We were headed up to Minnesota, travelling from the southern coast of Oregon. A total of 1961 miles. In reality it was going to be a little more than that, as we would invariably get lost looking for camping, or food, or gas. At this point we had no phone, no internet access, just a tattered KOA 2015 brochure which had some basic maps in it. We used this to navigate our way across the USA. In retrospect it was bordering on insane. Maps cost money, and we just didnt have it. Most of the time gas was put into our ten mile to the gallon Beastie, in $5 increments. A $25 map was just not something we could think about buying.
Billy’s tumor was growing, he had had a stroke, and I was trying desperately to stop him vegetating into nothingness. Besides I had heard too much about Minnesota, where his family had had a farm out in Erhard, to not want to go. Our evenings were often filled with pioneer history books, reading about the daring tales of escape and evasion. His great great grandpa had been involved in the 1862 Sioux Uprising. My dreams were filled with wagons and horses, buffalo and the wronged brave but terrifying Inkpaduta getting revenge on the people that killed his family, and took his people’s land. I wanted to see the little farm in Erhard, the house in Dalton, I wanted to vist the bars and byways of Billy’s youth. I was so very much in love with him back then. He was still himself. I knew he would not want to visit old friends, if any of them were still standing. Bobby, of the famous one leg and hunting accident, I knew had passed some time ago. In fact there was a litany of boys, fallen to gold paint inhalating bag stuck on their face (Gerrard), a terrible drunk swimming hole accident (Brad), car crashes, suicide, alcoholism, drugs and one disturbing accident involving a jack collapsing whilst working on a beater. These boys were Billy’s family, companions and brothers. He was not in this timeline of death and sadness only because he was the meanest, strongest, toughest bastard who had ever walked the highways and byways of the iron range. He used to joke that Bob Dylan was his father. “I want to be a rock and roll star or die in a ditch, honey”, he used to say to me, laughing goofily. Ditch it was, then… I grew to know these boys, fallen by the wayside in the halcyon days of the 1970s. Brad in particular was always present. Billy hadnt been there when Brad had drowned. He was either in jail or back in southern Minnesota, getting drunk and pretending to be a father and husband to his family. They had gone to a flooded open mine to swim and drink, one holding the rope on the bank so the others could swim and dive. Billy would sit there, his eyes filling with tears, as he told me his friend who had meant to be holding the rope on the banks had failed to see Brad had got into trouble. There was always the sense that Billy felt that he should have been the one to die, and not Brad. Billy had wandered around with Brad’s letterman’s jacket on, carrying his favorite Zappa albums around. One night he went out and hung the records from a tree, threading string through the turntable pin hole. Goodbye for now, Brad. Half remembered incidents of shotguns and suicide attempts, bottles of everclear mixed with 151 rum drunk and impossible walks over Minnesota winter roads, sleeping drunk in ditches with the coyotes sniffing him to see if he was scavengable meat or a living breathing human, dangerous rides hitchhiking with truckers, farmers and whoever was brave (or stupid) enough to drag him off the 41 into the warmth of their vehicle.
A summer of lakes and fishing sounded like it might well be fun, camping in real forests with big trees, not the stubby, moss covered swamp of the oregon coast, or scrappy high desert of its southern expanses of sage brush and potato farms. It was hardly Kerouac and Moriarty on the road to Mexico, but it would be a change from our usual stomping grounds of the 101 between Los Angeles and Washington state. I admit I get itchy feet, I get that urge for going, as Joni Mitchell once sang. I can’t abide staying in one place too long. I’ve not spent more than a year in one spot since I was an adult, and in the last almost 6 years, I never settled, bumming around the west coast, travelling across country. Of course the virus clipped my wings, campgrounds closed down, travel became impossible. In fact my way of life became untenable. You cannot live paying day to day to camp, or boondocking when freedoms have been curtailed, and camps shut down. Of course tourists are considered, those who rent homes, but the legions of road-living travellers who live in their campers and RVS, many of them retired, most of them without any other option, have no other choice. Its how they live, in the county parks, national parks, state parks and rest stops of this country. Because their way of life, my old way of life isnt the norm, isn’t pre-approved as being compatible to how the governments want us tracked, listed, occupied and on the endless grind of modern life, their needs were not considered at all. State campgrounds closed even to their regulars, the huge source of regular income to them, their most frequent customers, without even a thought as to where these regularly paying residents would even go. As usual, the response to the homeless is go anywhere, go anywhere else, just not here. Just not here.
Our first major stop, the only one I had planned in advance was Medora, North Dakota. The most lonesome place on Earth. The Teddy Roosevelt National Park is everything you hoped that Yellowstone would be. There are long horned sheep, my beloved wild turkey, the feral horses – descended from the animals the European settlers bought to the great plains, and the buffalo. There is no electricity to hook up to, you can charge a phone up for a few percent in the bathrooms alongside the cpap machines of a few desperate sleep apnea sufferers. The water gets turned on once the ground thaws enough, and the spaces are well spaced and the park so isolated, so desolate and lonesome it makes me cry tears of longing to think I can never go back there. I can’t. I can’t go without my missing family. I can’t go back to where I was happy once, where I was loved and hugged and wanted and needed and alive. Im dead inside here in the city. Everyone goes away in the end. Everyone. Im just another throw away person in a disposable society, but I escaped for a while, I was free for a time. The world couldn’t let me be, could it? I could never be allowed to be free, loved, together, not hurt, not beaten, able to roam feral like those horses, and sit and talk to the wild turkey as they pecked and fussed around me.
Where was I? Astoria, 2017, in the last days of April, just as the passes thaw, and the weather clears enough to make the trip, just as the campgrounds start to open, and the days warm to the point that a camper is a viable proposition.
Yes, you take the 101 up past Astoria, Oregon.
A dull, dreary little sea-port town. More industrial than tourists. There’s a bridge that goes over to Washington state. It’s very long. First time I drove it was night. I thought maybe it was closed; had a
mild irrational fear of the bridge coming to an abrupt end and me and Beastie plunging into the bay.
You head east. Past Tri-Cities WA. Urban sprawl. Through to Spokane. S-Poe-Can. Sounds pretty. Smells bad. Lots of outdoor pot farms, stinks like a skunk.
We drove nonstop from Brookings to the tricities area, pulling into rest areas for a couple of hours sleep. Wanting to miss out various roads in the big camper, we took a circuitous route via Astoria, up the 101 all the way past Ilwaco, a sweet little Washington town just over the big bridge, past the Dismal Nitch rest stop. Dismal Nitch is always dark, always cold, always raining, in fact very well named by Lewis and Clark, I suppose. It looks out over the water, turning right just as you come off the bridge from Astoria, Oregon. There is plenty of room to park a big camper, cleanish bathrooms, and you are left alone to sleep for a while. We have stopped there many times. First the four of us, then just us three. Always pulling into a spot and walking to the water’s edge. That night in Dismal Nitch, as we pulled into rest, was very cold indeed. No way to keep warm, apart from our sleeping bags and each other. Dismal Nitch always feels like something is about to happen. Something curious, something uncanny, not necessarily unwelcome. A pall of curiousness hangs over the spot uneasily. I half expected a troll to come striding out from under the bridge, his large stone hammer about to smash down on the Beastie, or an army of small misplaced leprechauns to march through singing a happy song. Generally the only thing to happen would be some sofa-hauling Clampetts to stride through noisily, guns on their hips, caterwalling about something or other and trying to look intimidating. Or some small broken man with a small dog would look out over the water like he had lost something vital. Or me, head in hands holding onto the railings sobbing missing someone gone forever, not knowing quite how to function anymore. Dismal Nitch is indeed dismal. A place for endings and beginnings and things lost.
In under thirty miles of saccharin prosperity and hippy compounds and the world falls away. Snow was falling. It was late April. The first of the passes beckoned up and up and up.
Welcome to Montana.
Guarded by the second most terrifying road I’ve ever driven, through huge mountains, the overly-romanticized Rockies. Rugged jaw-dropping sheer uninhabitable marble mountain heft.
Wearing Mogul biker one-percenter club leathers and riding a giant Harley, the wildest cat in Montana edges inside, sandwiching himself between cliff face and me. I’m grateful to be going west.
Those going east get the sheer 1000-foot-plus-drop-without-barriers side.
Rain lashes as thunder rolls and lightning cracks. I look over at the wildest cat in Montana. He grins a maniacal grimace of a man facing certain death. I consider stopping somehow, putting his sickle in
the back of my truck and taking him off the pass. Heroine. I think better of it, and give him a thumbs up. Hold the Beast steady, let him use me as a shield.
The road makes me nervous. Hair-pin turns, ragged roads, sharp drops and suicidal driving. Semis,
trucks, cars. A full stream of non-nonchalant traffic ploughs on regardless. The storm intensified, lashing us with wind, sleet and sheets of rain. Im telling ya, they didn’t even see no storm. No, man, they didnt even see no storm.
Dropping gratefully into town I see the Wild Cat. He made it. I wave, stupidly happy he didn’t die up there. The wildest cat in Montana rides one heck of a Harley. I wish I could have thanked him for making me smile, making me feel brave, as he gunned it over that pass with his goggles blinded by the wind and rain, leather cut billowing. He must have been drenched to the bone. Instead I waved, he waved back, and went off down the his road, as I went down my own.
You tip out into a small town, keep on going until the town melts into open ground. It’s only then you notice what’s different, what’s strange, what is astounding. You see the sky is huge. You can see the curve of the earth. It makes you dizzy, unsettles you like falling
from space. Big sky diving. You are in Montana.