"You have arrived"

The female voice on our GPS says it all, with a certain confidence and finality. We feel neither, and moreover are reasonably overwhelmed, in ways positive and other.

A sea of boxes says something about how little we left behind, ignoring a comment made by my co-worker Doug's wife, Marion. They're my age and moved out from Michigan, having sold about everything. "You only have to bring the good stuff," she said, referring to layers beyond the material. It's hard advice to pull off, I'm finding. Nonetheless, we're thrilled to be here.

A downside about arrival, wherever it may be after a long trip, is that the trip is over. You now have to do whatever it is that caused you to take the trip in the first place. Well, fine then. Next up, dancing with the engineers and city-types who have made it so tough to get a permit.


Pictures from the road


Libby, Montana

Libby is in the far northwest corner of Montana, and I left on the bike about an hour ahead of the support wagon, which would mean Maxine and family in the Subaru, heading west into the LoloMountains and Bonners Ferry, Idaho along the Flathead River. I did the same thing leaving the Campbell Lodge in Glasgow, towards the eastern side on the state a few days back. It is a swell way to ride, not having to loop back, with no destination and no program at all other than to press miles and enjoy. Both times I covered about 30 miles before they caught me, felt great and remain totally in love with my new Trek Madone carbon fiber treasure of a bike. That’s it with the similarities, though. Eastern Montana is the true big sky, rolling landscapes of forever wheat fields irrigated by the Missouri country that awes in its uniform mass. Right now it is gold-yellow and ready for combines bigger than some homes. Beginning at Glacier Park and not ending before Spokane , Washington are the Rockies, and while not as crazy as in Colorado below or jasper up in B.C. They draw you in with their variety of rivers, grades, and rock. There’s an intimacy of scale trading quickly for a fearsome long view off a high drop.

A short comment on Bonners Ferry, Idaho. I couldn’t help but subject Maxine to a bit of history here, and we searched out some grounds I once filled. I reckon we’re talking on and off over a 3 year period about 30 years ago. I won’t go into it here, but the stories that survive include Bill and I working as cutters in the woods where we lived in an old (even then) truck camper without the truck, at a shake mill owned by some of the birthers of the Arian nation thing back then, and where lunch times ALWAYS included vicious arguments against their tenants that the communists were the military wing of the Jews, who control all media and had faked the holocaust, which never happened, and etc. and crazy, but we were there. Even today I can’t drink Coors beer, because it was all they would drink, with an understanding nod to each other.

Yes, life in Bonners in those years was different than you might expect. One story has it that because we didn’t have any fresh water available, each Friday we’d hitchhike into town about 15 miles away and pay 75 cents at the hotel for a long hot shower. Sometimes the men nearby would pick us up and bring us into town, since they knew that if we were there, they wouldn’t have to dance with the wives. I think this is a true story, but you may have to check with my friend Bill Robertson.


Driving across North Dakota

I say I’m “straight-lining” North Dakota because that’s how these roads go. Occasionally there’s a need to slow down between at some cross roads there’s a farm implant store that also sells drinks and gas, and it’s the town. Maxine is uber-awed by the size of the crop fields. They go on. She particularly loves the sunflowers, grown here for their oil. The flowers are at their largest right now and yes the scene is classic and almost its own parody of a thousand smiling sunflower faces beaming up expectantly like the most recent visit from the Pope. We were a bit perplexed, though, when we realized that they were all facing AWAY from the sun. Aren’t they supposed to be following it as it courses east to west? I’m feeling like somebody forgot to tell all those pretty faces that hey! You guys! The sun is over this way! I need to ask someone about this.

The cliché’ about North Dakota is of course how flat it is. It’s definitely the best place I’ve ever been able to enjoy a good lightning storm. You can see it coming for a week, and going for just as long. I once read a book by the flashes of a good one.

But today I am reminded that the part of a flat terrain you don’t see on a postcard is the wind. Relentless, cold and not slowed down by the very few trees we can see. I’m writing as Maxine drives, and keep wondering if she’s drunk, or perhaps has a spastic twitch. I’m getting dizzy as the car swerves and jerks to keep its feet on US 2. We stopped to photograph a billboard. It said simply “BE POLITE” in unassuming black letters on a white field. I was an instant litterer as I opened the door as the car was douched with air and I successfully held the door on its hinges, barely.

Obvious advantage #1 for driving across on two-laners: you can stop anywhere and pee. There aren’t a lot of people in rural America. Corollary to this: there aren’t traffic jams, slow-ups, tense passing games and chain hotels. We stayed at places like “Northern Lights Motel” in Wawa, (extraordinary); The Select Inn, Grafton, MN, (good beds, not poofy pillows, Mr. Patel had been here from India for just one year, and he was very satisfied at the way things were going. He was having a small bonanza because a gas pipe was going through from Canada to Illinois. I tried to juxtapose images of him in Calcutta just 14 months ago, to this Great Prairie town of close to tiny. Couldn’t do it.) The Sandman in Libby, Montana was fine with owners who couldn’t stay at other hotels so they camped in KOA’s when they traveled, sleeping in their tent on the ground, with not so much as a Thermarest for comfort.. But we have to tell you to stay far away from The Middle Fork Motel in Corum. It stank with rot, neglect and just bad housekeeping. The miniature golf and go cart place up the road was fabulous, though.


Wawa, Ontario, Canada

This is a fine place to start a story, I reckon. Sitting on Agawa Rock on the north shore of Lake Superior, toward the western edge of Ontario. The Ojibwe people settled and lived in this land forever, and are still here.. They’re a handsome tribe; the women have a beautiful high cheekbone so common to what the Canadians call “First Nations” people.

Maxine, Jake River and I had climbed down from the highway through some great shifting big vertical plates of rock to the shore, shimmied along next to the clear and cold lake to find some 400 year old pictographs made of ochre and fish fat. Drawings of snakes and a dog with horns. Great stuff, not wheel chair accessible. Maxine reminding us always of worn soles and long falls. The Ojibwe were using this sheer granite face 100 feet tall as an early bill board to passing canoes. I think this particular painting means, “Hey! Exit here for good eats! Easy in and out! All major shells and beads accepted!”

We’re here because it was on the way west, toward our new home in Oregon. In the car with Maxine and Jake River is Dexter the dog and Annie B. Brown, our loving cat who isn’t sure about our decision to take her across on the drive instead of a fast flight on the airplane. No really, Annie, airline food isn’t what it once was, and how’d you like to get stuck in Chicago O’Hare, anyway? It can happen, I’m here to tell you.

Annie’s been great. She settles into a foot well most of the time. When I’m driving, it often means that the foot well she chooses is mine, which makes braking and operating the clutch a bit touch and go. Maxine will have none of it, so when she’s driving, Annie’s still under my feet, as she just reminded me with a yell when I moved about and squished her tail. She did make a surprise move earlier though, sprinting out the door and across the field toward a hedgerow. It must have been a bit comical to see Jake on one side, me on the other sprinting to keep up, and Dexter running her down head on. You go Dexter. What a hunter. Suddenly Annie drops flat and I couldn’t see her at all until Jake, who is closer to the ground, reached down and plucked her up from between some thick straw. Quite a team.

Deciding what route to drive west on followed the typical course around here: hmmm… lessee… what would be the slower more roundabout way? First, no freeways. I didn’t want Jake thinking that a trans-national drive was about off ramps and Denny’s. There’s such an intimacy of experience, an opportunity to experience a bunch of non-corridor pass-by America. Nobody lives in Wawa because of the highway, and Wawa doesn’t define itself by the cars that drive by. Here it’s about the lake, how’re the fish biting, the local curling league, the size of the mosquitoes.

It’s a bit funny that I’m here in Wawa, in fact. And it’s funny that I’m even talking about it like this, because the last time I was here was about 1980, hitchhiking through on one the various trips taken back and forth, coast to coast, typically with just a thumb out. Back then Wawa was famous and feared among hitchhikers. As the legend went, if you got dropped off near Wawa on the highway, you were toast. No one would pick you up. After a few weeks you’d walk off the highway into town, meet a nice Ojibwe girl, settle down and open a coffee shop. Maybe you’d get a job in the mines, which are still active. I never knew the exact reason, but figured it had a bad reputation as an Indian town with miners to make it even worse.

I shared this story with the waitress at our motel restaurant last night. We were in the midst of eating an extraordinary meal of local lake trout and home made pirogues – a total surprise. She laughed and said she understood, as she had moved here with her father, who used to say that he should have never stopped for gas 25 years ago when driving through. Something about Wawa.