Brave pines cling to the side of her. She is exposed; indifferent, defiant, frozen in time. I was nine years old the first time I saw them from an airplane San Francisco bound. Since then it’s been been just a fond memory. Here, a mile up, Walter glides through the canyon, with every curve another surprise, another breath stolen. Its simple existence is beauty, majestic in its seemingly loose and random form. It’s surely not, for every grain, blade and needle of this forest has a name, a purpose and a story. (I suspect a consciousness as well) This road trip is only a few days in, but already I sense it is worth chronicling, so I will write along the road. Our first few days have already given birth to inside jokes, mostly from priceless moments so bizarre and unexpected the laughter that erupted lingered long after. Now, all it takes is that word, or that special phrase and that laughter can be called upon to lift us higher, keep us moving on down the line.
The road is just a road. Travel in good company, the road becomes your portal to freed experience. Get together and go!
DAY 1: Pittsburgh, TX-Oklahoma City, OK May 19th, 2013
The drive out of Texas was easy and slightly more familiar since Jak’s drama with TransCanada. We managed to drive straight through tornado alley, which was about to reinforce its’ name. We slip through a break in the clouds, avoiding the terrible string of storms dumping rain around us. At the rest stops we caught bits and pieces of the news-“…flattened homes, buildings, …” “…more severe weather tomorrow…” Locals urged us not to stick around past the morning, warning that it was going to get a lot worse. We make it into Oklahoma City and settled in at the good ‘ol KOA (they are all over the country, affordable and simple, but I still prefer guerrilla camping for free) and I helped Walter set up his tent. (He’s still a little domesticated compared to what Jak and I are used to, but we’re workin’ on bringing out his primitive side)
DAY 2: Oklahoma City, OK-Boulder, CO May 20th, 2013
If we had left on our original schedule (a day later than we did) we would have smacked right into the nasty F 4 tornado that ripped through miles of land. With every rest stop we collected the story; whole communities had been flattened, children were missing and many more feared dead. We had no time to turn around if we wanted to make it to Seattle and our obligations there and beyond. I wanted to turn around, wanted to drop everything to go back. I was torn as I watched clips of the arial footage from another gas station TV. Jak and I hadn’t made many commitments thus far but this time we had. We were unprepared to jump off the Walter ship and chase storms. I was comforted at least knowing people would heed the call to come and help. (and they did-thank you to ALL who aided in the relief efforts!) A natural disaster wouldn’t have a media blackout so at the least the area would get lots of attention. And, sadly, this won’t be the last natural disaster the US faces this year.
We pass Denver and arrive in Boulder with daylight to spare. The ride wasn’t that bad-the plains of Kansas go on forever but are intermingled with pretty hilltops and dynamic cloud patterns. When we get into Boulder I notice the fashion. It’s anarcho-hippie chic; part hipster, part bohemian. WEED is LEGAL here, and throughout the town are dispensaries with the signature green cross. The local “village voice” style paper dedicates 3 full pages (in the back, but still!) to gorgeous ads for fancy strains, pipes, vaporizers, locations and discount “medical coverage.” Jak is in heaven. I’m relieved we made it-now we can chill a bit, have a stress-free smoke and *adjust to our new, much less oppressive surroundings.
We are staying with an ally we know from the wonderful world of the internet. We pull up to a cluttered front yard in an area highly concentrated with college kids. People are lounging on the front porch when our host greets us at the front gate. They are laid-back and a little quiet at first. The other housemates are on the same “chill” level and friendly. We all mingle from the porch, through to the kitchen and back again. “Fight Club” ( 90’s relic on VHS) is on the TV. That provides the background noise through the last of the daylight. More roommates and friends arrive, crowding the crash pad with new names and conversations. Other than one crazy incident with an “”uninvited guest”, he night is relaxed with back-and-forth reflections on our crazy society. But I guess you’re wondering about the uninvited guest, so I’ll just tell you a little about that “”tornado” that ambushed us in the living room.
A tall red-head walked in at some point and quickly commanded the attention of the room. She was aggressive at times, then sweet. “I wanna meet all of your friends!” she declared. There’s a sudden awkwardness. No one in the room knows who shes talking to. Who is this girl? There are brief moments of clarity for her, (she introduced herself to me with a glossy pro photo of herself as a blonde. kinda weird.) but every time she started with a “I need more friends here” ,it ended with an out-of-place “fuck you!” One of the roommates tells me she’s manic and irrational sometimes. She’s also been drinking. That makes sense as I observe her, unsteady, targeting people one at a time, seeking some sort of validation. She’s an aspiring model, bitter about getting older and carrying a chip looking on her shoulder from LA. Now she’s looking for attention in all the wrong places. After a while everyone has fled the house (including Jak, who ran out as soon as this girl started hitting on him) except Walter and I, now left alone at the mercy of this unstoppable force. Walter has been sitting in a chair this whole time, clearly amused. The red head pounces and starts giving Walter a lap dance. That’s my cue to leave. I am speechless and embarrassed for her as I walk to join the refugees on the porch.
Long story short, and after some obnoxious protesting on her part, the poor gal was finally carried out of the house on someones shoulder and banished back to her car across the street where she eventually passed out.
I should thank her though, because that incident served as the comical ice-breaker for this house of strangers. We laughed and the room heaved and sighed with the energetic exchange. Our first encounter with the beautiful, intellectual souls of Colorado sells the place to me. It is the first on my list of potential places to “settle down” someday. Jak and I retire to our tent pitched in the backyard. I drift off to sleep, my mind re-playing the day’s drive in dream form. Tomorrow, dreamer, we begin again…
DAY 3: Boulder, CO – May 21st, 2013
We awoke and got moving. We packed up, said some good-byes and left for breakfast. We ate at “The Village,” a local pot that has a fun policy-if you’re a first-timer you are outed to the restaurant as a “village virgin,” followed by applause. We, although virgins here, avoid the attention and enjoy our meal in peace;classic diner-style eggs, hash browns and, to my surprise, gluten free toast for no extra charge.
With full, happy bellies we head out to explore and cover some ground. We walked the baseline of the flat irons; distinct rock formations protruding from this first leg of the mountain range. We briefly walked through a popular shopping/dining hangout called “the hill,” then drove up the mountain to walk some more. At the top was flagstaff and a great view of the long distances we had travelled the day before. Denver was clearly visible and far of to the horizon were the wind-rippled edges of farms and fields back to Kansas.
We enjoyed a cliff-side toke at over 6,000 feet. Walter sorta participated. It had been a while since he had smoked, but he had plenty of stories to tell from when he did. Jak is in heaven again-the satisfaction of enjoying a stress-free spliff on the side of a mountain is, to him, just the way it should be. (That feeling doesn’t get old and I would suspect it gets a new lease again in Washington and California, the only other legalized states in the continental US) Oh america, why can’t we get the rest of you folks on board?
Back down on the ground we meet up with Jeff, a friend of Jak’s from New York. He’s a New Yorker now, but he’s originally from Colorado and just happened to be visiting the same week we were. He’s also an occupier, so there’s already a strong common thread. He greets us warmly, giving off that laid-back vibe shared by so many here. We have been invited to stay the night at his parents’ cabin, a gem tucked deep in the mountains, hand-built years ago by Jeff’s grandfather.
Jeff leads us out of Boulder, along the range and into the countryside. Walker and I follow Jeff and Jak into a canyon and slowing ascend into magnificent forest with gloriously naked peaks that reach for the sky. I am thrilled to not e driving for this portion. My full attention is consumed by this glacier-carved canyon, covered in wooded abundance and soaring cliff sides. We finally pull in to the cabin, an adorable property right alongside a rushing stream.
Before we get too settled Jeff invites us to some fun in the mountains. Still full of energy I climb into the back end of a bright yellow four-wheeler. Jak is in the driver’s seat, Walter’s by his side. I might as well be cargo as I hang on to the bars on the roof, balancing like a snowboarder down the highway and off-road into the trails. The trail was a mini-canyon of its own, an obstacle-course full of sharp boulders, gullies, lakes and clinging trees. Jak got used to it quick and got more gutsy, leaping over moguls, dodging trees and scaling cliffs. The wheeler bucked and kicked over ditches, forcing a shrill scream from my lungs with every lift-off from the earthen ramps. I was in flying in adrenaline heaven when I noticed something wrong. Jak had stuck to the trail the whole time, but now he veered dangerously close to trees and rocks on the left side. Jak can tell and stops. The steering is…broken. Damn. We lost a crucial nut to a screw somewhere back there. That’s the end of the fun with the four wheeler, leaving us with a good 5 minutes of memory and lingering heart beats to bask in.
While we wait for Jeff (now our rescuer with the pick-up truck) we hike up the side of the trail and take in the views again. I don’t think i could ever get sick of this skyline-I daydreamed of every skyscraper in the world as a mountain again, or a hill, a bubbling creek…we took a few pics and then Jeff was back. We leave with the wheeler pieced together enough to get us back home.
Back at the house we crack a few beers, make dinner and chat the night away. The smoke swirled around our breath as another bowl pack passed my hand. Walter takes a puff too, (for real this time) breaking decades of dormant pot use. He giggles and relaxes. Walter s a pleasure to be around. Plain and simple. But get him a little stoned and he will leave you gasping for air from all the laughter. He swaps all sorts of stories; funny war stories, road adventures/debacles, times in jail and his philosophies. The stories are told with a passionate energy that only a New Yorker like Walter has the stamina to deliver again and again. It’s a careful balance of wit and wisdom; sarcasm and honest compassion. I have loved this man from the start, but this trip has allowed me to see him day to day, beyond the Occupy marches and rallies. I smile and absorb his words. Walter warns that it still might take another day or two for our chatty group to relax. He knows Jak and I are all too well. If there was ever a trip to help us achieve peace, this would be it.
That night we fell asleep to the white noise of the creek. The water was the only thing in a hurry for miles, its current cutting violently through the natural surrounding silence. We collapsed in a comfy bed to hear it, slowly soothing our tired bodies from another full day.
DAY 4 Boulder, CO- Big Timber, MT May 22nd, 2013
I cook a healthy breakfast early, slightly hungover from the night before. I’m especially glad for Walter this morning. I watch him whip up fresh-squeezed orange juice for us. 2 cups of it bring me back to life. After some careful re-packing of Walter’s cramped little car we are off again, snaking through those cliff sides with the creek loyally to our right. On the last mile of the canyon the land opens back up to us the mountains gracefully giving way to lower foothills and fields. The mountains left behind rise up behind, snowy tops peeking out above the blue. I gazed back through the window, breath taken again. I have noticed, since the start of our road trip with Walter, that I am smiling. A lot. The gray of industry fades (which REALLY makes me smile) and the road presses onward, leading us through pasture after pasture, then forest, river and rolling hill. The patterned features repeat for miles.
We’re now cruising at a steady 75 mph with the edge of the rockies to the left. “North bound!” Walter announces. The goal is to put at least 600 miles under our heels, half of which I commit to knock out to bring us in to Montana well before nightfall.
My eyes light up as we enter Wyoming and spot a herd of buffalo lounging in the grass. The mountains are far away now and the vast landscape is sprinkled with wind farms-a welcomed site to all of us. We ooo and ahhh as they go past us. My hope is that, as more people witness the beautiful display of alternatives, more are built in support. There’s even a haunting beauty to them looming against the sky. Hundreds of these skeletal rotations are fixed and fused to hilltops, providing, storing. This part of the country has enough wind (aka energy potential) for centuries to come. May these monuments of clean energy continue on and on!
This is Somewhere in Wyoming (you go for miles without a single sign) we get stuck behind a truck. Not jut any truck. Behind a conga-line of other unfortunate drivers we get the butt-end of a bulky, sluggish 16-wheeler from Walmart. It did a steady 45 mph in a 65. Work is being done on the road, knocking us down to one lane for miles. I stewed over the fact that I was even seeing a Walmart truck out here, but the encroaching industry is never completely gone on the highway. Hell, the highway itself looks intrusive out here. When we were finally freed from that gas guzzler we zipped by climbing to 85 and then, just before we had passed, Jak and I gave 2 middle fingers to the “sky.”
The road is long, often ending at the horizon. The rockies are still on the left, drifting closer and closer as we climb up, curve and then down again. Even on the downward swing we are still going up. Just when you are about to tire from the view it changes. We pass pine-spotted plateaus, dried river beds and the rare, scattered trios of antelope and elk. These dwindling herds are all that’s left of the once abundant populations. It’s almost a cliche to say now; it’s just common knowledge that yes, we have practically wiped out these beautiful creatures and, oh yeah, committed mass genocide against the indigenous protectors of the land they shared. It’s a thought that stays with me as I push past these hills, wishing them wild again.
The scenic slide-show is only interrupted for 2 things-pee breaks and fill-ups, both of which I would love to eliminate from road trips. Pee breaks can be fun if you choose the side of the road-otherwise it’s another awkward trip into a local shitting hole. Our group is getting a lot of stares through these states. It’s understandable. That’s why, whenever possible, I am opting for a squat in the grass with the birds and a sweet mountain breeze.
A storm has formed over the mountains and begins to stretch across the valley. We are now in the breathable state of Montana; nothing but wide open skies and endless acreage. The best part is seeing no sign of human interference (other than the road) for as far as I can see. Ahhhh. After living in a cramped, claustrophobic 6-floor walk-up in NYC, the satisfaction of mind and body stretching wide is truly priceless. The sheer mass of these great states-Kansas, Texas, Wyoming, Montana-is beyond comprehension. The remoteness might make it intimidating, even unforgiving for suburban or urban dwellers used to pavement that quickly leads them to some sort of shopping or privileged convenience. But, to me, there is also a privilege here in being able to survive here-maybe even thrive here.
Once in a while I spot one of those tough cookies on the outskirts of tiny towns. These are the kinds of places with only one streetlight. Mostly there are just those single houses, perched on hills or hidden among trees, with their next neighbor at least a 20 minute drive away. I guess if I needed to hide out off the grid in the middle of no where this could be a good option. I add it to my mental list and turn my focus on that storm, still far off but raging and stretching, swallowing up the light of the sky. These are the artful scenes of movie reels and the muse of mouth-made legends. And, it might continue to be a long time if we allow it, if we just leave it be.
There are plenty of ghosts here. There are billboards that promote glorified stories of the bloodshed of old. “STOP NOW” and see this run-down place. “INDIAN SOUVENIRS” from some assembly line in China. Ugh. Occasionally there’s an emerald-green pasture that hosted violent battles now reserved for tourists. It’s not that I don’t care about our history here. I just don’t know why we continue to call the Indigenous “Indians.” We were looking for India. Didn’t find it. We still call the tribes we pushed to extinction Indians. It bothers me just a little bit.
It’s about 7pm when we pass Little Big Horn and decide to go check it out. (Those pesky signs, suckered again!) This is one I don’t mind seeing; a battle we lost. Walter gives us his one-line history of little Big Horn;
“Yeah, Little Big Horn, the Americans got their ASSES kicked!” I love Walter. We drive up to the supposed “viewing site” and it says “”closed” of course. Oh well, guess Walter’s version will have to do. We remember our race with the setting sun and head back to the highway.
We check in to the Lazy J Motel just as rain clouds roll in. This is a treat with good timing, courtesy of Walter. Out of the rain and cold! Yay! I plop down my things in the room and begin decompressing. From the start I knew this trip would be memorable-not just because of the window views. Walter is a treat in and of himself for me. Even though I love the excitement of meeting new people, sometimes it’s nice to ride with a familiar face. Walter is more than familiar for Jak and me. He’s family, one of many from New York. The journey has been filled with his unique laughter (what is the deal with Jesus?) and alternating with the paradigms that leave us all brooding. There’s time to remember (Walter reminisces sweetly about Zuccotti) and forget. (what day is it again? Okay. Wait, what’s the date?) Out here it barely matters anymore.
Walter is also an excellent tour guide in my opinion, mostly because he is honest. Always. His memory is pretty good but a lot has changed since he last came through this part of the country. That makes much of the experience a first for all of us. Walter’s memory serves as a reminder of what this land used to be. Land elsewhere faces the same fate and worse. For the moment at least, here in these wide open spaces, we are able to set aside the griping and simply take it in, breathing out together in silence. The beauty summons attention without asking; it just is. I drive on, the land incessantly calling, “be here now…”
My dear Montana, I am finally listening.
More to come..
In Solidarity Forever,