Friday, June 06, 2003

Of Montana

Day 4

The tedium of the drive began to take its toll today. J. and I have taken to staring off at nothing at all, speaking to no one in particular, and laughing at jokes nobody else hears. Such are the symptoms of profoundly, chronically deranged individuals, and yet we are (relatively) sane. We are, however, locked into the reality that we are over halfway to our destination and have completely run out of things to say to one another or to think to ourselves.

This was most readily apparent as we made our leave from Gillette this morning. Our ambitious destination was Missoula, Montana, a bit over six hundred miles west-northwest. The distance notwithstanding, we voiced a confidence in our capacity to make it there, no problem, no sweat -- we had, after all, so we reasoned, driven the same distance the first day of our journey. An excruciatingly long hour-and-a-half, one-hundred-mile drive to Sheridan, Wyoming, however, chipped away our breakfast-table confidence. Looking back now, I think we should've taken the hint around the small town of Buffalo, when a besotted bird flew out of nowhere into the windshield of J.'s truck, its chirrupless body left crumpled inside the rubber part of the driver-side windshield wiper. In typical fashion, J. completely wigged out and swerved across the road to the right, nearly hitting a bus filled with some mentally handicapped ladies we hit on back in Murdo, before he finally stopped the truck on the side of the highway. While he attended to the broken body of the bird, suggesting all the while that perhaps we needn't worry about stopping for lunch after all, I entertained myself by photographing a particularly scenic view of the timber-covered Bighorn Mountains with the pretty snazzy camera J. accidentally stole from a junior-high-aged camper the previous summer. (Don't ask.) Once we were back on the road I think we tacitly agreed that our suicidal bird portended a similar fate for us if we pushed ourselves too hard today. You never know when you're going to smack into reality when it's coming at you at 90 mph.

The next thing I remember we were in Montana. I do not remember driving through Sheridan; even scarier is neither does J., and he was the one doing the driving. Quite possibly I would not have even realized we were in Montana until we'd reached Billings, had it not been for the incessant construction that Montana peppers throughout their major interstate artery. What should have taken about an hour, from the border of Wyoming to Billings, ended up taking close to two hours because of a series of dizzying lane changes and blockages, the ultimate purpose of which I never learned. There is something singularly disheartening about construction traffic when you don't actually see anything being constructed. Much of it was confined to the Crow Indian Reservation, so perhaps this was one phase of their modern-day revenge on the white man -- which, excluding suntanned arms and faces at the time, J. and I most definitely are. If this is the case, good luck, Crow Indians. You've stumbled upon a plan that I expect should work flawlessly, what with America's constant trumpeting these days of its 'God-given' right to convenience and expedience.

To my shock and J.'s glee, the Toyota handled the ascent to Butte wonderfully. Ever since Murdo the trip has been increasingly, only sometimes obviously so, uphill, and I was excited to announce several times that at Butte we would reach our highest point at 5,767 feet above sea level! (I would say it with the exclamation point, no less). Until Montana, our ascent had been nearly imperceptibly gradual, but there is nothing gradual about the Rocky Mountains. They are as big as their roads are curvy, a fact made more harrowing by virtue of the speed limit remaining 75 miles an hour and J. complaining that his eyes were beginning to water and burn. With my fingers digging into the handle of my door and clenching my teeth tight as my ass in a 'Dear God, Don't Let Me Die This Way' terror fit only for roller-coasters and mid-Atlantic turbulence, we drove for fifty miles until we saw Our Lady of the Rockies beckoning us with her come hither virgin eyes from on high. The same height as the Statue of Liberty and modelled after (oops, did I just blaspheme?) Mary, but ecumenical in spirit ('Our Lady of the Rockies' does not represent or endorse any one faith,' or so the lady at the Visitor Centre assured me), the statue rests 3,500 feet above Butte along the Continental Divide and overlooks the city.

From what I can tell, Butte, Montana needs all the help it can get. If Rapid City was the town always on the verge of waking up, Butte seems always on the verge of falling asleep. Suffering from a long history of exploitation and bad environmental practices, Butte has fallen prey to its own success as a mining town and now has the dubious distinction of being the nation's largest Superfund clean-up site. Its water supply is contaminated by a highly acidic mixture of copper, zinc, lead, and arsenic, a homebrew that killed 342 migrating snow geese in 1995 when they mistook the liquid in the Berkeley Pit -- a massive 1.5 miles long, 1,800-foot deep open mining pit -- for drinkable water.

In keeping with the ecological state of the town, Butte had very little to offer when it comes to food as well; unless, that is, you wanted to regret a fast food meal later or loathe life now while eating in a casino. Maybe the citizens of Butte have simply grown accustomed to the imminent danger of their drinking water that the slow toll of these options aren't worth worrying about. J. and I figured that we should at least inject some money into the sagging Butte economy, so we ate at a small hot dog and pork chop sandwich place -- he an ample pork chop sandwich and I a brackish hot dog -- that looked, appropriately, as though it had been around the block a few times and was in dire need of some heavy-duty renovation.

Now that I think about it, maybe the bird from earlier was wrong. The 120-mile drive to Missoula doesn't seem so bad right now. Nevertheless, if you will excuse me I need to practice holding my breath so I can take a shower later and get the smell of this hot dog off me.