US 89 north of Bozeman isn’t much more than two narrow strips of pavement. In 2012 we drove its northern section, 404 miles from the boundary of Yellowstone to the Canadian Border. To easterners, like Dave and I, calling US 89 a highway is a stretch. Hour after hour, we’d see maybe one or two cars pass in the opposite direction, heading south. We traveled north in a borrowed jeep with Willie Nelson on the radio warbling his way through Whisky River.
Earlier in the day, we’d stopped in Helena to fill up the gas tank. We wouldn’t see another gas station for a bit. The wind in Helena is so fierce we had to walk with our torsos bent against the gale. The locals weren’t daunted. They looked to be strong, sturdy, resilient types. When I paid the cashier, I asked about the gale force winds.
“Honey, this is Helena. It’s always windy here!” She was a stout woman, no more than four feet and change. I imagine Helena’s winds stunt growth, giving rise to a people of short stature, like the stunted scrub pines we’d seen on the highest peaks in Yellowstone. I see a culture of deeply rooted people forced to hunker down, their height curbed by the wind.
Once we got back on the road and had traveled a while, I touched Dave’s shoulder.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Just pull over.”
He shut the jeep off. We stood outside the car and listened. Nothing. No radio, no traffic, no planes. The crunch of gravel under our shoes and the ticking of the jeep as it came to rest reverberated in the deep quiet of the landscape. The Rockies silently observed us at the horizon. I had this notion that if we started walking toward those peaks, just walked and walked, they’d keep moving away. We’d never arrive where we thought we were headed.
We know better than to break the quiet with words. This patch of earth, this one breath, this silence and no other, will live in the memory. It hits you. The way you’re living is a choice. You remember you have the freedom to carve a new life if that’s the idea that comes to you.
We stood on the side of the highway with the mountains in the distance and the flat, golden valley all around, feeling like we could drink it or take it in somehow, take it with us, back home. Back east.
There’s something about a road trip.
I met William Least Heat-Moon at a writer’s conference in Hartford years ago. I waited in a long line to have him sign my copy of his book, Blue Highways. When it was finally my turn to speak to him, I was struck by how ordinary he seemed. Just a regular guy who reminded us of the importance of journeying by car, how it can break down the barriers we build between the landscape and our souls.
He told me that his book was inspired in part, by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I love Steinbeck, but I love Least Heat-Moon’s story better. The book chronicles his three month long road trip of 13,000 miles through the heart of America, most of it on secondary roads. In his book, he writes that the trip allowed him to return to himself after the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his teaching job.
Blue Highways stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists for 42 weeks in 1982-83. If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy. You’ll visit places like:
The world feels upside down these days, but I have an idea.
Let’s have a Road Trip Renaissance. I mean we’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. Where, we don’t always know. Only on a road trip can we get intimate with the landscape and the people. We’ll eat at the diner on the outskirts of town, shop at the local five and dime, talk to the old-timers hanging around outside the P.O.
Here are the rules:
Choose a destination. Think of it as an abstract, a point on the compass you might never reach.
Take the back roads.
If you’re traveling alone, bring a dog. Preferably one that likes to stick his head out the window so the wind can blow his fur a little.
If you don’t have a dog, borrow one.
Take a side trip when opportunity presents.
Stay in a mom and pop motel.
Eat at a local burger joint. Start a conversation with the waitress or the short order cook.
Play the right music. Play it loud. Sing your heart out.
Stop the car. Get out to stretch your legs.
Enjoy the moment. And the next one. And the next one.
As William Least Heat-Moon once said in an interview, ” I think it’s still important for Americans to roam extensively as we have done…after all, roaming makes coming home that much richer.”
Well, I don’t think any of us could say it better.