September 27, 2011
Across the Wide Missouri
I'd been promising my cousin, my favorite cousin -- my almost-sister cousin -- that I would drive out to Montana to visit her. This year was that year, and we accomplished this fabulous feat back the first two weeks of August. It was an amazing journey, one inspired by all sorts of emotions: a family reunion, a leave-taking from a strange, grief-shadowed summer; a time-out from the social rigors of being involved with a well-known medieval reenactment organization. (I am not the most socially hardy person, and if I'm going to be "over-exposed" to strong personalities, I need some "capsule time" to recuperate.)
So we got in the 9.3 on a Saturday morning and drove nearly 700 miles to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, for an overnight before the same distance drive the next day, and then the next.
It was a LONG drive, all told ...
When I was growing up, all my role models were strong, courageous, adventuring Guys. There was King Arthur and Lawrence of Arabia, the GIs on COMBAT which I'd watch with my dad, ditto the tv show RAT PATROL. In the pre-feminist 60s, if you were a non-girly-girl, you had difficulties finding strong women to emulate. I was just not ever going to be the wife/mother person that my mother secretly hoped I'd be, all the while going out of her way to make sure I was Different.
(Well, indeed, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!)
I know I know: the easiest high-percentage shot in hockey is a daughter blaming her mother. It's a bona-fide Empty-Net sure thing. So enough already.
But I had the good fortune of growing up with a real gangbuster older-sister role model in my familial sphere, my cousin "Kep," to use her Girl Scout camp name. I know from her own testimony that Kep found me a "holy terror" in my rugrat stage (her words, and I accept them). But we have always managed to stay within the general orbit of our kinship solar system. She went West and married, and had a wonderful daughter, and they are BOTH Amazons, my cousin now "retired" (sort-of) from being an NPS Ranger/Interpreter at the Grand Canyon and North Cascades, among other places. Now she and her husband live in a little town in far western Montana, about 30 miles from Idaho. They live quite literally on the knees of two mountain ranges, the Cabinets and the Purcells, with the magnificent Rockies a mere hour and a half to the east, where endures Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Every so often I still catch myself, almost two months later, wondering: DID we really do that? Drive two nights/three days/1900 miles there, hang out for three days, then drive two nights/three days all the way home? Why, yes we did! More to the point, Kep and her family have done this quite often, because they are real travelers and real outdoorsfolk and backpackers and EMTs and rangers, not to mention world-embracing courageous, compassionate people.
And oddly enough, part of my own pilgrimage this late summer was also homage to Lewis and Clark. Over the last fifteen years, as I've visited Monticello twice, and driven two days and one night to Spearfish, South Dakota, I've become a big fan of Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. Alas, my interest piqued about a year AFTER the big bicentennial of the expedition in 2003-2006. (This is always my luck.) But just driving through the West, along the Mississippi Trail in Minnesota, and then most overtly in North Dakota and Montana, along the Missouri trail and the historic network of forts and outposts, the legacy of the Corps is evident in 2011.
These were real heroes, not just made-up characters out to destroy an Evil Ring, etc. (Don't get me wrong -- I LOVE LOTR!!!!) When Sergeant Charles Floyd dies of appendicitis/peritonitis in August of 1804, he dies in the middle of nowhere, the outcome of the journey uncertain.
We went a long way, even by modern standards, although I know of people who have driven to Oregon and California and even Alaska from the Midwest. There are decent roads: Hwy 2 out of Minnesota into North Dakota and Montana is a very decent four-lane divided near-expressway that avoids the challenges of driving two-lane high-speed roads (that is, having to pass trucks and slower-moving RVs, etc.). It's a nice trip to Montana, although we spent 10-12 hours *a day* on the road, for three days, getting there and coming home. Ten-twelve hours a day of anything can be challenging.
But we would not have seen half the wonders that we did, had we simply flown to Kalispell or even taken Amtrak's Empire Builder, which we easily could have done.
How distance and topography become the tapestry of reaching toward a farther personal horizon: the upper great lakes forests changing into Minnesota broken-forest prairie ... then into North Dakota prairie ... then into the high plains of Montana, and then finally the Bear Paw Mountains south, the Sweet Grass Hills north, and the Rockies filling up the windshield from mirror to mirror ahead. Big Sky Country. Yes, we really did that, whether it was "undaunted courage" or not. We drove. We overnighted at a BNSF crew motel in Glasgow, MT, and listened to the wheels and horns thunder through all night, the tracks two blocks away, hundred-car intermodal drifts on their own passage and pilgrimage across the wide Missouri.
We drank only shallowly from that cup of restless motion. It was sweet.