Several years ago, I drove to Montana. From Georgia. I don’t remember why. Why I drove, that is. But I’ll be forever glad that I did. One son consented to ride with me to, the other from. Memorable.
Someone has requested a reprise of a couple or three classic blog posts from that trip. Herewith:
Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota. North and west along the Elkhorn River, passing through towns where the houses and stores cluster around grain elevators instead of courthouses. The carpenter’s square: that’s what someone used to lay out this country, starting in the middle of the continent. Dirt roads meet the highway at perfect right angles; they stretch away, perpendicularly, until they disappear over a ridge or fade into the horizon. The millions and millions of corn-filled furrows are the same. Farmers here must be whizzes at geometry.
Except that the creeks and rivers keep their own counsel. They meander, as they do everywhere, when let be. So here’s a field with a gentle curve, mimicking the curve in the Elkhorn.
Mile after mile after mile of fertile countryside, all of it desk-ruled by human hands, but not a soul in sight. In time, we became connoisseurs of corn. Experts on hay bales and hay stacks. “Hey, look, cows.” “Really?” “Yep.” “Cows, more cows?” “Moo.”
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
You’re up in the attic of your house, say, moving old boxes around. Or you’ve spent an afternoon organizing a closet, breathing in the smell of old clothes. And then you come down from the attic, or you step away from the closet, and you take that first long, deep breath.
That’s what it feels like. All of sudden, the corn fields are behind you. The dusty towns and the hot, wet air of all those irrigated fields are just a memory. The sky opens up. Grassy knobs and treeless hills fill your vision.
Breathe in, breathe out. There is a hush in the car. You draw together a bit, solemn at the immensity of the world.
If you look closely, you can see a boy out in this field. His father did not really worry that his son would keep walking, right up into Canada. Instead, he stood there on the dirt road, at the edge of the grassland, just watching. Vicarious pleasure, I think that’s the term.
And thinking, too. Thinking that what makes a trip like this especially wonderful is what you can’t imagine when you’re planning it. The moments of clarity. You watch your son stride out into a field. The wind blows and blows. Cloud shadows race over the hills. You have the sense that you are far, very far from home. At the same time, there’s home right in front of you, watching the grasshoppers hop around his feet, holding his arms up to the wind.
You know you’re stealing time. That’s what makes it seem so special, so precious. Or not it — him.
I SWEAR THIS REALLY HAPPENED
“I’m getting pulled over.” Jim puts on his blinker, slows, and pulls over onto the narrow shoulder between guard rail and highway. State trooper arrives, looking in past son on the passenger’s side of the car.
“Good afternoon, sir. My name is Officer Tim Johnson, and I’m a Montana state trooper. I guess you know why I pulled you over?” He’s not a day older than 30.
“Honestly, officer, I was talking to my son, not paying close attention, and I thought I was going about 80 mph.”
“Well, sir, the speed limit on this highway in Montana is 75, and I clocked you going 84.” (Look of concern, affected or genuine, Jim is not sure.) “Your son’s not in trouble is he?”
Jim smiles as if to say, “Maybe. Would it help if he were?” Meanwhile cars and trucks are zooming by, a few feet from the driver’s side of the car. A second trooper pulls in behind the first. Jim hands over his registration, proof of insurance, and driver’s license. Officer looks at son. Officer looks at Jim. Jim and son wait.
Then, conversationally: “So, where are you headed? . . . When did you start out? . . . How’s your trip been so far?” Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. “You said you’re picking them up in Kalispell? What route are you going to take up there? . . . Well, that one would save you some time, but you need to watch out for wildlife up by Seely Lake. But the other is pretty, too, just a very windy road, and you’ll have to watch your speed there, too.” Pause. Reflection. “Well, sir, I’m going to give you a warning. I’ll record this information and be back in a moment.”
Returns to patrol car. Jim folds in his driver’s side mirror and stays braced for the impact of the 18-wheeler that will eventually sideswipe them.
At length, officer returns. Smiles. And now (it seems) deferentially, “Are there any other questions I can answer for you? Anything else you need to know? Anything?” So, more chatting: the Bozeman exit for the Hampton Inn, road construction that Jim needs to know about, the vagaries and lessons of a trip like this one. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
Jim waits. Is Officer Tim Johnson going to abandon his patrol car and climb into the back seat, next to my son’s Unicorn Pillow Pet? Could it be that Jim and son have stumbled into an Anne Tyler novel?
Nope. Finally the bittersweet parting.