Doug and Laurel Go West

Day 7: Saturday 7/5/2003

Odometer: 2009.4 miles
Near Billings, Montana

Pompeii’s Pillar is like Devil’s Tower for midgets. The view from the very top is damned fine, and you get to see Clark’s (of Lewis and Clark) graffitio. (He wrote his name and the date) According to the visitor’s center, the Lewis and Clark expedition split in two when it reached the Pacific Ocean. After nine more months of amazing discoveries, the Lewis expedition and the Clark expedition reunited. I keep wondering what that must have been like.

and then all these men from the expeditions embracing, saying the 1800s equivalent of “Yo!”

Were they talking all at once?

“We saw this pillar, right? But it was HUGE! I wrote my name on it.”
“Yeah, neat, but listen, we saw these Indians and had this HUGE fight and then we saw this MASSIVE-“
“Yeah, yeah and then we saw this HUGE herd of buffalo and these weird-ass flowers…”

Seriously. Think about it. What was it like? Wouldn’t you love to have been there?

[later] Laurel came up with this. The band Seether got its name from a lyric from another band, Veruca Salt. Veruca Salt got its name from a character from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Or, if they got it from the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) So it’s the only band we can think of whose name is a direct quotation from a band whose name is also a direct quotation.

[later] I came up with another. I think there is a band called Riders on the Storm. If I am right, then we have Riders on the Storm ß The Doors ß Adoulus Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

I’m a fan of Teddy Roosevelt. Before I read a biography of him, I had little interest in history. But the more you learn about him, the more you want to know. So it was very exciting to go to the Theodore Roosevelt national park.

When Teddy Roosevelt came to the West he was a dandy from New York. He agreed to go into the ranching business with two seasoned partners, on the condition they build him a new shack to live in, because the existing one would not do. The new shack, Theodore Roosevelt’s first home in the West that he loved so much, has been preserved and stands outside the Theodore Roosevelt national forest. Laurel and I took the tour. The guide started out by telling us about how this new shack was luxurious for its time, and then we walked in to this tiny shack with a bedroom, kitchen, and “other” room. I asked how this could possibly be considered luxurious. He gave a look that said, “Glad you asked, since I was going to do a spiel on that anyway” and he took us through the shack, pointing out every thing that was considered nonessential and unusual for its time. For example, the room partitions. The dividing of the shack into separate rooms made it harder to heat, and in fact there were two stoves instead of the customary one because of that eccentricity. The bed had sheets, which was completely ridiculous to the ranchers (more to wash) but Roosevelt insisted on them. I don’t want to try to summarize the whole thing now, but I would advocate going on this tour of a very tiny shack.

I asked the tour guide the obvious question – here TR was, in the rough and tumble West, getting sheets sent to him from New York, wearing eyeglasses (at the time NOBODY out there wore eyeglasses, if your vision was bad you took it like a man), having his own room and bookshelves and all… was he harassed and made fun of? The guide went on a long speech that I thought was inspirational. He said that, at first, everyone thought him a figure of fun, and only tolerated him because he paid his share to get into the business. He wasn’t the greatest rider, shooter, or rancher. But the other ranchers couldn’t believe his tenacity. They were impressed by the fact that after they all were ready to stop and rest for the night, he would be out there on his horse, practicing and improving. They couldn’t believe his limitless energy, the fact that he would never give up, and that he was always cheerful about it. And how eventually, he earned their respect and complete admiration.

There was a Roosevelt museum in the visitor’s center, which talked about how the Republican party tried to get rid of him by making him vice-president (One objector said, “Are you aware that you are putting that madman a heartbeat away from the presidency?”) They didn’t go seriously into how they eventually drove him out of the party, but they did talk about how well his third party candidacy did – how he defeated the Republican but lost to Wilson. They also had the shirt.

One of my favorite Theodore Roosevelt stories occurred when he was campaigning against Wilson and Taft. He was due to give a speech, and an assassin shot him in the chest. Bam! He refused to go to the hospital, because he had an Idea. He started to give the speech, and then apologized for speaking too quietly. “It is because someone did THIS” and he opened to coat so people could see the blood dripping out of him. “But it will take more than a BULLET to stop the BULL MOOSE PARTY!” He continued to speak for a half hour before they dragged him off to a hospital. His opponents, Wilson and Taft, had a great deal of respect for him, and refused to campaign while he recuperated. For a few weeks, the presidential campaign just stopped until Roosevelt recovered.

The museum had the shirt. The shirt he was wearing. The shirt with a bullet hole in the chest area. I was looking right at it. I would have stopped speaking and gone to the hospital. And there was the bullet hole. And I was looking at it.

The park itself was wonderful. As Laurel and I drove around, we saw a sleeping buffalo. Laurel snapped a picture. The flash and the noise woke him up. Evidently, buffalo are a little more cranky outside of Yellowstone. He gave us a foul look, and started to get up, looking right at us. Would he have charged? I don’t know; I kept driving. Quickly.

After we left the park, we were in North Dakota proper. There was nothing else on our agenda, nothing else we wanted to see. So I had an idea – rather than drive, camp, and drive, why not just drive all night and get to our final destination, Laurel’s Mother’s house in the Minnesota north woods? I found out to my shock that Laurel had never done that – the late night hell-drive to a comfortable bed. I love those drives… that state of mind you get into after a marathon road experience. She agreed to do it.

We needed sustenance, so we stopped at a burger joint where you phone in your order from your tables, and then stopped at a Dairy Queen because one of us insisted on a half hot-fudge, half cherry sundae. It was very good. We spoke to about four North Dakotans during this process. Now, I don’t claim it was a fair sample of the population, but I can say that 100% of the North Dakotans I spoke to seemed as if they were just waiting anxiously for their own death. Worse than Disneyland employees, who at least have the anima left to force an unnatural smile.

We drove and drove, with the picture of a bed at Laurel’s mom’s dancing in my head. Laurel cautioned that, since some of her siblings might be there, we might have to make do with a couch. I was fine with that. I was enjoying the trip.

Doug’s Camping Tip #7: Never assume a couch will be available without verbal confirmation

It started to rain and lightning when we passed by a metal-sculpture park which advertised the Worlds Largest Metal Sculpture. I suggested it would be a great place to visit in a lightning storm. Then we saw a sign for the world’s largest Holstein cow. We stopped for that. It was a gigantic cow statue on a hill. The rain was about to come in Earnest, but I insisted on getting out of the car, and climbing up the hill, so I could pretend to milk it. I am odd.

We drove and drove, with the picture of a bed at Laurel’s mom’s dancing in my head, even though Laurel called her mom and found out that her entire family was up there, and we were not going to get a bed, or a couch, but we could lay out the sleeping bags on a patch of floor. It was too late to find a campsite, anyway. We were thinking that we might just pitch our tent in Mom’s backyard. Usually a kid’s camping experiences start with the tent in the backyard, and ours would end that way.

We stopped for gas, talking to a biker who was chain smoking right by the pump. What if there had been SPILLED GAS? We would all be dead. But I guess in this day and age it would take a real idiot to spill a significant amount of gas. Still, I didn’t like the fact that he was smoking. There was this infestation of bugs that Laurel and I have never seen before. Hundreds of thousands of them, swarming mostly by the lights, but swooping down and getting on the car, on the pumps, in Laurel’s hair, in my hair, and finally in my ears. The biker was mildly complaining about them… evidently when you ride without a helmet as he does, the bugs get into your face. And that is dangerous (he pointed out while he threw the lit butt onto the ground by the gas pump). Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. I left the pump in my tank, and went into the station, to wait for it to fill and automatically shut off.

Trouble is, it didn’t. Some girl came into the station saying that there was a gas pump in a purple car that did not automatically shut off and there was gasoline everywhere. About five gallons of gas were on the ground before she noticed and shut it off. We paid for the gas, and apologized to the attendant, who would have to go and clean it up before another insane firebug biker arrived. “Don’ worry about it. It happens. I’ll just go and clean it up. Out there. With all the bugs.” He was not a happy guy.

We drove and drove, finally reaching the dirt road that led to our goal. Laurel was driving at this point, the twisty turny long path. “You know, ” she said, “when I was a kid this road seemed really, really, long. And now I’m driving it and it doesn’t seem that long at all.” “Well, Laurel, I think I’ve spoiled you” I said. I thought it was a much funnier thing to say then she did.

At 4 AM we had no desire to wake up the household, looking for a place to put our sleeping bags, and we weren’t going to pitch the tent just to sleep in it for three hours. So we parked the car in the driveway, and put back the seats. Yes, it was time for another night sleeping in the car. I knew that when we woke up, it would be to the face of her brother looking in the window, and then there would be Mom, Emily, Kjel (saddled forever with a silent J in his name), Joanna and Michael, and we would be answering “how was your trip” questions, and Laurel would have people to talk to that weren’t me, and there would be an internet connection in the basement and I would have to figure out how long politeness would make me wait before I checked my email, and there would probably be breakfast out and merry conversation and I would start reading my novel at some point and the food from the cooler would go in the refrigerator and we’d return the camp stove and the bottles of water that were so important would go in the fridge with other bottles of water and there would be a big scrabble board that would make the tiny one obsolete. I guess what I’m saying is that I knew I was going to close my eyes while still on the trip, and when I opened them again I would not be on the trip anymore, and that these were the last few moments of the trip, and I was too tired to make them last. I squeezed Laurel’s hand – she was half asleep but she squeezed back. I closed my eyes, and I doubt that I stayed awake for five minutes.

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