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.

The Best Laid Plans

“A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers.  Many conversations en route began with ‘What degree of a dog is that?’”

Our dog is the one on the left.

Like many thirty-something couples with no kids, we have a dog. Like Charley, our pup is exotic, and she has definitely created bonds for us with neighbors and strangers alike. It is not unusual for burly, tattooed men to get down on their knees in the street and gush over how cute she is. People tend to speak to her first, and whoever happens to be at the other end of her leash second, if at all. However, she is Scottish and requires a passport to travel, not to mention the cost of a doggie ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight. So she spent her vacation with a friend of ours in Scotland. Our point of contact with strangers en route would have to be something else.

It turned out to be the car. It’s a Mazda RX8. Wide and low, with sweeping Ferrari lines, 18-inch rims, and a rotary engine. It makes a sound like a jungle cat, and appropriately is also jungle green. It handles like a racecar, and the great temptation is to drive it like one. Whether you’re doing 90 miles an hour or 20, the car gives off the sort of full-throated roar that turns heads and slows traffic. Other drivers let us pull out in front of them. Men at gas stations unfailingly strike up conversations, always beginning with an appreciative, “Nice car!”  The car is our way back in.

Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s fabled horse. His journey was a quest, and he felt that his steed needed an appropriate moniker. Our journey is perhaps slightly less epic, but in similar style, we wanted to give our chariot a name appropriate to its temperament. We’ve nicknamed the car Kit, after the artificially intelligent supercar in the old 1980s American television show Knightrider. We named the RX8 after the car in the show because it has a mind of its own.  Set the cruise control for 72 miles an hour, and it slowly creeps up to 73.  If you don’t correct it, pretty soon you look down and it’s 77 miles an hour, then 82.  When you tap the brakes, it groans as if in disappointment. Kit wants to move. The car is as excited about this journey as we are, and it wants to get there faster.

Our plan was fairly simple. We’d fly into Seattle, borrow Dad’s RX8, and drive. We’d circle the American West, through Idaho and Montana, down through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and then west across Arizona. We’d finish by swinging up the coast back to Seattle on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Along the way we’d see some of the key tourist spots we remembered from childhood, and some new ones we felt were important. To afford all this, and meet more people along the way, we’d spend most nights camping, descending on friends and family at strategic intervals to take advantage of showers, comfortable beds, and washing machines. In a little over a month, we’d cover 5,000 miles.

Our very first day on the road, it was clear that we had failed to take into account the fuel consumption of our borrowed hot rod. We drove east on I-90 out of Seattle at 7am, entering the Cascade Range and Snoqualmie National Forest just as the sun was erasing the long shadows of the fir trees from the highway. The first morning of a long road trip is always exhilarating; a thermos of coffee, a full tank of gas, and the early morning open road in front of you. Our spirits were high. But it only took a hundred miles or so for us to realize that all the performance advantages of the RX8 come at the expense of an appetite for gas that would put Steinbeck’s big truck to shame. We want to relax and go with the flow of the road, but we’re also going to have to count the miles between gas stations and tourist destinations.

So our plan was immediately shot full of holes, just like the road signs in Montana. (Apparently this is a tradition in Montana: if you can’t find a moving target to practice your marksmanship, the next best thing is to be moving and try to hit something standing still. There must be legions of people with guns hanging out of car windows, aiming at those big green signs by the side of the road. An example of American ingenuity at work.) But as Steinbeck knew, any travel plan is potential prey to circumstance. We’ll just have to let the trip take us.

Preparing for the Journey

“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Mexican food. Those probably aren’t the first words you expect to see on a blog about reconnecting with America. But for us that’s what it’s all about. The first thing we want when we step off the plane from Scotland is a big, greasy, smothered burrito. Which isn’t really Mexican food anyway, at least not as they know it in Mexico. In Mexico, it’s gorditas y poblanos, pozole y chilaquiles. This version of the burrito is a hybrid, a cross between authentic Mexican cuisine and what appeals to your average gringo. A melting-pot burrito. A microcosm of the macro-America we’re trying to get to know all over again. A welcome home.

As a starting point, we should introduce ourselves. We’re expats, people who live outside our country of birth by choice rather than necessity. People for whom wanderlust is a way of life. We live to experience rather than accumulate.  Our savings accounts are not dedicated to a new car or a down payment on a house but to the excitement of slinging well-worn backpacks over our shoulders and stepping onto a train. Or the tingling sensation of take-off, half fear and half anticipation. All the little nuisances and annoyances of security lines, ticket checks, passport control, and checked baggage weight limits fall away in that moment of departure. For wanderers like us, train stations and airports are cathedrals, holy places of transition and in-between-ness. The start of a trip is a blank slate, a chance to re-invent ourselves. Each one is a mini mid-life crisis, a vain attempt to realize a permanent desire for change.

Several years ago, we read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America for the first time. It was a revelation, a vision through a glass darkly. In 1960 Steinbeck was living in New York, far from the characters who filled his novels. He felt he was missing America, that he didn’t know his country or his people anymore. So he kitted out a camper shell on a customized pick-up truck, stocked it with more stuff than he could possibly need (as we all do when travelling), and took off on a four-month trip around the continental US with only his brown Standard Poodle, Charley, for company. He wanted to reconnect with the America he used to know so intimately.

That loss of connection is something we also felt.  As colonials living in Scotland, our knowledge of America was mediated by emails from friends and family, the BBC website, and the common stereotypes perpetrated so enthusiastically by Yanks and foreigners alike. We no longer had a personal connection with the real America. In a way that is perhaps typical of thirty-something Americans, we were searching for ourselves.

We spent months planning our trip. We watched ticket prices rise and fall and kept hoping for the big fall that never came. The morning ritual of checking Expedia, Last Minute, and Opodo to see how the prices had changed from the night before became as addictive as the daily caffeine hit. We planned routes, booked hotels and camping spots, contacted family and friends to beg for couches and spare rooms, all before we’d even purchased plane tickets. And of course, the minute we stepped out our front door, all that planning was at the mercy of the personality of the journey itself. Steinbeck was right about that.

In fact, Steinbeck was right about a lot of things. One of the things that strikes us as we read an re-read Travels with Charley is how prescient he was about the future of the America he went in search of. Another goal for us on this journey of ours is to see how America is faring 50 years on. Have we as a nation lived up to Steinbeck’s expectations? Have we fulfilled his best and worst predictions? Would he recognize himself in the people we meet? Would he recognize himself in us? In a way, we are travelling with Steinbeck in search of America.