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Friday, May 30, 2008

Chapter 18 - "a little loincloth"

It wasn’t long before I was stuffed to the rafters. The last 4 bites of steak went down like the last three hotdogs in an ESPN food eating championship. I couldn’t bring myself to leaving two extra ounces on my plate. I hadn’t come this far to shrink back now.

I tried a trick from my adolescent days that I thought might clear some space in my bowels. I used to hit the head when my stomach would be bloating in agony and yet I didn’t want to stop eating quite yet. As I looked around for the bathrooms, my eyes caught the men’s room which happened to be a swinging door with the sign on it. It swung both ways if I’m remembering correctly and didn’t have a lock. This isn’t a big deal if you’re in a public restroom with 4 stanchions and six urinals and a double-door system so that women can’t catch a peek of the guys standing their relieving themselves while catching up on news clippings pinned to the wall at eye level. This was a typical stripped down lavatory with the basics, no splash guards, no privacy walls—nothing. Though the saloon wasn’t hopping like a dollar drinks Friday night extravaganza, I still wasn’t sure about mounting that toilet bowl knowing I had a 14.678 chance of being visited by an unsuspecting cowboy just as cramped up as I was feeling in that moment.

I didn’t have the heart to ask one of the guys to keep an eye out for me. It just felt weak in the presence of such manly men. So I just took my chances. It actually becomes so much more of an adventure sitting there playing restroom-Russian roulette. There’s something about trying too hard to go that makes it harder yet. The more I tried to speed up the process, the more panicked I got that someone would frequent the facility and catch me in the act. My eyes were glued to the place where the door is closest to the floor. I was watching like a hawk for the slightest movement to occur poised to say something like, “Hey, I’m in here.” or something close to that. It’s funny how something so silly can start to make your heart race, like you’re getting caught stealing stamps from work or something.

Thankfully, the Lord saw fit to let me poop in peace. I finished up, washed my hands, and rejoined the guys in the middle of a story they were splitting up about. Come to find out, it had to do with the bathrooms and a little dirty trick they would play on unwary guests. They were going on about the ladies room and how there used to be a poster in there with a guy in the nude covered with a dainty little loincloth. The little loincloth, however, was not a part of the picture itself. It was a real little swath of cloth put over the privates of this chiseled model as if to censor it from the longing eyes of weak-willed women. What the female visitor wasn’t aware of was that it was attached to a string that, when tampered with, would send off an alarm in the whole tavern with flashing lights and the works. Everyone would know that “someone” couldn’t resist the temptation to take a peek. That particular “someone” would then walk into a bar room full of people applauding and hooting and hollering all sorts of embarrassing one-liners. I was dying laughing as the guys told stories of the most unlikely woman to be bagged by this gag.

As I sat there laughing I wondered what I would have done had a similar picture, only of a woman, been strategically placed in the men’s room for a practical joke that day. Would I become the laughingstock of the place, or a man who would go down as one of the few that looked temptation in the eye, stared it down, and spit in its familiar face? What would you do?

Chapter 17 - "Finally!"

For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the little bar and grill we waddled into that Tuesday morning, but I’ll never forget the experience. There were several elderly men sitting up at the bar slowly scratching their foreheads with cowboy hat in hand. There were casino arcades lining the back wall, a corkboard chuck-full of photographs showing hunters proudly sporting their kill, mounts of about every wild animal in those parts from mule deer to beavers, and a huge wood stove that kept the place cozy warm.

The minute we walked into the joint everyone stopped whatever they were doing and stared at us with a look that said, “Who the heck are you boys?” Fortunately, they knew our realtor and it wasn’t long before we were being introduced to retired ranchers and yesterday’s news. I don’t know if you’ve ever shaken hands with a farmer, but it’s more like shaking hands with a beast than a human. The texture, often, has moved beyond leather to something more akin to tree bark. More like hard maple than a soft maple. The fingers of these men are bloated like the Michelin tires mascot, minus the white marshmallow look. Thick calluses. Cracked fingernails. These hands have witnessed long days of honest toil. They are almost relics of antiquity, antiques from years gone by representing epochs of history never to be revisited in quite the same way. I get the feeling these days that farmers are of a more refined variety. Horses are replaced with quads, wooden fences are traded for flimsy electric upgrades, barns are exchanged for lean-to’s out in the open field, and pickup trucks are swapped for SUV’s. It’s a new world order in the agriculture industry…something more domesticated. You have a better chance of meeting a cowboy with a Blackberry phone than a horse. Thus, cowboys with crusty calluses are a dying breed.

We sat down at a table and I grabbed a menu to check out the steak selections availed to me. My eyes moved down the list from the $12 ribeyes to the $15 strips to the $18 T-bones. The T-bone caught my eye because it was 24 ounces, the size of a small housecat. I’ve always wondered whether I could polish off a slab of beef with the girth of a pillow-top mattress. My eyes are always bigger than my stomach, but that never seems to come to my mind until after I’ve attempted the biologically impossible feat of shoveling more in than my stomach space allows for. It is typically then I groan the age-old adage with a mix of regret and rejoicing.

I closed the menu with my mind made up; I was going for broke. This was no time to be modest. This was a time to “live like you were dying” as the country song suggests. The waitress stood with pen and pad in hand and asked, “What can I do for ya’, boys?” I spoke up first. “I’ll take the T-bone with fries, please.” She smirked and said something like, “Hungry today, hugh?” I nodded only slightly embarrassed. Gluttony was a foregone conclusion. Carpe Diem.

The other guys got an assortment of wine and beer; and though it seemed like an occasion where a good glass of wine or a pint of “brewsky” would have been fitting, I opted for a Coke on the rocks. Our drinks came out first and we all lifted our glasses in celebration of the selling of Doug’s ranch. We tapped our glasses all together in the middle like the Three Musketeers when they put their swords together and yell, “All for one and one for all!” Everyone tipped back on their beverage and swallowed down a couple celebratory gulps. The conversation then turned to talking about the ranch and who purchased it and what might become of land in the years to come.

A few other guys joined us and Doug bought them some beers, too. You sometimes get an image in your head of bars that is one of drunkenness and sundry acts of debauchery. I even remember growing up visualizing obnoxious orgies happening within those “dens of iniquity”. But everyone was just so full of well-wishes and gratitude in this setting. I sat there happy to be a part of this unique and momentous moment.

It wasn’t long before the waitress slid my entrĂ©e under my flaring nostrils. It was a thing of beauty. I looked at it like I was witnessing a lunar eclipse that only happens once every 700 years. I knew this moment was sacred. A moment of silence was apropos and so I paused with a similar sobriety with which I approach communion at church. A time to consecrate myself unto the steak and a time to pray a blessing over the cow that unwillingly laid down his life so that my heart might smile with the delight of a thousand angels. After several pseudo-liturgical steps of sanctifying the moment, I cut off a hunk of steak and slowly guided it toward my watering mouth. I inserted it just beyond my pursed lips and clamped my teeth down slidding the piece of flesh off my fork and onto the soft landing that was my tongue. From there my molars made short work of that medium-rare tip.

Heaven had come to earth, and I was the conduit.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Chapter 16 - "chewing fat to chewing steak"

We walked up the side of the driveway and climbed the steps on the back porch. Before our feet hit the top step he had opened the door and was inviting us to come on in. He was a man that I would guess was in his early 60’s, a little hunched over, with a noticeable limp. His smile was warm and it seemed like his face muscles kept him smiling even when there wasn’t a reason to be, almost like he’d smiled so much in his lifetime that his countenance got stuck there. I guess if your face is going to get stuck on an expression, that’s as good as any.

His jeans were tight (that seemed to be the custom in these parts) and pulled up as high as his crotch would allow. There’s something about growing old that appears to make men feel the need to yank their pants up over their lint-laden navels. I, for one, can’t stand even my underpants getting wedged up my butt let alone having thick, canvas-like denim materiel lodged up in there as well. He didn’t seem to mind it much, in fact, it seemed to be a comfort zone of sorts.

You could tell he had little daily rituals based on the local paper opened up on the table next to an old Bible with some Catholic mantras to recite to Mary in hopes that she gets the word to Jesus who, then, gets the word to God. There were some pamphlets about upcoming community events stacked on the countertop and all kinds of photographed pictures of local rodeos. As I made my way from photo to photo, he explained to me that they were, in fact, pictures of his son who happened to be one of the best bucking bronco riders in the state of Montana. It was through this conversation that I found out that the little town of Augusta was the host of the biggest rodeo in Montana every year. The population of the town grew from 500 to 10,000 over the course of that weekend and come to find out, David Lettermen paid for Willie Nelson to come last year to perform a concert for the locals during this yearly festival. Lettermen has a nearby ranch and that little kind gesture was his way of letting the community know that he’s not just some rich do-gooder swiping up the land for investment-sake alone, but that he respects the traditions of this territory and wants to honor the history of this humble little town. Needless to say, the community was much obliged to accept his charitable contribution.

I was trying to imagine this town busting at the seams with cowboys and cowgirls, little kids dressing up in their western garb, and vendors selling snake skin kicks and buckskin digs to gullible tourists. Streets blocked off and filled with families gnawing on Elk jerky and turkey legs. Booths set up with pelts and belts, straw hats and skinned cats, hunting ammo and camping cargo, baked beans and tight jeans. Stands filled with country folk looking for a good time, cheering and jeering with a country drawl with chewing tobacco bulging on the right side of their lower lip. The more I let my mind’s eye daydream, the more I wished I could come back and be a part of this annual hoedown.

We sat down at his dinning room table and he asked if we wanted some strong coffee. In the sleep-deprived state of was in, I would take any stimulant offered me be it a coffee or a stiff backhand across my morning mug. Speaking of mugs, he poured us a mug of brew and we sat there talking for who-knows-now-long. We conversed about everything from the Montana economy to the rising price of wheat per bushel to the latest stories about a guy named Guss (I’ll talk more about him later). Again, I need to emphasize how different it is to be sitting there sharing slow and simple conversation with another human being without the pressing need to do something breathing down your neck and whispering words of efficiency. I just kicked back and imagined myself as a part of the Walton family. We chewed the fat about absolute nonsense and it felt substantive. We ground axes, split hairs and beat around bushes. It felt so cool to hear stories of who died and who survived in the past two years. Who killed the trophy Elk and who had a near death experience. Who was carousing, womanizing, and generally speaking living a life of tomfoolery and rabblerousing. I didn’t even know these people, and yet I felt strangely woven into the fabric of these simple stories almost as if I had a history with these people. I didn’t say much, I just listened with bated breath. I couldn’t wait to get out there and meet some of these characters.

There would be points within the conversation where an extended period of silence would descend on our trialogue making us look at the windows and comment on the nice weather outside or something else trivial. Before long someone would pipe in about something that would trigger another line of logic that led to several more corridors of conversation…we would spelunk around together in those grottos until something else naturally emerged leading us elsewhere. I just leaned back in the oak chair I was sitting on and took it all in. I could have sipped coffee and asked questions all day long. I’m a sucker for good stories and it seemed like this guy was full of them.

We started talking about celebrating the sale of the ranch with a T-bone steak down at the saloon which gave us some incentive to wrap up the idle chit chat and move into our day. The talk of steak quickly moved me from a state of mindless relaxation to restless fixation. I don’t know if anyone else has those carnivorous instincts, but my body has primal passions that are evoked by the mention of meat that render me useless until they are tended to and appeased. As we left the house my fixation had morphed into an obsession. If I didn’t get a steak in my gullet post haste, I feared that I might become a danger to society. There’s no telling what kind of uncivilized caveman another “steak” disappointment would turn me into. I needed a T-bone steak, and I needed it now. No, I needed it yesterday, which made my need for it now all the more manic. I was bordering on maniacal, I tell you. Rabid. Crazed.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chapter 15 - "battery juice"

I’ve been to Disney World before, so naturally I’ve visited a replicated Western town complete with a saloon, a bank, a hotel, a general store, etc. But I was completely caught with my pants down as it relates to the rush of emotions I felt when we coasted into the heart of this little cowboy town. Guys were crossing the street with boots and spurs and tight Wrangler pants and belt buckles the size of drink coasters. And they weren’t wearing costumes, this was their everyday wardrobe. They sauntered forward as if they hadn’t a care in the world. It was a perfect picture of what I think of when I think of the word, “mosey”. There wasn’t any rush. There wasn’t anything terribly pressing. Nobody had to get somewhere. It wasn’t a ghost town, but you start to understand why people use that phrase to describe places that aren’t teeming with traffic congested with the commotion of commerce.

People were standing on the sidewalks starring at us as we glided into town, diesel engine idling with a guttural racket that is music to a rednecks ears. It was almost as if the onlookers knew that strangers were in town and were making plans as vigilantes to keep a watchful eye on our whereabouts and goings on.

Everyone would wave at you…literally everyone. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know you, if you had taken the pains to get to their obscure little town, the least they could do was welcome you with a bit of hospitable gesticulation. Some would grab the tip of their cowboy hat, some would nod with a subtle closing of the eyes, some would release their grip on their steering wheel momentarily lifting their callused fingers and bending their swollen knuckles, and some would wink as they tilted their head off to the side. It wasn’t like walking into Cheers in the heart of Boston where everyone knows your name, but it was a cross-cultural experience nonetheless. They didn’t know our names, but they acknowledged our presence, something communities nowadays don’t do, and furthermore, don’t know how to do anyone. It’s amazing how big of a wave is created by a simple wave…the kind of wave you catch that carries your heart to shore.

Doug started pointing at people and places, rehearsing memories and misadventures, and retelling stories filled with sorrow and spirit. I was taking in the locale with all the photographic memory I could muster. I was trying to burn images into my brain so that I could retrieve them from the rolodex of recollections when I needed to draw on them for strength. Moments like this are more than events, they are experiences that put juice back in my battery…and that’s what life had been lately, a battery of batterings. I needed these experiences to lodge themselves within the immaterial part of my being so that I could call upon them in a time of dire need.

As we took a left turn and left the little epicenter of life in the downtown area, we strolled into a little neighborhood where the realtor lived that Doug had been working with to sell his property. There were animal skins on the sides of sheds, Elk antlers hanging over garage doors, and pickup trucks from the late seventies in driveways (without rust I might add).

As we pulled into the driveway of the realtor’s house, he waved at us from his dinning room table. You could see his big smile through the spacious bay window. I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to meet my first Augustan native.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Chapter 14 - "the sluggish sunrise"

After my traditional 15 minute morning shower, we packed our belongings, grabbed some grub at the complimentary continental breakfast and stepped out into the frigid world yet to awaken. What the shower didn’t accomplish in perking me up, the nippiness of the natural Montana air did. I felt my wet hair freezing to my scalp. I was still having trouble softening to the idea that I was heading into another full day of hyperactivity without a full night of sleepy inactivity. The only thing bitterer than the air that morning was my unfeeling heart. I wasn’t in the mood.

The sky was unusually dark. I was looking toward the east to see any smidgen of a sign of a sunrise, but there wasn’t even a faint glow. Now I don’t know much about the cosmological science of the standard sunup, but I know that you can begin to see the colorful radiance long before you can see the actual sun. The fact that it was pitch black started to make me wonder how long it would be before the sun actually crested the horizon and cast its rays across the wild Montana terrain drenching the mountains with illuminative glory. We drove for about a half an hour and still there was just the early signs of dawn. We were fast approaching the foothills of the Rockies, the place were Doug raved about this one-in-a-million piece of “picture perfect”. But there was only one problem, we woke up way to early and the sun wasn’t rising according to our skewed schedule. It got to the point were Doug pulled off to the side of the road and we waited for like a half an hour for the sun to make its sluggish ascent and eventual appearance. This is where my fatigue kicked in like nobodies business.

Here we were, pulled off to the side of the road waiting on nature to wake up when we could have stayed in bed for another hour without missing a blasted thing. I wanted to close my eyes and catch some shut-eye, but the sky was coming alive and I didn’t know when that first sunbeam would cast its joy upon the sleepy mountain range.

We got out of the truck and took pictures of each other. I didn’t smile because my face didn’t work yet. I needed a massage to loosen my lazy muscles. I stood stiff as a plank as Doug captured that moment with his camera. We were out on the flat plains which only made the wind howl and hiss all the more. The wind chill made it feel like 12 degrees. And if it feels like 12 degrees, that’s exactly what it is in my book. We hopped back in the truck and waited on the sun. After what seemed like a coon’s age, a sliver of sun emerged and a shaft of light shot across the landscape bringing with it color and, best of all, warmth. The mountains seemed to wipe the sleeping seeds out of their crusty eyes, put on some dazzling lip stick and alluring eye-liner, and then some blush and powder to soften the harsh and unsympathetic features of the Wild West. It was another one of those moments when your eyes are too small to take it all in and you find your lenses trying to focus like an old camcorder trying to figure out which object to zoom in on. Things kept going blurry, but every now and then, my eyes would lock into focus and I would catch a glimpse that would bring Marilyn Manson to his/her knees. Whatever you get when resplendence French kisses transcendence, that’s what I got in that holy moment.

What the shower did for the first 20 minutes of my day, and the chilly morning air did for the next 20 minutes; that’s what the sight of those glowing monolithic mounds of majesty did for the next 20 minutes. And that, my friends, is how I made it through the sleep deprivation of this whole trip, one glorious experience to the next, each one keeping me awake and getting me to the next shot of adrenaline. You hear of adrenaline junkies, I think I became one on this trip, not out of intentionality, but necessity.

After several minutes of taking in this sight-for-sore-eyes, we pulled back onto the blacktop and made our way to the humble town of Augusta, the joy of man’s desiring, the place on which we set our hearts from the beginning of this pilgrimage, the destination that made the arduous riggers of this irrational journey worthwhile. A town that got trapped in the early 1900’s…purposely. I thought I was having an adventure thus far, but I came to find out I was trifling with child’s play. The best was yet to come.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chapter 13 - "sleeping without a fan"

After the Arby’s debacle, we drove a thousand feet down the road to Day’s Inn. As we drew nigh to the contemporary bed and breakfast, I started forgetting the woes of the last couple hours and found myself giddy about the prospect of sleep. It was a newer facility, nothing fancy, but it did have complimentary oranges at the front desk and that’s pretty palatial if you ask me.

We drug our luggage into the lobby and made some small talk with the woman behind the counter. She told us a wee bit about her story and we returned the favor. She was pleasantly humored by our exploits the last couple days and gave us a little money off the going rate as a gesture of compassion. We climbed the stairs to the second floor and barged into our humble abode. It had the smell of a hotel room that was supposed to be smoke-free, but there was this faint aroma that some people along the way had been secretly “smokin’ in the boy’s room” if ya know what I mean. For all practical purposes, it was a castle compared to the extended cab of a Ford truck.

I wasted no time in stripping down and jumping into the shower. It felt so refreshing just to stand under the cleansing flow of heated water. I could have stayed there all day, but my penchant for sleep beckoned me toward my awaiting queen-size bed. I dried off, shaved, slicked my hair straight back like Pat Riley, put on a fresh pair of skivvies, brushed my bucks, popped a zit or two that had surfaced over the course of the trip, and made a running dive into the sack. I piled the pillows behind my head to watch the news with Doug before retiring. The weather looked decent for the upcoming days, though a little chilly. No big deal. I was ready to brave the West, come hell or high water.

We shut the lights off and it hit me in a hurry that my struggles weren’t over quite yet. You see, I’m used to sleeping with a fan. Not just a little fan, but a big box fan. Not just a big box fan on low, but a big box fan on high. I’ve actually been growing immune to the sound of a box fan on high and have been toying around with the idea of purchasing a barn fan at an agricultural auction. So the idea of sleeping without a fan is akin to being persecuted in the final days of the Tribulation. I can’t think of any greater torture in the end times than to be stripped of my fan during the night. I would rather be disemboweled with a spoon. Made to listen to a Tina Turner record. Forced to eat my own runny excrement. But not sleep without a fan, anything but that!

I laid there stone-still in the darkness hoping that I was so tired that I would be the first to fall asleep. Do you ever get that feeling? “Please God, please make me fall asleep first or this could be the longest night of my life!” The more you think like that, the harder it is to relax because your brain is listening for heaving breathing from you roommate. I was squeezing my eyes shut trying with everything that was in me to fall asleep…but it’s called falling asleep for a reason. I was trying to climb asleep. And the harder I tried the further I was from actually drifting off.

It didn’t take but about 3 minutes for my friend to start breathing heavy through his nose. I thought to myself, “Self, if he is a snorer, so help me. I will slit my throat with my comb.” I buried my head under a couple pillows and laid my right arm over the top of them to squeeze them tightly to my ear. It didn’t matter. The more I tried to drown out the sound, the louder his breathing got. I then started bargaining with God, “God, if you will prevent this obnoxious breathing from turning into a full blown snore, I will become a missionary in Baghdad. Anything Lord, just please hold this panting at its current sound decibel.” I think I heard God giggle off in the corner. About a minute later, Doug was snoring with such an assortment of grunts and snorts that I felt like I was at the county fair in the swine expo pavilion. It was out of control. I was so tired. So very, very tired. But there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I was sleeping under these noise-polluted conditions. Not only was I not sleeping with the white noise of a box fan, I was locked in a hotel room with a Rhinoceros in rut. I could tell he was sleeping like a killer over there, and I had more than enough time in my midnight melancholy to think of a hundred ways to roll him over without him waking up. I even thought of a couple ways of killing him so that not even C.S.I. would be able to trace it back to me.

Needless to say, it was the longest night of my life. I think I may have fallen asleep somewhere between 4 and 6, but I’m not completely sure. At best it was a half-sleep where you are quasi-aware of where you are and who you’re with the whole time your body is hibernating.

The thing that made it worse yet was that Doug wanted to get up early, before the sunrise, so that we could see the sun catch the mountain range with a blanket of colors only to be seen at the ungodly hour of 6am. I wanted to get up for that, too. But I really wanted to sleep even more at that point. I was bordering on a sleep deprivation psychosis, the kind that makes you hallucinate with your eyes open. When the alarm went off, I wanted to chuck it across the room in a fit of rage. But when I saw my buddy Doug skipping around the room like a frolicking fawn in a field, I didn’t want to rain on his “well-rested” parade. I swallowed my anger, bit my tongue, and hit the shower again. I needed that shower to do something miraculous inside of me. Like Naman dipping himself in that dirty river seven times, I needed this shower to cleanse the leprosy of my lethargy and inject pep into my step for the day’s activities.

For about 20 minutes, it did just that. 20 minutes.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Chapter 12 - "the thread of fatigue and intrigue"

We made our way into Great Falls and it’s amazing how quickly the excessive surplus of food marts and food joints immediately caused our hearts to get picky. We passed by Applebee’s and Damon’s and T.G.I. Fridays looking for a “Ma and Pa Montana Diner”. My buddy said that they were the ones that had the fresh, home-grown beef that melted in your mouth. As he described the difference, my mouth filled with slimy saliva excreting from every gland, squirting out every which way. I was swallowing down big gulps of spit in gleeful anticipation.

But I started getting an odd feeling when we moved through the heart of the city to the outskirts on the other side. I felt like we passed up some pretty solid options in search for the perfect place. Doug was convinced that he could find something on the western fringe, but the further we went, the more bleak that hope looked. I felt my insides starting to twist in knots and my body started to get hot with boiling blood coursing through my veins. The panic that we might have to drive another hour to the next town was about causing my right eye to shudder and twitch. As the lights of the city faded in the review mirror, my soul sank into a mini-manic depression.

Doug felt like there had to be a good greasy spoon off one of the upcoming exits, but the lateness of the evening and the distance between exits didn’t offer my spirit much to cling to. I could tell he was starting to get a little hot himself, beating himself up under his breath with words of disbelief and self-depreciation. The next exit was 6 miles down the road and a green sign said that there was a motel, a casino and a saloon/restaurant off that outlet. We were hoping that all the difficulty up to this point was planned by God because he had something even better for us in mind. Not so.

We pulled off the exit and found the place the signs advertised. After getting out of the truck and making our way to the entrance, it became clear that the bar section of the establishment was open, but that the diner branch had closed an hour earlier. It was almost 10 o’clock by this time and every piece of sand that squeezed through the hour glass made the hope of finding one of these legendary “Montana eateries” more remote. We got back in the truck and saw that there was a little hotel/bar/restaurant hybrid across the road. It looked more run down than the one we just tried if that was even possible.

We walked into the joint and immediately had the feeling we weren’t in the right place to find a steak. The woman behind the wet bar had a low cut shirt that seemed to go down to her navel. She was hardened, a touch over weight, and awfully rude. Especially when we asked if they had a menu. She pointed to a dry erase white board that had the words on it, “Hot dogs - $2.00” That was the menu. Tube Steaks. It was that or nothin’. I wasn’t doing tube steaks…not me, not here, not now! We turned tail and got the heck out of there. By this time, my innards were at a bitter boil. Between the bodily fatigue and the steak intrigue I was hanging by a psychotic thread.

There wasn’t any other option but to turn around and head back to the city which was now about 15 minutes behind us. It was a silent and seething 15 minutes, indeed. Neither one of us talked. There was just a lot of heaving breathing; I guess they call it hyperventilating. Roads signs indicated that a Days Inn was just off the highway, so we took the off ramp to a stop sign where we made a pretty abrupt halt if my memory serves me correctly. Someone was broken down on the side of the road, so we rolled down our window and asked if we could help silently hoping that they would say, “No, we’ve already called someone and they’re on their way.” Thankfully, that’s just what they said. We took a left and started the expedition to find the Day’s Inn. What we didn’t realize was that it wasn’t right off the arterial highway; it was about 6 miles into a sprawling suburb of Great Falls. I was hot. When we finally tracked it down after twists and turns and road signs pointing to smaller road signs, we decided to check in after we looked for a little dive to get a big steak. We stopped off and asked someone where we could locate such a place and, low and behold, we got someone to guide us to what they described as “just what we were looking for”.

Three more miles down the mole hole, we finally came upon the place said to be famous for their succulent steaks. We parked, and crossed the street waltzing toward the primary entrance, but just as we were about to climb the steps and open the door, a couple guys informed us that they had just shut the restaurant down for the night. I shook my head and felt my insides resigning to the fact that we weren’t getting our steak that evening. There was one more possibility, but something inside of me was saying, “Toss in the towel, son. This is your lot tonight.” With clinched teeth and smoke billowing out my ears, we hopped back into the truck and decided to hit a local Arby’s we saw a few miles back near the Inn that we were fixing to stay in that night. It was open, though we were the only patrons in the building with a bunch of rambunctious teenage employees engaging in adolescent fowl-d-rowel behind the counter. Typically I would be watching employees such as this like a hawk making sure they executed the making of my sandwich and the scooping of my fries and the pouring of my coke without incident, but in the shape I was in, I could have cared less whether they hacked a logy in my grilled chicken sandwich and spread it around with the jack knife in their pocket. I was going to eat anything that was put before me at that point, and that was that!

My buddy and I sat there inhaling our deep fried meal in somewhat of a stupor. How did such high hopes turn into something so pedestrian, so hackneyed. I could barely talk I was so spent, so deflated by the rigors of the reality that we were dealt, limp as a balloon leaking its last little wisp of helium.

As we finished our meal, my stomach was full and empty all at the same time. All that I could think about now was sleeping. No one could take that away from me. The hotel was clean and close. Nothing could stand in between me and that pillow. I was going to take a hot shower, shave my last shave, and slip under the sheets like a recovering narcoleptic. But as was the emerging custom, nothing on this trip was panning out as it was planned out.

Ok, almost nothing.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Chapter 11 - "steak and sleep"

Even with the intake of overwhelming beauty, the day was getting long and my stomach was growling with pangs of hunger. We decided to drive as far as we could on the tank of gas we had and to finish out the day with a thick, juicy steak. I had that slab of meat dangling in front of me for nearly 8 hours of hungry driving. We hadn’t had anything but snack since our breakfast at McDonalds in Minnesota. Snacks leave me feeling lethargic and slow of mind. I start feeling like I’m turning into what I’m eating. Cheesy armpits, oily forehead, and salty perspiration coating my nasty body like a shellacked armoire. The small of my back starts smarting no matter how hard I work at getting comfortable. My wallet puts a divot in my butt, my legs feel arthritic and atrophied, my eyes have that throbbing ache just behind them that makes me feel like they’re about to pop out of my sockets hanging their by nerves and strands of soft tissue.

All I can think about is steak. I find myself fantasizing about it, “If I can just eat a steak, everything will be better. I just need to consume some red meat.” These ruminations kept me going the last three hours. The scenery wasn’t cutting it anymore. The splendor of nature can feed my heart, but it doesn’t do much for my stomach.

Don’t get me wrong, the land was still bewitching as all get out. At times, it would make me forget how bad I needed to go to the bathroom or how desperate I was for sustenance. My eyes would dart to and fro taking in the ever changing texture of Montana. Night fell on the spacious grasslands and for about an hour or so, we drove toward the glow of the city of Great Falls. That was the city that had my steak in refrigeration waiting in glorious suspense to fulfill the purpose for which it was created. I’m not a lover of cows, I’m a lover of cow. Medium-rare cow to be more specific.

The glow of Great Falls also reminded my heart of another basic longing of the human heart, a soft bed. We were planning on finding a hotel after dinner and bedding down for the night. Sleep deprivation is sometimes even more transfixing than food deprivation. You can live without food for quite sometime, but I’ve heard it said that it only takes a few days without sleep and you’re a goner. I tried to calculate the amount of deep sleep I’d had in the past 48 hours and I came up with a number somewhere between 5-7 hours. When I don’t get good sleep, I start to daydream about cotton and pillow tops and soft linens and dreamy cloud-like objects floating about slowly in the atmosphere of my brain.

In my mind, there was a battle of deprivations, a pillow pitted against a steak. It was like a cage match…no holds barred. For the time being, the steak had the pillow in a full-nelson fueled by the strength of my meaty desire, but the pillow was a formidable foe. There were a few moments where there would be a unexpected reversal, and the steak pinned down on the mat getting ready to tap out in surrender. Just when you felt like the steak was about to throw in the towel, it would regain unprecedented vigor and regain dominance. It was exhausting having this cage match take place inside my body.

After what seemed like an eternity of driving in the dark (it was only about an hour), we coasted into the suburbs of Great Falls. I can’t tell you how enlivening it was to see restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations. Places with parking lot lights. Places with two stories. Places with signs of life. Places with people.

Sleep and Steak…my life boiled down to these two basic needs. I couldn’t wait for either; I felt like I would have shed blood for both.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Chapter 10 - "to cry over beauty"

Glory divine. Glory defined. That’s what real mountains are. Pictures turn them into a pigmy image of the real thing. A dwarfed duplication. A cheap replica. Something you’d see inside the jacket of a peddler on the crowded streets of New York City. Gucci…yeah right! You can slap logos on counterfeits, but you get what you pay for. You always get what you pay for.

And the cost of this trip only went to prove that. The diesel cost was over $4.00 a gallon in every state we frequented. The odometer showed over 1,500 miles and we were still hours from our destination. We had one sleepless night under our belt, and I wasn’t expecting much different in the nights ahead. I was taking 6 days off from work. I left my wife home with three girls under the age of eight. Across the board, a price was being paid for this experience. You get what you pay for every single time…and we were paying for nothing short of REAL. We didn’t want photographs or secondhand stories; we wanted to be eyewitnesses of the majesty. And every bit of cost incurred upon seeing those mountains became worth it all in one moment’s time. The rapture that filled my starving soul was priceless. The nourishment came so fast and furious that it felt like my spiritual stomach had shrunken so severely that I couldn’t ingest it all. My insides were so desiccated that beauty, at the rate I was experiencing it, couldn’t be digested fast enough. It started spilling over and pouring out my eyes.

It’s an amazing feeling to cry over beauty. Not tragedy or tension or trials. Not heartbreak or heartache, but heartthrob. An Edenic instinct kicks in and sends a tingling sensation down your spine like an electrical impulse that finally finds its spiritual socket. Its source. A tear forms in the corner of your eye and you can’t keep it from happening. You’re not making it happen either. That’s when you know something mystical is occurring. Mystical defined is something that you can’t make happen or keep from happening. You simply get to share a moment with eternity. It calls the shots. It directs the traffic. There aren’t enough times in my life when I’ve had this sort of experience. Most of the time I’m making something happen or keeping something from happening. That could even be most people’s definition of life. A laborious straining to hold things together. An ongoing stressing to create something ex nihilo. It gets old. It’s gets cold. It grows mold.

But when your insides start telling your outsides something, you listen. I’ve always thought that tears are the mouth of the heart. They speak the unspoken. They convey the unspeakable. All the wordless wonder within gets a chance to burst forth like a geyser. I especially like it when I don’t feel the pressure to wipe those tears aside in embarrassment….when I can just let them run until they drip off my nose or chin, or until they evaporate right off my face or neck. Why do we wipe tears away but for others? Why do we seek to rid ourselves of their cleansing baptism? Why not savor the saline, tasting the truth in those tears? I don’t think tears were meant to be wiped away. Especially when those tears are caused by beauty.

You have to pay the price to pursue your passion. I learned that in college from one of my buddies. And it’s true. You get what you pay for. But this time, we were getting more than we were paying for. All you had to do is look up, gaze upon the nearing mountain range, feel the tears coming to your eyes…and you knew deep down, there are some things that money can’t buy. They are priceless. Mountains are one of those things. Whatever you pay to get to see them with your own eyes could never be worth more than you exerience. At least that’s what my tears were saying to me.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Chapter 9 - "aesthetic foreplay"

As sudden and shocking as the landscape change was from Minnesota to North Dakota, that was nothing compared to the transformation that occurred on the North Dakota/Montana border. The land seemed to spread and sprawl like outstretched arms during a morning yawn. It couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes deep into Montana that we pulled off the highway and preceded westerly on a two-lane country road. Most of the time I hate even detours that take us off the fast-track, but there was something inside of me that craved something other than monotony and redundancy of the expressway. There’s something that just screams “safety” what you’re on a thruway…like an elk hunt on a fenced-in game farm. It doesn’t matter where you are, whenever you’re on a four-lane highway, you know you’re no where near out-of-bounds.

The road we merged onto was slender and largely unmarked. There were certain stretches that were so straight and so long that you quite literally watch the road get narrower and narrower until it finally became one with the horizon. I don’t know how far you can actually see until the earth bends out of view due to its global shape, but it seemed like these roads fell off the end of the earth. (that is if the flat earth theory was still in play) So many visuals looked exactly like the pictures on hallmark cards and Barnes and Noble pictorial books on sale for $9.95. You could imagine a title over the picture, “Dreams are forever.” or “Life is not a problem to be solved, but an adventure to be lived.” You know what I’m talking about? It’s just weird when it’s not a book or a card or a movie, but a living reality that you’re in the fat middle of. You are in the book, you are on the card, you are in the movie!

My buddy, Doug, said that it wouldn’t be long before we’d see some wild antelope. He told me to keep my eyes peeled. Antelope. I started to sing that song in my head, “Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play…” This was really happening; I was keeping my eyes open for wild antelope. It felt like National Geographic or the new series Planet Earth. I wasn’t even sure how to scope them out, but I tried nonetheless. Just then, Doug exclaimed, “There they are.” I looked over his lap and out the driver’s side window. Sure as the sky is blue, a herd of antelope were grazing out in the weathered field scrounging around for greenery. Greenery was hard to come by just yet. The snow had just melted off and the land was a couple weeks away from the spring-time resurrection. I kind of liked the bucolic, windswept look myself.

It seemed like once we spotted one herd of antelope, they started to come out of the woodwork, so to speak. Droves of these skinny creatures speckled the landscape. They would pick up their heads and just stoically watch us whisk by. You got the feeling that if they saw you even slightly slow down, they would have darted off faster than people do after church when they feel convicted. They seem uptight and fidgety, like they were stuck up or something. I guess that’s ok. I’m sure deep down under than cocky veneer they have supple deer-like hearts.

About every hour or so, we would make our way through a little western town. The contents of the town would be a dive of a gas station, a little general store with canned goods and tobacco, a makeshift casino, a John Deere dealership and a pawn shop of sorts. It was crazy. Those were the essentials in almost every little village. Home-made signs would line the road saying things like, “Meth splatters, Math matters.” I’m just making that up you understand, but you get the point. There wasn’t anything else to do but mate, do crystal meth, and buy combines. I got the feeling that I wouldn’t want to live in one of these little communities for more than a day or two. Something felt ingrown and crossbred even at a drive-by glance.

We were still 5 hours from the Rockies, so the land we were crossing was primarily ranches and more ranches filled with beef cattle and more beef cattle. I’m not saying it wasn’t a cool experience, but it was starting to feel more cross-cultural by the minute…at least for about a two hour stretch on the most eastern side of Montana. As we hit the center of the state, the land became more and more brilliant and beautiful. Big mountains were towering high in the distance. You felt like they were less than ten miles away, but the more you drove the more it appeared that they were backpedaling to avoid being caught. Even so, I would keep my eyes locked on them like a hawk. The first mountain sighting was intoxicating.

There are hills, and then there are mountains. In the east, we call mounds, hills and hills, mountains. But they are no such thing. Mountains, according to my simpleton definition, have tree lines. Tree lines are places on a hill where it gets so high that trees can’t survive due to the climate and the thin air and the infertile soil. Mountains are so far above sea level that your ears start popping and filling up with pressure like a helium balloon. Mountains have snow on them year round because they are so high, it never does warm up enough to put on a pair of shorts and a tank top. It’s cool year round. They carry on a close friendship with clouds since they are always bumping into each other. This is mountainous behavior. This is the everyday life of a mountain.

As we drew closer the first mountain range, I felt my heart wake and race. I couldn’t wait to hit the foothills, which are nothing more than aesthetic foreplay, a veritable foretaste of glory divine.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Chapter 8 - "peeing on the side of the road"

I sort of glazed over something that, to me, is quite significant for a man. The unabashed opportunity to urinate in the wide open plains unrestricted by porcelain bowls and confining splash guards. There is something quite “masculating” about pulling off the road, dropping your drawers right then and there and leaving your mark on the sands of time.

This is obviously only possible because there are stretches in North Dakota where you won’t see any on-coming or forth-going traffic for nearly 20 to 30 minutes at a time. There aren’t bored cops holed up in speed traps ready to pounce on you for the slightest traffic infraction. There aren’t homes with large bay windows overlooking the interstate; in fact, you could spin around in a circle and not see a single house with the naked eye. So, needless to say, peeing on the side of the road is inconsequential at best. "If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? My own rendering of that famous bit of philosophical nonsense based on this story would be, “If a man takes a wiz on the side of the road and no one is around to see it, does it make a puddle?” I think not.

When I think of North Dakota I think of peeing on the side of the road. The two go hand in hand. The reason for this association is simple. No one lives in that state. Ok, maybe a handful of humans here and there, but compared to the sheer mass of land, the ratio of humans to acreage is probably 1 to 100,000. I have no evidence beyond that which my own eyes saw as we traversed the long and lonely highway stretched out across that empty State in our Union. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by this fact. I was hoping that land existed out there that remained feral, untamed by the machine of man. And it was so.

It didn’t take much imaginative energy to picture Indians sitting on horses atop mesas or teepees organized into makeshift communities at riverbeds tucked in gorges protected by haggard hills and walls of loose shale. The land looked like something you’d see in a Western movie, only instead of blue screen technology and masterful CG effects emulating authentic, it was the real McCoy, pregnant with pure…a pure that pierces you through arresting your affections and holding them hostage. A pure than makes so many other things in life seem so vile and compromised, adulterated and sullied by society. You can’t see the counterfeit until you encounter the original. And once you’re ruined by the real, it’s hard to be content anymore with cheap affectations.

So when you pull of the highways and byways in places such as this, peeing in the ditch becomes almost holy. You’re leaving a part of yourself behind. You’re marking a territory where you momentarily paused to smell the roses (there were no roses, but there was the distinct smell of thawing earth which is incomparably better in my opinion). And the land soaks it up, absorbing that part of you into itself, nevermore to be the same upon your departure. As you drench the earth in that sacred moment, your eyes gaze across the open range with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare that you only see in a men’s public bathroom where guys stand over hospitable urinals ogling at the wall that is two feet in front of them. It’s so much different when you’re surveying the mosaic contours of the North Dakotan prairies instead of gawking at the prosaic panels of tile covered in that musty condensation that can only be found in nasty public restrooms. Trust me; you just have to relieve yourself in the West to know of what I speak. It’s nigh unto heaven.

After what felt like days in North Dakota we crossed into Montana in the middle of the afternoon. We were picking up free hours along the way as we moved West because of the time change. We were robbing Peter to eventually have to pay Paul, but you don’t think of those things at the front end of trips such as this. To me, they were free hours…free hours to enjoy what could quite possible be the most glorious state in America. Free hours to get lost in a land that can only be described as enchanting.

The drive wasn’t even close to over, but somehow being in Montana made it seem so.