Desert Nights

“At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert. The quiet counting of the stars, and observation of their movements, came first from desert places.”

In the Petrified Forest

We left New Mexico behind and flew across Arizona to the Painted Desert, on the border of the Navajo Nation. We planned to spend the night in our tent beneath the dome of desert stars.

Brigitte at the Petrified Forest Visitor Center attempted to derail our plans. “You’ll need to hike in,” she told us.

“Yep, no problem.”

“OK. But you’ll need to carry all your gear and your water.” She stared us down. “For the whole trip.”

“Yep, we’ve got it.”

“OK. But you’ll need a lot of water; it gets really hot out there.”

“We’ve got a gallon for each of us per day.”

“Huh. OK. Well, you’ll have to go at least a mile out from the trailhead. And you’re on your own; there’s no trail, no markers.”

“No problem, we’ve got a GPS.”

“OK. But you’ll need to pack all your trash out with you.”

“We always do.”

Desert Wildlife

By this time she’d decided we were OK. We could tell she had to go through that spiel with everyone and that at some point the would-be campers, presented with all these obstacles, must give up. We know this because she told us this was the first time she’d had to fill out all the paperwork. It was a lot of paperwork. We had to sign our lives away for one night of camping in the Painted Desert.

After we passed the first test with Brigitte, we had to stop and see Bill at the Painted Desert Inn. This was where we would leave the RX8 overnight. There was a sticker on the door of the inn for our benefit: “No firearms allowed inside.” We were in there for 15 minutes or so, during which time he told the same story to three different couples three different times in response to the same question:

“How old is this building?”

There would be a pause while Bill sucked his front teeth. “Well,” another pause, “we’re not too sure. The guy that built this,” he said before pausing to chew the inside of his lip, “he homesteaded first. He registered the Inn with the government in 1924, but he homesteaded the year earlier.” This was an exceptionally long speech, and Bill needed a break to roll his tongue around a bit. Then he took a deep breath in through his nose. “So, it could be 87, or maybe 86 years old.”

As he told this story for the second time while we waited for our turn to speak to him, we browsed the shelves of souvenirs. The main room of the inn with its fantastic views over the desert floor below, a room that had once been a place for sitting and conversing and enjoying the subtle fluctuations of the light over the cliffs and wadis below, was now populated with shelves of T-shirts and coffee mugs, racks of postcards, and one particularly gruesome stand packed with plastic rattlesnakes and stuffed jackalopes. Everything strategically designed to provide hard evidence that the buyer had been there, done that.

After he wrapped up his story for the third time, Bill gave us our instructions in his own idiosyncratic way. “Leave the car by seven tonight,” he instructed before a long pause in which he chewed his lip and punched the keys on the cash register for yet another customer, “And don’t come back before eight in the morning.”

Losing the Light

It’s impossible to describe a night in the desert wilderness adequately. The light from the setting sun turns everything red. As the sun goes down in the west it draws the purple night haze up from the eastern horizon behind it; we watched it bleed slowly across the sky as we raced to set up our tent. The stars seemed to hang in the blackness just above our heads, as if we could reach out and touch them if we tried. They pulse like they’re alive, like they’re watching; it’s easy to see why so many people out here think they spot UFOs. If you stare at the same patch of sky long enough, more and more stars appear, and you realize there really isn’t a single bit of darkness up there. Then the moon comes up and steals the light from the stars, blotting them out with a reflection so bright it casts shadows. We spent the night watching the stars through the tent mesh and listening to the wind and the crickets.

A Great Splash of Grandeur

      “Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.”

On our second day we traversed the mountains with their tiny ski villages brown and bereft of snow, mountain lakes at their summer lows, and descended down out of the foothills into the Columbia Basin. The great river rolls along here like a native spirit, giving life to one of the country’s richest agricultural regions.

Here be dragons.

We drove on across the upraised thumb of Idaho, up again through mountain passes with evocative names like Lookout Ridge and Potlatch Hill. We skirted deep chasms full of indigo water and rushing streams colored pea green, milky white, and rust red by the minerals leeching out of abandoned silver and gold mines in the hills. We traced the edge of Montana’s Rattlesnake Recreation Area, perhaps one of the least inviting names conceivable for trying to entice tourists out of their cars.

In the early evening light the first northernmost peaks of the US Rocky Mountains reflected the copper sunset while the color slowly bled from the mountains behind, leaving them in violet shadow. As we streamed into the night while the sun ran the other way, we crossed miles of open land where not a single light winked from the surrounding hills. There is still a vast wilderness here, where wolves roam and bison outnumber two-legged creatures.

When it came time to stop for the night, we thought it would be no problem to find a cheap motel, one of those old places that used to line the highway and offer rooms for $30 a night. But things have changed. We drove through several towns with no sign of any accommodation, and when we finally found a Super 8 motel in the wilds of Montana, the clock read 11.30pm, the car was running on empty, and we had to pay $90 for the room. And that was the Triple A discount rate.  They also had suites, which basically just means that for an extra $30, you can have a couch in your room. We know – we asked. The room itself was a cookie-cutter copy of virtually every hotel room we’ve stayed in around the world. The McDonaldization of the hotel industry. There’s something both comforting and disconcerting about sleeping in the same room on six different continents.

TJ, the manager on duty, was full of enthusiasm and superlative information in spite of the late hour. For instance, did you know that Montana is the prettiest of all the fifty states? After spending the best part of eight hours driving through it, we might be inclined to agree. Steinbeck wrote about Montana with a profound joy. It was his favorite of all the fifty states, lacking only the ocean to make it perfect. He found it to be a place where “people had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness” (121), and fifty years later, that was still true of TJ.

“What brings you to the great state of Montana?” he asked with a smile that never left his face.

Matt told him about the series of weddings and family events that sparked our epic road trip.

“Why would your sister want to get married in Denver when she could get married in Montana? Montana’s the most beautiful state in the union.”

“Actually she lives in Montana, not far down the road. She’ll be coming back here to live after the wedding. She loves it up here.”

He nodded once, as you do when someone states the obvious.

“So how do you feel about your little sister getting married?”

“Makes me feel old.”

He nodded excitedly, still grinning. This question was merely a prelude to him sharing his feelings on related subjects.

“That’s exactly it. I had my first nephew when I was 18. It didn’t really sink in for me then, because it was my older sister, but it really hit me when my little brother had his first kid. And my sister’s labor was so painful!  It went on for, like, days. It was crazy. We were all waiting around at the hospital, falling asleep on the chairs. Then I had my first kid when I was 25. Let me tell you, that changes everything. Everything, man.”

TJ was something we discovered to be fairly typical about the country we were driving through: a 30-something guy who just plain enjoyed his job, his town, his state, and his life in general. He liked meeting people, talking to people, sharing pleasantries and information. He was content. Contrary to pop-culture wisdom about small-town Americans, he just wanted to know about stuff.  It didn’t matter what it was, so long as it was something new. He may not have been “sophisticated” in conventional terms, but he had a friendly curiosity and his own kind of wisdom. TJ was open; too often we underestimate the value of that. And when he told us to have a great trip and enjoy ourselves, he meant it with every fiber of that genuine good nature of his.

We had forgotten what it’s like to be told to have a nice day. All day, every day, after every transaction. And most people mean it. “Have a nice day” is a phrase some Europeans make fun of; something stereotypically American, unsophisticated, even invasive. But now, being back here, it’s natural. Because it’s genuine. When people tell you to have a nice day, they mean it. And you walk out smiling. That phrase is both cause and effect.

"I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love."
-Steinbeck

In the silvery light of early morning, we left the hotel and drove towards the sunrise, where clouds parted and the newly reborn sun spilled pale blue light over the mountains. We ate apples purchased from our green grocer in Scotland several days before, on the other side of the world. They had entered the USA without being declared and were probably contraband. We enjoyed them immensely.