two days on the road   12 comments

Posted at 2:57 am in Uncategorized


we say goodbye to Writing-on-Stone and the Sweetgrass Mountains

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve been able to put up a post. I was never able to resolve the problem of setting up the iPad for use in the states, so my only means of posting is to find a wifi hotspot. My wanderings over the past while have not taken me to the kind of places where that would be likely to occur. However, tonight we are holed up in a motel for a night, so I’m making the best of this opportunity to reconnect.

Although I’m now far beyond the places I describe in this post, I wanted to include the following musings. When I’m on the road, scenes and personal encounters flow past in a way that plays out rather like a movie. On the two days I’ve chosen to write about, I scribbled key words in pen on a paper towel — enough to remind myself of each sight or incident. If this account seems oddly disconnected, that’s just about how it feels many times when I’m on the road.

~ * ~

A week after arriving at Writing-on-Stone, there’s a change in the weather and I’m feeling that it’s time to turn south.  I had planned to cross into Montana at a border station near the park, but one look at a pick-up truck that has just driven over that road tells me it would be a poor choice on this day.  The truck is so heavily plastered with mud that the rear license plate looks like a slab of grimy slate.  I now turn toward Milk River to cross at Sweetgrass, Montana.  I came north by this route last spring and remember the countryside as bleak and lifeless.  However, under autumn skies, it has a different feel.  The fields rolling off to the horizon are shades of golds and warm browns rather than the cold grays I was expecting.

There is a large storm front moving in from the west.  Towering clouds race eastward and powerful winds buffet the van as I drive south on the interstate.  At a rest area, I call my brother on the blackberry and report that i can almost lean forward and let the wind catch my fall.  There are dozens of election signboards along the highway.  Some are obviously homemade and rattle wildly, looking set to tear loose in the gale force winds,  I don’t want to be anywhere in their path.  As I near Great Falls, the western storm front is colliding with a similar front from the east. An angry swirling rorschach is unfolding directly above the highway.

My plan was to look for a campsite around Helena, but snow clouds loom ahead.  Taking the freeway exit, I choose the closest motel.  They have pet friendly rooms, so I check in, then pick up burgers for the dogs – a treat they enjoy on the rare nights when we motel it.  We return to our room and I’m feeling a certain relief for being indoors this night.  The wind is bitterly cold and I dig around in the truck looking for my wool hat and gloves when I take the dogs for their final walk of the evening.

The next morning, I’m not quite certain of my plans.  I’m feeling tired from the previous day of driving against the wind.  Merging onto the freeway, I decide to drive as far as Dillon and perhaps look for a campsite.  However, once on the road, I feel better and up to a longer day.  Between Dillon and Butte, the weather turns ugly.  I remember this stretch of highway from my spring trip, and that I took note of how I would not want to drive this particular pass in snow — but here I am in the middle of a snow squall.   There’s a snowplow up ahead. I adjust my speed so that I won’t overtake him.   It’s one of those mountain highways with two lanes in each direction and a concrete barrier snaking in between.   Most of the traffic is going my speed, but on one steeply curving down-grade, I’m passed by a pickup truck towing a slat-sided gooseneck livestock trailer sardined with ice-encrusted Herefords.  He’s blasting past everyone. In the open pickup box, a large, brindle farm dog stands hunched, eyes squinted tightly, looking like he’d rather be any place else.

On a tight bend, a forested mountainside fills my entire field of vision.  It’s lightly dusted with snow beneath dark conifers.  Quite unexpectedly, I am hammered by the memory of the many times that Don and I would hike in just such forests during the early season snows.  It’s this element of surprise that always feels so painful – like the sudden twist of a knife – as I think of how it is that we will never walk together in a wintry forest again.  However, I must quickly release such unbidden thoughts as the road is too slick to allow for distraction.   

At last, we reach lower elevation and the snow abates.  Now I’m driving through a landscape of ranches with barns and houses clad with dark, sun-scorched planks.  I arrive in Butte and decide to keep going. This morning’s fatigue has been thrown off and now I feel like getting to a place where the snow can’t find us.


A certain landscape catches my eye and I can’t resist turning off the interstate to take a few photos.   I stop the truck just shy of a cattle guard grate and wander ahead with my camera.  Sage begins to bark crazily, but I ignore the rising crescendo and snap a few more pics.  As I turn to make my way back to the van, I spot the source of her agitation.  A hulking Hereford bull is walking directly toward me – more curious than threatening.  He snorts and his eyes follow as I cross over the cattle guard once more.

A couple of miles further on, Sabrina yelps twice to signal that she wants a drink. It’s a new system that she has introduced for this year’s trip. Fortunately, there’s a rest area just ahead. It’s unusually tidy for such a place. While filling the dog bowls, I notice a bearded man picking paper trash out of a hedge. He’s trailed by a strawberry-blonde, bob-tailed dog carrying a frisbee. Periodically, the man tosses the frisbee as his dog races ahead, leaping high into the air to intercept its flight. As they pass by, I remark on his bright, beautiful dog. The man looks pleased.


Along our southward route, rivers lined with golden-leaved cottonwood are an almost constant delight.  Now I’m crossing the state line into Idaho.  Glancing in the rear view mirror, I see the dogs looking restless.  I take the next exit, which turns out to be the access road for Stoddard Creek recreational area.  There’s a wide spot on the shoulder where I park the van.  A street sign points the way to Porcupine Pass.  I walk the dogs up a lane leading to a gate.  For some reason, This feels like a good spot for a cemetery.  We approach the gate and discover that, in fact, there is an old family cemetery beneath the trees.


While helping Sabrina climb back up into the van, I spy something moving about in the rabbitbrush next to the road.  I watch for awhile and see a small creature descend to the ground.  A short while later, it reappears amid the spent blooms of a nearby plant.  I approach with my camera and take a few photos.  The creature turns out to be a colorful little chipmunk which is gathering seeds and fluff from each plant.  I’m feeling lucky to have been in this place at this time.

Soon, we’re back on the road.  I decide that I’ll try to get us to City of Rocks – a place we camped last spring on our homeward trip.  However, as we reach the area, I see mountains covered with snow and realize that we’d probably be quite miserable up there.  For the second time in two days, I find a pet-friendly motel and call it an early day.    Determined to make the best of a bad thing, I use the motel’s laundromat to replenish my supply of clean clothes.  Yes, it’s pretty mundane stuff, but being on the road for weeks at a time does have its less than romantic moments.  I’ve now done laundry in coin washes in a host of towns all over the map.  It’s all just a part of living the life of a nomad.

That afternoon, a large charter bus rolls into the parking lot near my room. The passengers disembark and disperse into their rooms. They’re Chinese and at first I’m thinking they’re tourists. However, then I notice that two of the passengers are fussing with food storage coolers and a couple of large woks. Shortly after, everyone departs on the bus. Late that evening, they reappear. This is interesting. I puzzle over who they might be. The next morning, the front page of a newspaper in the motel lobby features a colour photo with a headline about JIGU! Thunder Drummers of China playing in town the previous night.

At last the weather clears up ahead and we’re back on the road. It’s been an odd but familiar couple of days.

NOTE: I will probably be without a net connection for another week or so. We’ve been having a good trip and I’ve been taking plenty of photos. When we arrive at the rental house in Bisbee, I’ll have some catching up to do.

Written by bev wigney on November 16th, 2010