I undertook an odyssey, driving the breadth of the United States in the week leading up to the 4th of July. In addition to picking up a car, I was out to explore America. Could a 3,000-mile journey help me to understand not just what divides us, but what unites us?
Day Four – July 2nd The Mississippi River to Rapid City, South Dakota
With Delaware, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan behind us, now it was time to pick up the pace. I had 1,800 miles to cover over the next three days in order to celebrate the Fourth of July with my stepson and his girlfriend in Tacoma. Resigning myself to the grind of I-90, I set the cruise control at 70 and pushed on to South Dakota, where the speed limit increased to 80. The faster I drove, the worse my gas mileage became. At a steady 80, I was getting 24 miles to the gallon. En route, I looked out at fields of corn and soy from one horizon to the next, ponds crusted with residual fertilizer, and rivers sluggish with algal growth. Tragically, we have sacrificed these “fruited plains” to Big Ag and Monsanto. At times like these, I wish I didn’t see the world through an ecological lens. How much less depressing to simply enjoy an expanse of green.
The monotony of the agricultural landscape was dotted with signs. “The wages of sin is death.” If we’re talking about sins against nature, the proof of that was evident. I kept a mental tally of road kills. Four coyotes, 10 deer, and too many raccoons and skunks to count. I imagined what this land must have looked like at the turn of the 19th century when the Lewis and Clark expedition paddled up the Missouri River through tallgrass prairie. Abundant buffalo, elk, and moose would have shared these lands with wolves and grizzlies. They would have encountered wigwams and teepees – the portable dwellings used by the Chippewa and Lakota. How different from the steady stream of RVs and fifth wheels with names like Denali (a mountain of a vehicle), Puma, Wildwood, Elkridge, and Solitude. I wondered if this road was once the Oregon wagon trail, and thought, “Time runs together like the confluences of a river. What we are, what we will become, is all predicated on where we have been.”
I roared past the exit to the Badlands, wishing I could venture into the jumbled topography visible along the southern skyline. I had visited there years ago and remembered camping among the pastel rocks and a bright-eyed woodrat who made off with our dog food. I swung into Wall Drug for eyedrops and a T-shirt for Hal before motoring on. Ahead, a billboard for Mount Rushmore read, “A life-changing patriotic experience.” Rushmore was also out of my way and I had no desire to visualize where a bust of Donald Trump might go. A restaurant sign read, “Mexican food so good, President Trump would build a wall around it.”
Later, wind moved across short prairie grasslands like waves on the sea. A Joni Mitchel CD crooned, “We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.” A semi chugged past with enough lumber and trusses to build a house, and I wondered about the crushing weight of all that wood, the loss of trees, the exorbitant cost. Then, a near miss. A coyote pup walked halfway across the adjacent lane. I was sure he’d be hit by the truck speeding up to pass me, but he was standing on the side of the road when I looked back in the rear-view mirror. And then, at last, Rapid City and a hotel room for the night. We’d come 670 miles in 12 hours.
Day Five – July 3rd South Dakota to Missoula, Montana
The next day, after passing a sign in quaint Spearfish which read, “Happy Birthday America,” I left South Dakota behind and cut across the northeast corner of Wyoming, bound for Montana. Driving the posted 65 miles an hour on highway 212, I was passed by a small white car and later a black pickup, both doing 100 or better.
White cows bunched in a swale. Horses silhouetted on a rise, tails swinging. Another billboard, but this one read, “Imagine being fired for who you love.” Sagebrush and black cattle, power lines, grass bleaching from green to gold. Pronghorn! Caribou of the west. Then the road climbed and I was back in the pines. The day started off cool, but by afternoon it was a blistering 95. 97. 99. Fiona, at a steady 65 was getting 30.6 miles per gallon.
Southeastern Montana. Crossing the Little Missouri River, shallow enough to wade. Bales of hay, like huge rolls of toilet paper. Flocks of gray sheep on sagebrush-dotted hills. A weathered shop that was once someone’s livelihood, now graffitied in bright green and orange. Stacks of white bee boxes under a cottonwood tree. The rare black person retrieving something from their trunk at the Ekalaka turnoff. How had I not noticed the lack of racial diversity until now?
I’d promised myself breakfast after I’d put 150 miles behind us. We slowed through Broadus (surely the rival schools call it Broad Ass?), past antique stores selling their history one chair or washtub at a time, and stopped at the Cashway (“no credit cards”). I left Fiona to cool her heels and entered the café with its red counter stools and Formica tables. A handful of locals in ball caps with feed-store logos sat around a table. They spoke in tones of familiarity, laughing over a well-worn story. Maybe a few years older than me, but I’m not a good judge of age on a sunbaked face. One lone man, gaunt, with a handlebar mustache, glowered at me, the intruder. The Andy Griffith show played on a TV with the sound turned down as I ate biscuits with gravy and drank my coffee.
Two hours later we crossed the Little Bighorn River and saw a sign for the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument - a rare win in a long decline for Native Americans. We passed through the Crow reservation, then the Custer National Forest, hills blackened from a fire that swept through in 2017. On past the Rosebud Reservation, Crazy Head Springs, Charging Horse Casino, and roadside crosses decorated with plastic flowers, teddy bears, horseshoes. Joni Mitchell set the mood with, “We are stardust, billion-year-old carbon, we are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain and we have got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
In another hour, back on I-90, we skirted Billings. I had considered stopping for coffee, but the town was bigger than I remembered and I kept going. On a freeway access road, police cars with their sirens blaring, were in hot pursuit of an orange Mustang and I was glad I hadn’t stopped. Afterward, the highway followed the Yellowstone River for a long lovely stretch. The water was low but graced with swans. After Columbus, there were windmills and solar panels and mountains to the North with traces of snow.
I felt regret for all the sites I blew past. Creeks I might have fished on a different sort of trip. Hiking trails along a river’s edge. Bird songs. Instead, I saw long trains headed east, cars full of coal, a sign that read, “Jesus is God’s selfie. Make him your heart’s wallpaper,” and another, “Extreme fire danger. Keep cigarettes in ashtray.”
The Clark Fork kept us company for the last 70 miles as we approached Missoula. Sparkling below granite cliffs in the late afternoon sun, the water looked so refreshing. We stayed at the Rocky Creek Motel and Mercantile, which is to say, we were in a lovely mountain setting with dilapidated lodging. A chalkboard outside the Mercantile (which mainly sold fly fishing gear) read, “Stream Temperature 60 to 68 degrees.” Good for swimming perhaps, but not for trout.
Day Six – July 4th Montana to Tacoma, Washington
After a night spent burying my head in pillows to dull the rattle of an exuberant air conditioner, I was back on the road before sunrise. This was my last big push before Tacoma and I looked forward to wrapping up the drive. The Fourth of July was on full display, from firework stands to the largest American flag I’ve ever seen stretched across the entrance to a Camping World outside of Spokane. In a café, I ate cornbread and eggs while members of the local Kiwanis Club, sporting red t-shirts, geared up for a parade. Small town America.
Eastern Washington, with its agricultural fields and the sinuous Columbia River, gave way to ranchland, with a trio of signs just before Ellensburg that read, “Cattlemen feed families. Preserve green space. Provide for wildlife.” I thought about the stories we tell ourselves, and how much we want to believe we are doing the right thing. Can we ignore the fact that brown bears and wolves are systematically eradicated from ranchland? Or, if I’m pointing fingers, how does driving a car across the whole of the United States save on fuel? Our truths are often only half-truths.
Grasslands were soon replaced by pine, cedar, hemlock, and Doug-fir as I climbed Snoqualmie Pass. The traffic increased, and for the first time on this long journey, I was cheek by jowl with semis doing 70 or better on slopes that fell away into the ether. I thought about the irony of dying here, so close to my destination. And where were all these people going in such a hurry? Are all of us possessed by an urgency we can’t shake?
It probably goes without saying that I made it safely to Tacoma. I spent the evening with my soft-spoken stepson Alex and his girlfriend Salam watching fireworks ignite over their neighborhood. Despite a city-wide ban, the explosions and blasts reverberated for hours, sounding at once like a war zone and like a joyous release for the year we have come through.
That night, reaching for sleep in yet another unfamiliar place, I missed Hal sleeping beside me. I missed our dog, Arlie, inserting himself between us with a hearty sigh. But I felt grateful for the opportunity to take this trip. And, despite the tangible evidence of social discord and environmental damage along the way, I felt a greater sense of connection with the people and places that make up this country.
The next day we set out for Gig Harbor to kayak on a post-card-perfect afternoon before dinner at McMenamins. Then, on the sixth, I got up before dawn one last time and drove to the Tacoma shipping terminal to deliver Fiona for her barge ride north before catching a Lyft to the Seattle airport. She’s a great car, and worth the effort to bring her north. At least that’s what I tell myself.
In hindsight, I am struck by how unblemished this trip was. All my flights arrived on time, my rides were there waiting for me, and my journey was comfortable and safe. It was, all in all, a completely uneventful trip. Maybe I was meant to buy this particular car and make this trip. That’s possible. But if I’m searching for truth, my path was smooth because I’m white, middle-class, and naturally cautious. I know with certainty that I am among the fortunate and that this country has been nothing but good to me.
I know too that we, as Americans by birth or assimilation, strive to do what we believe is best. But in a country constructed on the promise of personal freedom, we are blinkered by the narratives we choose to hear and often unwilling to consider a broader view. We rally to the causes that move us, be it gun rights, abortion laws, freedom to love whom we choose, or, in my case, a desire to preserve and restore wildlands and wildlife. There are those among us who say we can’t co-exist and that a return to white supremacy is overdue. But for the rest of us, and we are the great majority, we must foster compassion and acceptance. This is what will unite us as we struggle to build the country we imagine for ourselves. It’s the only thing that can.