Tony, Anna, and I are driving to Montana from Chicago. Anna’s sister is playing ukulele in her friend’s wedding in Bozeman, so we decided to all rent a log cabin together. It’s a twenty-two hour drive that takes us through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally Montana.
Interstate 90 runs through my home state of Massachusetts all the way to Chicago, where it flows through my backyard (if I had a back yard) and ends in Seattle.
When I was young, our two longest drives were to Montreal, Canada, and Jackman, Maine. Both were just under five hours, and both were intolerable. “Almost how many hours?!” It was an injustice. Massachusetts is tiny: we drive forty-five minutes to hang out in New Hampshire, or thirty-five to get to Rhode Island. You can hit four states in less than two hours. I went to college in the midwest where life is different: people are obsessed with driving. They drive everywhere, no matter how far away. Vacation in Florida? Driving. It’s about a million hours away. I know because I’ve done it twice. You don’t get that time back. Family in California? Driving. Trip to Europe? Drive it. I don’t know how, but they’ll find a way to put some miles in.
“I got a Groupon for half-off parking at LAX. So we’re driving there, and then flying to New York. Then London.”
“Why not just fly from an airport around here?”
“Too easy. Not enough pain involved.”
A few hours into the drive, and we’re through Madison, Wisconsin. Life along the highway starts to look more green and less populous. Through southern Minnesota: still fewer people, still more cows. Then South Dakota: even more cows, even more corn, six people. I know you already know this, but there’s no way we need this much damn corn. Hundreds of miles of the stuff.
We drive and drive and massacre bugs, plastering them to our front bumper and side mirrors. We pass the “Largest Buffalo in the World,” which is a statue of a Buffalo on a hill, which is necessary. We stop at an oasis called Al’s Oasis, a chintzy town in South Dakota—it’s staffed mostly by teenagers. Where do these people come from? Someone lives around here, but where? Everywhere we stopped, I wanted to ask the fifteen- to seventeen-year-old employees what life was like.
We drove into the night, and every five to ten miles, we’d see a light in the distance. A farmhouse, no doubt. People live there, no doubt. Where do they get water? Groceries? Where do they go to school? I don’t even want to think about trick-or-treating. Recently, I asked someone who grew up in rural America where they trick-or-treated, and they told me their parents drove them to the rich neighborhood…so the same thing people do in the city. All of these people have stories, they all ended up there somehow. “Dad’s been doing this, and his dad before him. It’s just what we do.” “We like the solitude.” “We’re in the Witness Protection Program.”
After a day of driving and a night spent in Rapid City, SD, we made a stop at Mt. Rushmore, which was exactly what you’d expect. Carved rock, upset parents, annoyed children, groups of people with matching t-shirts, 80 SPF on noses, and adolescent park employees. Amatuer photographers everywhere. License plates in the parking lot from every single state—Maryland to Hawaii. All came to see these faces and learn about why this thing is even there. (It’s there because a guy name Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln Borglum chiseled away at it with a team of workers on this in order to boost tourism in the area. It worked.)
Gutzon: South Dakota, any ideas?
Lincoln: Never been.
Gutzon: I went once. I’m still picking bugs out of my teeth from the cross-country horse trip that took me twenty years.
Gutzon: Should we put it somewhere that you don’t have to take three different highways to get there?
Lincoln: Probably not.
We kept driving. Finally we hit Montana. Rolling hills turned to huge mountains. Road signs read: “If lights blinking, I-90 closed. Exit here”, leading cars to one-horse towns that had signs like Not another one-horse town!, presumably for the night. We stopped at “The Badlands Cafe and Scoop Shop” where every single person turned and looked at us when we walked in—you know, like a movie where city people walk into a country restaurant and everyone turns and looks at them and stops talking for an uncomfortable amount of time. Tony’s country side salad was iceberg lettuce and cheese with ranch dressing. We kept driving. Just before Bozeman, we turned off the highway, onto a side road, then onto a dirt road. A mile up that dirt road was our “Mountain Home.”
It was a beautiful log cabin with modern amenities, such as running water, stainless steel appliances, gas woodstove, and bear repellant. Bear repellant. It’s different than bug repellant, but only a little. It’s spray—you don’t spray yourself with it, you spray bears with it. It keeps other bears away from that bear, so at least you know that it’s going to be you vs. the one bear. Those chances are much better, because once other Grizzlies join the fight, you’re screwed. (It’s essentially pepper spray for bears, but it comes in a huge can, and not one of those tiny purse-sized cans. These will run you upwards of $30, so every can that people have is expired.)
I spend a lot of time on the internet researching how to beat a bear, and the consensus seems to be that if you see a black bear you have a chance. But if you see a Grizzly bear you’re dead. You’re supposed to raise your hands and make noise to let it know that you’re there. Which seems crazy. A jogger who lives in the house next* (*not close) to ours told my friend Kelly, that she just saw a bear. And she said, “Hey Bear, Hey Bear! It’s me, we shouldn’t fight!” Obviously the bear listened and a crisis was averted. We wondered if people in Montana are as worried about getting mugged in Chicago as we are of getting attacked by a bear. Probably.
We had a second floor deck with a staircase that, like most staircases, went from the bear-infested ground to people-inhabited deck. I was waiting for the time when I would walk out on the deck at night, feel the cool breeze on my face, gaze up at the stars, flick on the lights, and get mauled by a freaking bear that had walked up the stairs to finish our 750 piece puzzle. “It’s not the bear’s fault that he mauled Bart. It was so damn upset that half the puzzle was SKY and that it was missing six pieces, and that NONE OF THE OTHER GUESTS HAD SAID THAT IN THE GUEST BOOK that he had to take his anger out on something.” It’s never the animals fault.
Also, what a horrible verb to have done to you. I got MAULED. We never hear about bears mauling anything other than humans. They don’t maul salmon or deer or berries. “Didn’t your uncle Carl get attacked by a bear?” “Attacked? That’s putting it lightly! He got MAULED, MAN! There’s nothing left!!! His body looks like a freaking pinata! After a birthday party! So I guess there’s a little something left!!!” Synonyms include, but are not limited to: tear to pieces, lacerate, bludgeon.
So we drove around Yellowstone, forgot our repellant, and the only bears we saw were in the woods about a mile away from the road. We kept driving, because you’re not supposed to get out of the car when you see bears.
Bart Tocci (’11) lives in Boston where he writes essays, performs at open mics, and threatens to start taco restaurants. He’s been told that he looks like the kind of guy who stands up for what’s right. And who goes to the store before the party. Read more here: barttocci.wordpress.com