Day 3: Williston, North Dakota
We hit the road at sunrise to beat the strong daytime winds, eager to make progress along our westward route. Since leaving the lush forests of Minnesota, the terrain has grown considerably drier and more austere, but near the Montana border the landscape takes an almost imperceptible turn for the bleaker. The desiccated rolling hills are bald and barren, everything sun-baked to a crisp.
Here Route 2 joins with the Missouri River, and for the next 140 miles we retrace part of Lewis and Clark’s path to the Continental Divide and beyond. We pass through countless tiny towns, just whistlestops on the Great Northern Highline, now sleepy grain-elevator burgs whose only claim to fame is proudly declared on the wooden signs at their city limits: “Home of the 1974 Class-D Junior High School Basketball Champions!”, or some such thing.
By mid-morning we arrive at Fort Peck dam. The colossal undertaking that was achieved here, and the impact of it on the landscape and on the people who accomplished it, is truly mind-boggling. Even the numbers become almost meaningless in their sheer scale: 11,000 men working for 84 months to build a steel and earthen dam measuring 21,000 feet in width and 250 feet high, holding back nearly nineteen million acre-feet of the Missouri River in order to generate 185,000 kilowatts of electricity.
Fort Peck dam is the result of what many might call “wasteful big-government spending”, but it is difficult to ignore that that is exactly what got the US out of its twelve-year-long Great Depression. Where big business had failed to pull the nation out of a deep and prolonged economic downturn, large federal projects such as the construction of Fort Peck Dam got things going again.
By now the westerly winds have resumed their relentless assault on the nose of the Westy; as we struggle to make headway we leave a dense trail of diesel smoke across the eastern third of the Big Sky State, and it can probably still be seen today.
Somewhere between Fort Peck and say, Malta, Mont., we make a wrong turn. It’s not that we don’t intend to go there, but simply that we will later regret it.
It had been highly recommended by a handful of tourist guidebooks—always a dubious distinction—so we pull off the hot and windy highway to pay a visit. I won’t mention the name or precise location of the place, for fear of spoiling the surprise should you find yourself in the neighborhood someday, but suffice it to say that we soon vacate the premises for fear of contracting some dreaded bacterial infection or unsightly dermatological condition. But having loitered for a few minutes and chatting with the lonely gnome-like proprietor before politely declining his services, we feel compelled to buy something, so we leave with a pair of badly freezer-burnt Klondike Bars and hit the road.
With the afternoon sun beating directly through the Westy’s windshield on us, the ice cream treats begin a rapid descent to their natural liquid state and are soon on the verge of spontaneous combustion, so sitting in the passenger seat I hurriedly slurp mine down without too much fuss. For Lorie however, being behind the wheel, it is entirely another matter, and as her foil wrapper develops a catastrophic leak and the white foamy mess begins dripping out at an alarming rate, she thrusts the dribbling thing at me and tells me to toss it outside.
Not wanting to discard the wrapper along with it, I thrust the oozing mass into the slipstream outside my open window and have just grasped one corner of the foil betwixt forefinger and thumb when Lorie cries, “Wait, not now! There’s a cop!” Grimacing, I hastily bring my hand back inside, clutching the mess, where it proceeds to enthusiastically drip into my lap.
“OK, now!” Lorie says as the state trooper whooshes past, so I thrust it back out and unfurl the fluttering wrapper. The rapidly disintegrating Klondike Bar falls away, globules of warm airborne foam trailing behind like the tail of a soft-serve comet. I squish the foil wrapper into a ball and toss it onto the floormat, where it continues to quietly ooze. And here is where the diligent care and maintenance of one’s Vanagon can be taken too far.
Worried that I have soiled and sullied the shiny flanks of my beloved Vanasazi with splatters of ice cream, I next thrust my head out into the slipstream to survey the extent of the mess, whereupon my eyeglasses, along with a very nice pair of clip-on UV Blue Blocker sunglasses, are immediately sucked off my head and follow down the path of the ice-cream meteor into the hazy distance.
“Stop! STOP!” I holler, and Lorie brings the Westy to a sudden halt along the roadside. I leap from the cab and run back along the shoulder of the road, squinting and searching for my wayward specs.
I must admit that while blessed with many admirable qualities from my mother’s end of the gene pool, hawklike vision is not one of them, and I am damned near blind without some pretty hefty chunks of glass in front of me. My squinty eyes now scan the blurry green swath of roadside sagebrush and grass, searching for a glimmer or a glint which might reveal the location of my vital eyewear, and I am inutterably struck by the prime paradox: looking for my eyeglasses while nearly unable to see anything at all without them. Think about it.
I walk nearly a quarter-mile of that seemingly endless sunbaked highway, cars and trucks roaring past unconcernedly, stepping in the tiny puddles of ice cream which dot the edge of the pavement, before Lorie shouts and I can vaguely make out her distant and blurry figure excitedly waving something at me.
I hurry up to where she has indeed found my eyeglasses, perfectly intact but for a tiny stone chip, and she points to the spot right in the middle of the road where she discovered them. It is a miracle they haven’t been crushed by a passing pickup. Sadly, the clip-on sunglasses have met a more deadly fate, and have bravely given their life that my glasses might live; their hundreds of glittering golden shards now lay strewn across the asphalt, and there is no evidence whatsoever of their silver frames.
Solemnly, we hike back up to where the Westy sits at the roadside with emergency flashers going and prepare to resume our journey, when my newly re-spectacled gaze happens to fall on the side of the van. And you know what? It turns out the ice-cream spatters aren’t all that bad after all.
As we make our way to the west and the landscape grows even more open and horizontal, we begin to catch dusky glimpses of the front ranges of the Rockies. On May 26, 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed to the top of a riverside bluff and “from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time … these points of the Rocky Mountains were covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view … but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterballanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them.”
I’ve always greatly admired Lewis’ sense of pragmatic optimism, even in the face of “sufferings and hardships”, and I think that every Westy traveler would do well to inscribe on their dashboard Lewis’ next line: “As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils, I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am compelled to beleive differently.”
Late in the day, near Havre, Montana, I notice the fuel gauge getting, oh, a tad low. Though I resolve to get fuel at the very next chance, I say nothing, but just grip the wheel a little tighter, lean forward hopefully, and push on into the stiff prairie headwind.
Turns out this is yet another geographical region which bears little resemblance to the maps which represent it. Usually, a tiny dot with a name next to it indicates a town or a village of some sort, with some houses and people and trees. And the opportunity to purchase fuel.
But along this lonely stretch of the Highline through the vast spaces of eastern Montana, there are really only about three or four actual towns. All the other dots on the map—Devon, Chester, Dodson, Hinsdale, etc.—are in truth little more than a grain elevator and a railroad siding, perhaps a dilapidated mobile home, and an ambiguous sheet-metal shed, none of which seem to be open for business.
As I watch these little dots fall back behind us, and the fuel gauge needle fall ever closer to the much-feared orange zone, my concern grows to alarm, and my alarm to a festering sense of internalized panic. Town after town roll by, none appearing to boast running water, let alone diesel fuel. My shorts are really starting to get bunched up when finally, gratefully, a cloud of dust billowing up around us, we pull into a tiny cluster of gas pumps in Hingham. Only to discover that they serve only gasoline.
Desperate, I dash into the combination bar-general-store-and-gas-station, a smoky and noisy place filled with the scents of beer and food-service antiseptic cleansers, and the sounds of country music and burly guys with sunburned necks discussing the finer points of combines and various other farm implements. And it all comes to a grinding halt as I belly up to the bar and stand there in my retro silk bowling shirt and khaki shorts. But I think it is my sandals-and-socks ensemble that really make them swallow their cigarettes and stare. I may as well be wearing bib overalls and red sneakers to an evening at the symphony.
After waiting for what seems an eternity while the bartender generates a customer’s lottery tickets on the electronic dispenser, furtive gazes and disapproving stares making the backs of my ears burn, I am finally able to ask him if he knows someplace nearby where I might find diesel fuel at this hour.
“Hey Roger,” the bartender says to one of the now-silent crowd seated along the bar, “they got diesel over in Kremlin?”
A tightly wired guy in a plain white T-shirt and agri-business ball cap considers the matter for a moment. “Rudyard,” he replies gruffly. “I think they got onroad diesel at the Cenex in Rudyard. Six miles west.”
“Thanks,” I say, turning for the door. “Thanks a lot.”
“But don’t take my word for it,” Roger cautions. “Don’t come back here mad.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, clapping him on a dusty shoulder in a friendly way, “if they don’t have diesel in Rudyard, I won’t make it back.”
The crew along the bar erupts in laughter, and I think that for a brief shining moment these sons of the soil empathise with me, identify with my plight, recognize our common humanity across a vast cultural chasm. Perhaps even like me. Even with my ridiculous footwear.
We limp the final six miles to Rudyard, the next grain-elevator town along this lonesome stretch of Route 2, where the card-lock pumps at the Cenex farmers cooperative indeed dispense diesel. In the shadow of a westbound grain train flying past on the Highline, I gratefully deliver fuel to the thirsty Westy and, for good measure, half-fill the five-gallon fuel can in the rooftop luggage bin.
We cross the tracks, turn right, and chase the train across the golden prairie into the setting sun.