The Summer of 1998 Part XX

As soon as I got back on the highway, I noticed a unique speed limit sign found only in Montana, which read: “Daytime Speed Limit for Cars – Reasonable and Prudent” – the most ambiguous phrase in the English language. What could be more synonymous with the untamed west. I cruised into Missoula and eventually found, you guessed it, my favorite Inn of Happiness, somewhat sequestered in the downtown area (but with an abundance of trees all over the parking areas). I located a secluded spot under a huge cottonwood, in fact, it was so remote, that it was obvious the residents in the adjacent apartment building were commandeering a few of the parking spaces for their own private use. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Once again, I dodged the Holiday Inn bullet.

As I was relaxing in Ol’Baleau, ominous, dark clouds were swiftly rolling in from the northwest, accompanied by a measurable drop in temperature. A light rain started to fall, and I wondered if Lochsa Lodge was getting doused. The meteorological gods were really looking after me. It was delightfully cool. The irony of it all was that Serena had admonished me to stay up in the mountains to avoid the heat down here in Missoula. What a quirky turn of events.

I sauntered in to the lounge to watch some Monday Night Football. It was rather subdued compared to raucous crowd back at Lochsa Lounge. At halftime, I made a call to cuz Serena. My opening comment was, “Hey cuz, look what I brought down from Idaho for you – a breath of fresh, cool air. How about that?” I continued, trying to make some sort of arrangement to meet for a short visit. Well, she gave me every excuse in the book not to see me (I won’t go into the falderal that ensued). Finally, I just said, “Well, after all, I’m only your cousin.” I didn’t mean to be caustic, but all I was asking for was maybe ten minutes to get together for a short visit. I wasn’t going to let her rejections bother me.

After all, I was just passing by through the neighborhood, and just thought I’d say hello. I still thought it was all kind of weird, but I had to accept Serena for her own lifestyle. Avoid of her, I had a most pleasant stay in Missoula. I watched the rest of the game on my B/W tube in the comfort of my “living room”, with the rain pelting down on the metal roof. I was serene with the world, and thanked the Lord for one more safe day.

I headed east on I-90 for my longest stretch on the Interstate since a month ago, when I was traveling west through Utah. It was a cool and cloudy day (a real rarity on this trip), a perfect day to drive as far as I was concerned. However, my stint on the freeway lasted only sixty miles. I decided to take my own little “detour” on State Hwy 1, a perfectly timed divergence through an ambit of small towns, verdant valleys, monumental mountains, and lucent lakes. What a joy ride, and only six miles out of the way. Did that sound like a promo from the State Department of Tourism, or what?

Back to the boredom of the Interstate, I hang on for another fifteen miles, then pull off at Butte for a short grocery stop. As I was waiting in the check-out line (characteristically panning the local shoppers). it became apparent that I had not seen a gorgeous-looking woman in a grocery store since Lake Tahoe. I’m trying to be as diplomatic as I can, but I wondered, where are all the beautiful women, if there are any. There seemed to be a kind of homeliness about everyone…no Madonna’s or Cindy Crawford’s in sight, not even a semblance, Hey, I could cope with it. It wasn’t Southern California.

I was gliding along I-90 and could see the cynosures of Yellowstone National Park off to a distance to the south…an alignment of snow-capped peaks. There was something magnetic about the whole scene that made me pull off and make a U-turn, and backtrack two miles to Livingston and then head towards Yellowstone to find a cozy campsite somewhere along the river, but not before I picked up a hitch-hiker. He was a clean-cut looking guy, but what really got my attention was that he gave the old “just goin’ down the road a short piece” sign (hands held straight up with palms facing each other about three inches apart).

Funny thing was, I was simultaneously repeating the same semaphore to him (I use that sign to exorcise myself from any guilt for not offering a ride to an indigent nomad). The sign can also be construed as “I’m veering off at the next exit”, which was exactly what both of us had in mind to do anyway. Of course, his jeremiad was connected to some sort of car trouble, most of which was too complicated for me reiterate. I told him how lucky he was that I had just made a spontaneous decision to do an about-face, in hopes of finding a secluded campsite along the Yellowstone River. As it turned out, he had tried the very same thing a year ago, only to find the pickin’s pretty slim. I dropped him off in Livingston, and headed south on route 89, undaunted in my quest for that “perfect” spot. After about ten miles of frustration, I decided my hitcher was right, and headed back to the Interstate.

As I was cruising along I-90, I rationalized my little uneventful venture with the thought: “If I hadn’t tried, I would always wonder. what if…” Such is the disparities of an unscheduled journey. Why is it, when traveling from point A to the next rest area seems like an interminable distance, especially when darkness is descending and all you want to do is find a place of respite for the night. Eventually, my high-beams picked up that all-too-comforting Rest Area sign. Oh, what a relief that was. It had been a long day of driving, and I fell asleep to the drone of the dieseling eighteen-wheelers. I can sleep with anything.

When you wake up the next morning in the middle of Montana and look around, you know you’re in Big Sky Country. The expanse is overwhelming…the horizons seem to be endless. It’s not a phenomenon perpetuated by blatant billboards and obtuse Centennial license plates…it is for real, I guarantee.

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