Rest stop along I-90 east of Billings, MT
I may have made a mistake in bringing Travels with Charley as road reading material because it seems there is nothing I can say about the American road that Steinbeck hasn’t written with more elegance and poignancy. My only advantage is that we began at opposite ends of the country. He set out in Rocinante – the man named his proto-RV – from Long Island and took in the damp autumn of northern Maine, while we emerged from the Cascades into a land that has grown steadily drier over the past two days. Perhaps we will meet somewhere in the middle.
I have been as far as Western Montana before and I love the contrast between the wet and dry sides of the hills, the extreme sclerophyllous nature of the hillside shrubs and the startling lush rushes and poplars that rise up around lakes and rivers. Water there is rare enough to be a refreshing site, but not yet scarce.
We spent our first night in Missoula and took a long walk along the river along which the college summer-overs floated in innertubes. It’s a beautiful town with a red brick University buildings and shaded streets of refurbished historical Victorians with their own commemorative plaques. The hillside above the college sported what I assume was the white rock “M” for Missoula, but I am still stumped as to what the “L” on an adjoining hill stood for.
Pushing on from Missoula, we continued east through Montana and population and evidence of water dropped away until we stopped for lunch at this rest stop between somewhere Billings and the Crow Indian Reservation. In the bathrooms, they’d turned off the sink water because it was so heavy with nitrates as to be unpotable. Other travelers pounded faucet handles in confusion, because there’s always water, right? But not here, only postings of the warnings signs of blue baby syndrome and hand sanitizer in the soap dispensers. The cows grazing a far field, the only cattle around for miles, must have been parched.
A little further along and I-90 turns south through the Crow Reservation then drops into Wyoming, where the highway was paved with red gravel from the red hills. I also saw my first pumpjack, though whether it was for oil or water I don’t know. We stopped for the night in Gillette, Wyoming, at a hotel where the adjoining restaurant served the best calamari I’ve had in years. Who would have thought the squid in north eastern Wyoming would be perfectly cooked?
Tomorrow we’re taking time for Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and the Badlands – more interminably dry country – and Steinbeck will be visiting Niagara Falls in the rain.