside some twenty years ago. The voluminous water plunged into a hole leading to an underground river tucked neatly beneath the riverbed.


Sunday, July 19:  A scary day. Our next destination was to be Winnett, Montana, where we were going to meet up with M’s friend Frank, but, sadly, Frank didn’t answer our frequent calls. Instead, we did laundry and then headed toward Billings. M, who had not been spelled at driving for even a minute, gave me a choice: drive the trailer, or let him drive with an overpowering desire to sleep. We pulled over at Pompeys Pillar, a historic site where William Clark left his autograph carved into a giant sandstone hillock. Gripping the wheel with terror, I focused all my senses on staying on the road. I succeeded, and drove us for an hour or two to our next gas stop. M seemed to enjoy his brief respite from road duty, snoozing and looking out the window and playing with his iPhone. That was the first and last time I drove. I really didn’t earn my keep.

Six hours of driving deposited us in Glendive, MT, a place I’m not likely to revisit in this particular lifetime. At the RV park I was trying to direct the placement of the camper into the last remaining space available, a hard-to-access, narrow slot between trees, but I guess I was standing in the wrong place or shouting the wrong commands or doing something else foolish, because M’s frustration was painfully evident. Chili beans for dinner.


In the Dakota Badlands, you can see layers of different colors in the rock: black and yellow and white and red. The red parts are coal that has been struck by lightning, ignited and oxidized: baked into a material called “clinker” which is more resistant to erosion than the softer layers nearby.


We watched a thunderstorm gather as we set up camp at Sully Creek near Medora, ND, and retreated to the “bedroom” when the rain came. Watching the raindrops slide down the window—pausing, veering to the side, joining with another drop, splitting off in a new direction—I recalled a quotation from Leo Tolstoy about rain drops as a metaphor for the paths our lives take.** 


There’s a 97-mile-long bike and hiking trail called the Maah Daah Hey that runs from the south to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We saw signs for it, but couldn’t track the thing down. All we found was mushy mud. Here’s the Little Missouri River that runs alongside the invisible trail.


Little Missouri and Maah Daah Hey Trail

Tuesday, July 22: We backtracked into Montana so that M could check out a highway that he wants to ride on his bike next summer. Then back into North Dakota, and south into South Dakota. Drove by dust devils and watched a glorious thunderstorm from tonight’s campsite, a place whose name is reminiscent of that of a cemetery: Shadehill, near Lemmon.

Wednesday, July 23: We got an early start, meandering through all kinds of small, depressed towns enroute to M’s hometown: Linton, Wishek, Lehr, Strasburg (Lawrence Welk’s hometown), Freedonia, Kulm and, finally, Edgeley. We stopped by to get a key to M’s house from Della Ham, who, now wired to an oxygen tank, relived old times with M. Yummy dinner, containing nary a chili bean, with Don and Theresa Paul. After midnight, we crawled into the camper for the last night.

Thursday, July 24: Packed my suitcase. Coffee with the Pauls. Bought patchouli soap and a candle at Country Gardens. Left town for Fargo just as a clouds burst open with rhythmic flashes of lightning and giant, fat raindrops. Found our way to Mel & Rosie’s place. Poor Rosie: she’s only in her early seventies but dementia has set in, and she’s confused. Though Mel has Rush Limbaugh on in the background all the time, he’s still a nice guy. Met M’s sister Marie as well.

Friday, July 25: In the morning, Rosie didn’t know where Mel was. She thought he was out of town at first (even though he was in the next room). Then she had a revelation:  “He must be putting on makeup. That always takes a long time.” To the powers that be: please spare me from her fate.

M drove me to the airport and waited till boarding time. I was sad to say goodbye, and watched over my shoulder as he disappeared down the escalator. TSA has little to do in Fargo, so they frisked me.  The trip to Minneapolis was quick and easy, but there was a mile-long hike to my second gate. I’d been promised an aisle seat, but on this overstuffed flight I found myself at a window. I whined about it to the man on the aisle, and he was so gracious that he swapped with me. He, from India, and the man in the middle, from China, and I became fast friends, exchanging phone numbers and texting each other at flight’s end. Victor-from-China proposed we have a reunion one day.

My bag was almost the last off, but it arrived shortly before Molly pulled up outside of baggage claim to—bless her heart—drive me home. I can’t say that I’m happy to be home. It’s been a wonderful thing to have escaped my daily worries for a couple weeks, and I’m not quite ready for reality. Oh well. But tomorrow I get to see Emmy, and yesterday I went to Jill and Stephen’s wonderful wedding, and later this week I get to see Anna, so all is well.


**Editor’s note, January 6, 2020: I just spent a mess of time on the Internet trying to find that quote. I discovered a site that let me search all of Anna Karenina (which Zeese got me to read when I was in my twenties), but I found no such reference to rain or drops. Undaunted, I soldiered on. I’d forgotten I’d also read War and Peace (uh, which Zeese got me to read when I was in my twenties) and that same site let me search that, and I found it! When I read it way back then, I thought of Granddad, and I wrote out the excerpt and mailed it to him across the country. So without further ado, here it is, from War and Peace, Book 14, Chapter XV (1812):

And suddenly he saw vividly before him a long-forgotten, kindly old man who had given him geography lessons in Switzerland. “Wait a bit,” said the old man, and showed Pierre a globe. This globe was alive- a vibrating ball without fixed dimensions. Its whole surface consisted of drops closely pressed together, and all these drops moved and changed places, sometimes several of them merging into one, sometimes one dividing into many. Each drop tried to spread out and occupy as much space as possible, but others striving to do the same compressed it, sometimes destroyed it, and sometimes merged with it.

“That is life,” said the old teacher.

“How simple and clear it is,” thought Pierre. “How is it I did not know it before?”


One response so far

One Response to “The Wild West”

  1. Molly says:

    YOU are a pleasantly noisy riffle.

    I do not like your language, talking on and on about “dammed lakes.”

    I feel as though we need more elaboration on the idea of “Montana huckleberry ice cream sandwiches.” You mention this only in passing, but it intrigues me deeply.

    I’m glad you did get the chance to drive a little bit, terrifying as it was. You’ve proven that you *could* do it now, see.

    The names of those towns (Linton, Wishek, Lehr, Strasburg, Freedonia, Kulm, Edgeley) are awfully evocative.

    It sounds like a wonderful little trip, and a nice respite from everyday life.

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