21 Jun Driving Montana’s Hi-Line
It’s late September and I’m on the road, a hell of a place to be. I’m in my 20-year-old, 4-cylinder, Ford Ranger pickup, driving coast to coast for what I hope will be a string of uneventful days. Since I have nowhere I really need to be, I’m sticking to the back roads, driving through fly-over country most people never see. Today it’s the Hi-Line in Northern Montana, a narrow strip of blacktop that links a smattering of what I imagine to be good, hard lives to a sprinkling of others that I figure are much the same. Windows down, tires humming, I sing along to an awful country song, passing gas and steering with my knees, all for the simple pleasure that I can.
For what it’s worth, I could have plotted this trip to take me through the Sand Hills of Nebraska, the oil fields of Texas or Kansas. The route didn’t really much matter. The point was to be on The Road, at The Wheel, eat bad food, sleep rough, sing out loud, stop when I wanted, drive when I liked, and in general not give a damn. In other words, have a good time. I came north because I wanted to see some old country, and I stayed off the interstates because I have at least some sense in my head.
It’s midday and up ahead the road shimmers and melts. A mile back, outside of Havre, I passed a sign that told me I’m in “God’s country,” as if I didn’t know and hadn’t been my whole life. But who am I to refute local wisdom, which in this neck of the woods is often the only kind you can find?
I must admit, the beauty along the Hi-Line is impressive — flat-out gorgeous — so hardscrabble, clean, perfect, and frightening it’s easy to see how a person up here could get religion. This is the kind of country that makes you stop and wonder, wonder if you haven’t got it all wrong. And I can tell just by looking that a person’s best friend in Dodson is going to be a stubborn will. “Keep on keepin’ on,” one old-timer said to me.
Between Chinook and Zurich, there’s not much more than a few fence posts and strands of barbed wire to stop the wind, and then there’s sky, all that famous sky clamping down on all sides until everywhere you look is horizon and there’s nowhere to hide. Who can blame a person for thinking a little divine intervention got the ball rolling? Who can blame them for hedging their bets? The land looks as forgiving as a mother-in-law. The human-made beauty, on the other hand, is accidental: the pleasing arrangement of hay rolls scattered across a field, the swayback broken ribs of a barn, even the bowlegged, stiff-hipped ascent of a rancher pulling himself up and into the cab of his pickup in Chester takes on something of a dance, and is beautiful to watch. All of this is to say that it may well be God’s country, but I know from experience that the Devil walks Main Street, dresses like you and me, and tells the funnier jokes. And even if a few blue hairs do show up to church on a Sunday morning, the bars are better attended every day of the week and the tip jar beats the collection plate every time.
Be that as it may, just now I catch myself pressing the middle two fingers of my right hand to my lips, reaching out and transferring the kiss to the worn metal horseshoe I have looped over my rearview mirror. In fact, I’ll do this a number of times each day, for no reason I can think of except it seems a natural thing to do. I find it amusing, embarrassing even — it’s like discovering I like country music after all. The horseshoe came from Suzzy, a rescue horse I was just getting to know in Oregon. Her owner, my friend Neil, gave me one of her shoes as a good luck charm. Being something of a risk taker, I’m not afraid to hang it upside down. So it is as I drive down the road, semis blowing by in the opposite direction, antelope plotting their suicides, that I find real solace in its touch. There’s a weight to it I like, too, a tangibility I can’t get from my daydreams. My wife has a set of rosary beads hanging from her mirror and who’s to say she’s right and I’m wrong? Who’s to say the Holy Ghost isn’t some top hand steering life with the reigns? Or that God isn’t just some buckaroo who made it big?
Holy Ghost, horseshoes, or hogwash, the Hi-Line is luck. It’s a whole string of accidents you almost but didn’t just have. (Can I get an “amen” for rumble bars?) I say this in all seriousness, just now jerking my truck back onto the road and taking the Lord’s name in vain. For the past quarter mile, I’ve been driving with my atlas (yes, atlas) propped open against the steering wheel — it covers the thing like a steak that droops off a plate. Between sipping coffee and putting my hand into a bag of chips, I’ve been glancing down at the map, back up, back down, back up, trying to see how far it is to the next town. But the print is so small I don’t know why I try. Besides, it’s obvious where I am.
Small white crosses have begun to cluster at the sides of the road, increasing in frequency and number and allowing me to gauge with a fair degree of accuracy how far it is to the nearest bar. Not so long ago, Montana allowed a person to drive with an open container of beer, wine, or liquor in their vehicle. With the flat open roads, little traffic, and great distance between Here and There, how far wasn’t gauged in miles but in numbers of beers. Granted, this was by and large before they made beer you might have wanted to drink, and so a six-pack of Miller Lite was considered just getting started.
These crosses, on the other hand, represent folks who took the adage “one more for the road” much too seriously, and every time I pass one (often they are bedecked in rosaries, but never horseshoes — go figure), I have a vision of “Ahhh, come on” and back slaps in the parking lot. I see high beams crossing the double yellow lines at 2 a.m. Often my imagination will pen in somebody’s grandmother or wife or father pounding in that miserable cross and my heart wants to break. Then for the next I-don’t-know-how-many-miles I’m wondering which drivers coming at me are drunk, which ones are stoned, and which one is driving a rig called Fate. I don’t know this yet, but in a day’s time I’ll sit for 45 minutes idling on Highway 2 a half-hour outside of Minot, North Dakota, waiting for my lane to be cleared after two 18-wheelers had what amounts to a jousting match. Doing a rough calculation in my head, I probably saved my life by stopping for gas when I did 20 miles back. Each evening I talk to my wife and she ends the conversation telling me to drive safely. “Tell it to the other guy,” I say gruffly into the phone. Then she says, “I love you,” and I say “I love you too,” and I dare say we both mean it.
One thing I’ve noticed in direct contrast to the crosses is an inordinate number of smiley faces. I survived them in the 1970s and so I’m a little ticked-off that all these years later I have to brave them again. I’ve seen them on trash cans in Shelby, in store windows in Cut Bank, as bumper stickers, and on mailboxes outside of Browning. Worst of all, before I could dissuade her, the girl at the coffee shop this morning pasted one on the lid of my to-go cup. Forget the fact that it was my first cup of the morning or that the contents only fell within the broadest definition of coffee, but there was no way in hell I was going to drink the stuff out of something like that, and so I walked back across the parking lot scowling as I peeled it off. After I’d settled down and the scant caffeine had a chance to enter my system, I spent a good while pondering the situation. My conclusion was that life is so hard up here, that people’s minds and faces are so brick-set in their ways and cheerless against the buckle-you-down weather, that they need these little reminders. I’m not that much of a grouch, I’m more of a Cookie Monster, and if the people want smiley faces at 7 a.m. they can have them. But did I look that bad?
Maybe I did. Part of the appeal of a road trip is that you don’t need to shower or shave. You can wear the same clothes for days and no one is going to care. Yesterday was the closest I’ve come to bathing. At Cut Bank Creek, I pulled over, stripped down to my underwear, and dunked myself in the cold, green water. I came up sputtering, declared myself clean, and hung my underwear off the back of the truck to dry in the wind. Such freedoms, small and inglorious as they are, are a big part of why I wanted to take this trip. The Road funnels responsibilities into one of two rivulets: you, and your rig.
With each passing mile, the truck feels stronger, worthy of its name. As previously agreed, I’ve promised it some serious TLC when we reach our final destination, but in the meantime I’m keeping it juiced on fresh 40-weight oil that I administer on an as-needed basis, which is roughly a quart every other morning. My wife wanted me to get a new truck for the trip, afraid this one wouldn’t make it, but I told her that would have been like cheating on a lover (not a good analogy to use, I admit). The new trucks these days practically drive themselves, but this old thing has just enough play in the wheel to keep things exciting. It restores driving to a verb.
At least a dozen times a day I pull over to write in this journal. And every time I do I think, why not pack it all in? I’ll be in some turnout or rest area parking lot and out the window will be all those coyote-yip miles, the romance of No Destination waving back at me in the heat waves or whistling through the wires. It will get to the point where I wish there was no one who loved me or knew me or gave a shit. No family or friends. That way I could just get out and walk at a right angle from my life, cut across those fields that so badly need cutting across. These are the kinds of thoughts the Hi-Line produces. Crazy-sane ones. Take off, it says, hit the horizon and just keep going. Isn’t that what horizons are for? Throw caution to the wind, it says, blow clean across the state and over the border into Canada. If only there was a decent draft to dodge, I think. Of course, I’ve read my Homer. I know better than to listen to such sirens. I know, too, that most things in life add up to a letdown, that the Hi-Line multiplies everything, draws and quarters it, and then divides it by zero. I never was very good at math so it’s hard to tell if I come out ahead or behind in such calculations, but it sure doesn’t sound like much of a number to play.
It’s getting late. The skies burn pink in the west and lavender in the east, and caught between the two, I don’t have much choice but to feel grateful in the extreme. Beside and just ahead of me, the shadow of my truck ripples across shorn fields, dips into culverts, and pops out again. For whatever reason, this always cheers me. It gives me something to race with. Tired of the radio, I talk to this alternate me, tell it my woes. The Hi-Line is built exactly for such conversations. Likewise I’ll talk with the hooked-beaked, sloped-shouldered authority of the hawks sitting on telephone poles, so regal in their bearing I feel the need to salute. And let’s not forget the ravens, black tatters pecking at death.
When I reach my campsite — tonight a public boat launch on a small reservoir I’ve never heard of, outside of Malta — I kill the lights and engine and let the truck roll to a gravel-crunching stop, silence rushing in from all directions. Sitting quietly, I let it beat into me like waves on a beach. Whoever invented this noise, I think, this cacophony of silence, knew what they were doing. What I’m learning is that this, too, is the Hi-Line. Maybe it’s what it really is. Some call what I’m doing a vacation, but that’s something different. A vacation is something you take. The Road gives back, gives you back a sense of yourself, of distance and perspective. Driving the Hi-Line is pulling up at the end of the day at a place you’ve never been and hadn’t planned on. It’s a mythical place, one of the few you can still get to. It’s a frame of mind at $2.35 a gallon while sitting still at 60 mph. It’s thanking those rumble bars and touching that horseshoe. The Hi-Line is the same pancake and eggs breakfast, the same dishwater coffee and side of bacon that you get from the same sassy and sturdy waitress coast to coast, and when the president gets on TV and says God Bless America, that’s what I think of. It’s the sweat at the small of your back, the ache at the back of your eye. It’s the radio running in circles, seeking, seeking. Driving the Hi-Line is a passing continent of white crosses. In the end, it’s everything you hoped and feared it would be, including the plastic bag caught on the wire fence, snapping in the wind much like your soul, 5 acres of sunflowers behind it, each one a head on fire, blossomed and blistering, auto-rotating to the homerun arc of the sun.