A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
Tell Tale Signs, Highways and Hotels
We motored south with maps and music and wound up in Missoula, Montana before turning north and heading home to Alberta’s capital. There was fanciful talk beforehand of maybe visiting Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn battlefield. The road led us elsewhere. We drove a portion of the Great Northern Plains. We crossed and re-crossed the Continental Divide of the Americas. We crossed the great Missouri River more times than Lewis and Clark combined, at least it felt that way. We travelled with only a couple of reservations but there were many more stops.
Before the kilometres turn into miles at Sweet Grass, some signs along the four divided lanes of Queen Elizabeth II foreshadow the mentality in America’s fourth largest state. KNOW JESUS KNOW HOPE; NO JESUS NO HOPE - although maybe I’d feel that way too if I lived outside of Red Deer with winter coming on. Another homemade sign, spray painted on the flank of a rusted and ancient piece of farm machinery, reads GOD IS. Some sort of game show quiz. Dead? Bored? Indifferent? Fill in the blank. MORE ALBERTA LESS OTTAWA hangs from a fence facing the highway south of Calgary. In Montana, well, it just got weird.
‘Mary, Mary, you’re on my mind, folks are gone and the place is going to be mine.’ We saw Our Lady radiant and holy in blue and white on billboards. Since the miracle of the virgin birth is dodgy dogma to anyone other than Catholics, the type trumpets BLESSED MOTHER MARY WAS PRO-LIFE, THANK HEAVENS or THE MOST SACRED GIFT FROM GOD IS A CHILD. In a valley between Butte and Missoula that belongs to Jesus, a pictured infant urges drivers to TAKE MY HAND AND NOT MY LIFE. In the Alias Smith & Jones pawnshop in Great Falls, a used, clunky matte black Colt .45 automatic is retailing for $495.
We exited the Interstate seeking gasoline and toilets. We’re in Lewis and Clark County and we’ve ended up in Craig, an unincorporated place that seems too tiny to warrant a map dot, let alone a name. There are train tracks and half an acre of gravel. The lawyer and the real estate agent share the same shack or trailer. Maybe they are one and the same. There is a bar of course. At noon there were a few hungover hard guys with bad teeth slouched, leaning on their forearms, sipping Mountain Dew or Pepsi. The ceiling’s tacked with Erma Bombeck witticisms scrawled on sheets of dry cleaners’ shirt cardboard; somewhere a retired cherry red Reader’s Digest editor beams ‘Life’s Like That!’ Isn’t alcoholism just the pits!
Our reception in Shelby’s Tap Room WHERE THE BEER’S COLDER THAN YOUR EX-WIFE’S HEART was a little warmer; the owner gave us souvenir coozies and American flag pens. The irony of stoning outsiders in Craig is that the three other businesses on the gravel are trout fishing outfitters reliant on visitors. A river runs through Craig. You can’t help thinking about the prose of Norman Maclean and did Robert Redford direct the film starring Brad Pitt? Other Western writers (because there is an Eastern prejudice) like Wallace Stegner and Ivan Doig spring to mind as do Canadian authors Guy Vanderhaeghe and W.O. Mitchell. You think of Sportsman cigarettes, Hemingway casting a fly and the flat realism of a yellowing Norman Rockwell magazine cover. A black pickup swerves into the lot. Dust and pebbles fly. A pot-bellied man wearing cowboy boots, a vest and a cowboy hat stomps out. He might have a meeting with the lawyer. The computer cut lettering on the rear window of his cab is not up for discussion: OBAMA AND TESTER (Jon, senator, Democrat) ARE SOCIALIST PIGS. He’s probably armed. You stand like a hero with the sun at your back, agape and aware that your last Canadian cigarette is tattooing nicotine onto the inside of your index finger. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, saints preserve us.
American roads have mileposts. You count them up or you count them down. When you’re 20 miles from somewhere the road is interminable, endless. Seems like you’ll never get to where you’re going. Haven becomes a Comfort Inn in Butte. The hotel is shaped like a bent rectangle, not a V so much as a check mark. The main entry along with the reception desk is located at one end. Upon checking in the clerk informs us that the elevator is at the other end of the hotel at Entry E and that we should move our car to the other end of the parking lot. We do as suggested only to find that our third storey room is located directly over the lobby. We have driven and walked the entire length of the Comfort Inn. Two flights of stairs with an overnight bag straight up from the front desk would not have been a deal breaker.
Could be there’s some sort of secret body language only hoteliers can read. Ours apparently asked, Can you put us in the most inconveniently located room possible, please? The inns in Great Falls and Missoula were both laid out as large squares. The centre of one was a sunken, enclosed atrium. The centre of the other was a relic from a bygone era, a disused, second storey exterior concrete motor court. Both reception areas are at one of the 90-degree angles. In both cases our assigned room was diagonally opposite the front desk and inaccessible by a direct and obvious route, in other words, about as far away as you can get from the front doors without leaving the building. Calgary was the ultimate: our room was outside of the building, across the fucking street, situated in a lovely Soviet-modern bunker. Aside from the smell, our suite in Lethbridge wasn’t too bad; I swatted five flies to death with the room service menu.
A chilly dawn and a cold, hard rain last Saturday morning in Butte. From the window there are signs all around us: Super 8, Exxon, Burger King, McDonald’s. The sparkly neon of Lucky Lil’s 24-hour casino across the glistening parking lot is lit up; the draft beer is free if you play the machines and there’s a posted caution about problem gambling beside the ATM. Deadhead tour busses execute extravagant turns through the puddles. It’s possible there’s a more miserable tableau elsewhere on the planet.
The magic comes on MT 200, a state artery author William Least Heat-Moon would describe as a ‘blue highway,’ a secondary road. We crest Rogers Pass (the same A. B. Rogers although in this instance in the employ of the Great Northern Railway) and squiggle down the eastern Rocky slope of the Continental Divide. The yellow signs of crazily patterned arrows and low speed limits are no joke. The mountainsides fold and crumple into scrubby, grassy hills and coulees, buttes rise in the distance. The sky gets really big. You can imagine the past haunting this surreal landscape, bands of riders trailing scouts. You recall a line from Deep In the Heart of Nowhere, Bob Geldof’s first solo album: ‘There’s so much beauty, I wish that I believed enough to pray.’ Suddenly the roiling prairie drops like a killer curve ball and we’re zipping past flat cultivated, irrigated fields, blurs of lovely greens and golds.