Now and again, I go venturing. Some times by train, sometimes by plane, but more often, automobile. West coast, east coast, the Bible belt, back to the Iron Range, northern Europe, Canada, Japan or Vietnam. I tacitly wander. It feels good to have a place to call home, though. But, for short periods of time – I like to wander. As a kid, our family would drive from Hibbing, Minnesota, to Longmont or Boulder, Colorado, now and again. My mother’s sister and her family lived there. The drive seemed impossibly long. Spread-out over two days, we would spend the night in Nebraska – Grand Island or North Platte. My father was, and often still is, impossibly impatient. In the 1980s, with the National Maximum Speed Law (NMSL) still in place, being in a vehicle as my father pushed it – a Chrysler minivan or Ford Bronco II – up past 70 mile per hour seemed fun and exciting. He was beyond irritated when he was pulled over for speeding.
Traveling, as a child, with the exception of a circle tour around Lake Superior in the early 1990s, always involved traveling to family. In 1998, a month before my 18th birthday, my mother’s brother, Mike, needed to get a 1997 Toyota Camry from Hibbing to Portland, Oregon. The car had been my grandfather’s. It was still traveling with family, but it felt different. One way or another, I convinced my mother that I should be allowed to go with Mike. I’d be helping by being able to drive. To add to the how the hell did I manage that category, I secured a one way ticket back to Minnesota from Portland. I’m not certain who actually paid for the ticket.
Using MapQuest to plot our route, we printed off our travel plans, packed a bit of food and headed west. Hibbing to Glendive, Montana, is about a nine hour drive. No cellphone – we used pay phones along the way if needed or a phone card. Mike and I switched off driving midway in North Dakota. For a seventeen year old who had never done any long-haul drives before, four and half hours behind the wheel was tough. Glendive to Wallace, Idaho (where there is a Bordello Museum and a silver nugget “as big as a steering wheel”). Similarly, we switched driving midway. From Wallace, thru the the Columbia River Gorge into Portland.
Four years earlier, NMSL had been fully repealed. A boon for states’ rights proponents. Montana, shortly there after, enacted a during-daylight speed limit of “Reasonable and Prudent” (little did I know that “Reasonable and Prudent” would be struck down later that year by the Montana Supreme Court for being “unconstitutionally vague”). A seventeen year old me, no parents, and an uncle with a known wild streak riding shotgun — hell yes, I was going to see what that Camry could do on the open roads of Big Sky country. I nearly panicked when I passed a Montana highway patrol. He was clipping along at 90 miles per hour; I was doing 105. He did not care, 105 must have been Reasonable and Prudent enough for him. On this trip, I saw an ocean for the first time in my life. The waves and tide around Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach. Seattle with Pike’s Place Market, the Monorail, and the Space Needle. It was a cornucopia of things-Pacific Northwest.
No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes
Two years later, my sister had just finished her undergraduate academic career, and would be starting her doctoral academic career in the fall. She wanted a road trip. Replace wild-streak-uncle with high-energy sister, and replace 1997 Camry with a 1998 Dodge Stratus (“forest green” no less), and needing to drive back to Minnesota instead of flying – the trip was exactly the same, just different. Even with “Reasonable and Prudent” no longer in play, we still drove fast. Meghann, tells the story of slowly waking up from napping in the passenger seat, having the sensation that we were “moving quickly,” realizing that I had a cassette tape in the tape deck – playing Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” – in her version of the story, I’m singing along with the music; she glanced at the speedometer – 100 – and calmly asked me, “Are we going 100 miles per hour?” Putting on a thick layer of bullshit and likely channeling our late grandfather, Charlie, I quickly dismissed the question with, “No, no, it must be the angle that you’re looking at the speedometer.”
Wallace, Idaho, the Columbia River Gorge, Seattle – Pike’s Place Market and the Space Needle – all the places that Mike and I had ventured – Meghann and I were now seeing these same places. Speeding through Montana on the way back to the Midwest, we passed through clouds of birds with the Stratus. Stopping in Fargo to drop Meghann off at her apartment also afforded a trip through a car wash to remove bird bits.
Between the time Meghann and I ventured out to the west coast and the near present, there was plenty of travel. Melissa and I drove several times to New Hampshire and the East Coast when my sister was residing there. A drive to North Carolina over a long weekend to pickup a dog. Train trips to both coasts – Melissa was able to see Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock in person. And of course, the somewhat epic trip that Andy B. and I took to the Arctic Circle (or Andy’s version). That trip took a similar path as previous westward trajectories but took a hard right in Bozeman, Montana and nearly 2,500 miles to the northwest into Canada.
Aside from driving up to the Iron Range to visit my parents and work on things on the familial land, road trips have been sparse since the Canadian & North Carolinian venturing. In April, I made the drive from New Bern to Chapel Hill, NC (and back) – but this had a similar distance and time to that of the drive from St. Paul to the Iron Range.
Earlier in 2016, word from Andy B. (now living outside Seattle) was he and his long time girlfriend were going to be getting married. I looked at plane tickets – it would have been the sensible thing to do, but that perennial itch to drive somewhere crept into my consciousness. Maybe I should drive solo to Seattle? I started to look at routes. I will reiterate that the sensible thing to do would have been fly, spend nearly six days in the Seattle/Portland area and split the remaining single-day’s amount of time for sensible, efficient air travel.
I did not do that.
I set my sights on Great Falls, Montana for the first night, and Federal Way, Washington (just outside Seattle, where the wedding would take place) the next day. I left St. Paul at 4:00am on a Thursday. The first four hours to Fargo, North Dakota, seemed to go quick enough. SiriusXM in the car, ample music on my iPhone. Entertainment options were covered. No using MapQuest this time, either. I believe I had at least three GPS enabled devices with me. Jamestown, Bismarck, Dickinson, a stop near Belfield and Medora at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its Painted Canyon.
Heading west, you gain an hour for each new time zone. Great Falls, like the rest of Montana, is in Mountain Time. I rolled into Great Falls around 8:30pm local time. Getting to Great Falls involved taking Montana Highway 200 for 350 miles, starting from Glendive. Two lanes stretching out in front of you, just a ribbon of road dropping off the horizon miles ahead of you. This road reminded me of the Dempster Highway in Yukon. A lonely strip of road, few if any roads that crossed it. Very few other vehicles. Unlike the Dempster, there were a few towns along the road. Circle and Lewistown. Little towns that reminded me of the Iron Range. Pickup trucks, four-wheelers and abandoned gas stations. Great Falls had the feeling of Jacksonville, North Carolina. A military town – Malmstrom Air Force Base to the east. Jacked up trucks with out of state license plates, pawn, tobacco and vape shops. It was still a nice little city. There was a festival of some kind going on in Broadwater Bay Park.
Up and out and on the road by 6:30am the following day. Great Falls was waking up. Traffic was light. Instead of the predominate direction – west – that I had been taking, it would be south for a short time. Helena, the state capitol of Montana was my first stop of the day. I needed to pickup Andy & Jen a card – something from Montana, as Montana is where they both went for their undergraduate degrees (in Bozeman, but I was not headed through that city) as well as that’s where they met each other.
The distance of Hibbing to Duluth, Great Falls to Helena is about an hour and twenty minutes. It was still early, but prior to my departure, I had looked up gift shops in Helena. General Mercantile. It markets itself as a Gift Emporium, Espresso Bar & Tea Room. It opens at 8:00am on weekdays. It fit the bill for me. I perused the many shelves of chotskies and eventually found my way back to the cards. I picked out a nice card, printed in Missoula, with a print of Monte Dolack’s “Mirage” on the front side. An Americano from the espresso bar for me, a card for to-be-weds, and I was on the road once again. Helena and part of the city that General Mercantile was located in, felt sort of like a Minnesota river town. A larger version of Cannon Falls, Hastings, or even Lanesboro. Onto the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and Idaho.
The panhandle of Idaho is just mountains. The interstate is a series of curves, inclines and declivities. The exit for Wallace zipped by, as did Kellogg and Smelterville, Coeur d’Alene with the lake that shares the same name. Post Falls where the northern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene drains into the Spokane River.
Comparing eastern Washington and the part west of the Cascades is a juxtaposition of both climate and way of life. Eastern Washington could only be more different if they decided drive on the left side of the road and go full-metric. But, they will not. Eastern Washington is ranch land with near desert conditions. The politics of the region fit more with that of the panhandle of Idaho than that of the western part of the state. West of Spokane, and you will find vast, open stretches of country and road. Along the sides of the, you will see hay bales stacked high – covered with tarps. I passed numerous Trump for President signs, as well.
About eights hours from Great Falls by way of Helena, the landscape starts to change over from browns and tans of the rain shadow of the Cascades into the greener foothills and slopes of the Cascades. Thru Snoqualmie Pass, and the interstate widens out to three lanes then four lanes heading west.
Onto Washington Highway 18 near Snoqualmie, WA, heading southwest to Federal Way. Melissa had called me earlier in the day to say that the hotel in Federal Way that I would be staying at had called and informed her that they had upgraded my room to a king suite; I guessed they needed my original room for a block of rooms for large grouping of people.
I checked into the hotel and dragged my camera equipment, backpack + laptop, food cooler, and suitcase up to my room. A quick shower, a change of cloths – I had been wearing the same thing for the past two days – and I was off to the rehearsal dinner in Issaquah, Washington.
The highlight of the evening, aside from seeing Andy’s parents (who no longer live in Hibbing, but instead, live in South Carolina) and watching people play Kubb, was watching Jen & Andy saw off a log with a two person saw. It was symbolic of what a marriage will be – two people, working in tandem, trying to tackle life’s challenges. Two days, 1,700 miles of road, driven solo, and I had made it to my destination. The wedding would be the next day, in the evening, at the Pacific Bonsai Museum.