... Never has your Buick/ found this forward a gear.
For the 21st-century record, you can’t buy a tuna salad in Reedpoint.
The lone eatery in town is the Waterhole Saloon, under new management as of May 2017. The old sign outside, across and kitty-corner from two towering grain elevators, reads: “A friendly place. It ain’t no city bar.” Inside, the Saturday special on Memorial Day weekend was a ham sandwich smothered in cheese, on bread from a local baker. But no tuna salad here.
It’s pertinent because sometime in the 1960s or early '70s, Richard Hugo (1923-1982) celebrated the open road in a poem called “Driving Montana.” It began:
The day is a woman who loves you. Open.
Deer drink close to the road and magpies
spray from your car. Miles from any town
your radio comes in strong, unlikely
Mozart from Belgrade, rock and roll
from Butte. Whatever the next number,
you want to hear it. Never has your Buick
found this forward a gear. Even
the tuna salad in Reedpoint is good.
Among the tenets Hugo stressed when he taught creative writing at the University of Montana was the value of fresh and changing subject matter inside a poem.
“Most people are like me, I find,” he wrote in his 1979 how-to book “The Triggering Town.” “The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down.”
Good road trips are like that.
We talk of “Montana values” as though this state has a corner on some mystical concepts. On our roads it probably does. On, say, the campaign trail not so much.
It seems those values (and we) have long been shaped by driving Montana, by things farthest to the side that pass by fastest, by visions of Crazy Mountains or Sweetgrass Hills that loom broadside at sunset, then dance in and out of oblivion in our sideview mirrors.
Maybe you passed the miles as kids in the back seat, tracing with hands the rhythmic rise and fall of power lines that streaked by. Surely there’s something values-shaping when you top a barren Ravalli Hill on U.S. Highway 93 and the oh-my Mission Mountain peaks — Calowahcan and McDonald, Mountaineer and Daughter-of-the-Sun — explode onto the senses.
Then it’s off to new subjects.
Towns arrive ahead of imagined schedule.
Absarokee at one. Or arrive so late —
Silesia at nine — you recreate the day.
Where did you stop along the road
and have fun? Was there a runaway horse?
Hugo’s experience, based on a drive or imaginary drive or a collection of drives, is from an era when Montana’s interstate highway system was not complete. Controlled access and off ramps were new and somehow liberating ideas for a generation that could still stand to drive 55.
You imagine the road of Hugo’s poem led from his home in Missoula to Billings or so. Absarokee and Silesia are off I-90 to the south. The latter is a farming community in the lower Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone valley. The El Rancho Inn at the intersection of Highway 212 and Farewell Road is inviting but shuttered. You’re 40 miles — certainly not eight hours — from Absarokee, via the Joliet Road south of the Yellowstone to the outskirts of Columbus, then 13 miles up the Stillwater River.
It’s possible Hugo visited neither Silesia or Absarokee or, for that matter, Reedpoint to sample its tuna salad. Maybe he just liked their sounds. He preached to students of poetry that truth should conform to music, not the other way around.
“If the poem needs the word ‘black’ at some point and the grain elevator is yellow, the grain elevator may have to be black in the poem,” he wrote. “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.”
Did you park at that house, the one
alone in a void of grain, white with green
trim and red fence, where you know you lived
once? You remembered the ringing creek,
the soft brown forms of far off bison.
You must have stayed hours, then drove on.
In the motel you know you'd never seen it before.
A gas war hit Billings in the fall of 1966, dropping “cut-rate brands” to 23.9 cents a gallon for regular and 29.9 for premium. In May 2017, prices at Montana pumps ranged from $2.15 to $2.45 a gallon. The difference hardly matters when your Buick convertible or your foreign compact or one-ton dually finds so forward a gear. Call that a Montana value if you want.
Hugo’s purported route first followed a river, the Clark Fork of the Columbia, up to Butte and the Continental Divide. His rock and roll station, no doubt an AM, spewed static when it crossed under power lines and, if this was the late '60s, played the mind-bending sounds of Dylan, Zappa, the Mamas and the Papas and the Beatles.
You can still hear those songs on, say, KOPR 94.1, a frequency modulation “custom rock hits” station in Butte. In this century, amplitude modulation radio is usually limited to talk radio, so it’s a bit of a start to scan the AM waves north of Big Timber on a Sunday morning and catch the 1970s strains of Earth, Wind and Fire. Alas, “That’s the Way of the World” proves to be only an interlude from commercial break into a talk show host’s continuing treatise on Russian intervention in the U.S. election process.
New channel, new subject.
The ribbon was cut on I-90 over Homestake Pass in October 1966. Before that the route over the divide out of Butte was by winding, two-lane Pipestone Pass. Your Buick had to gear down going up, but cruising down the Whitehall side with the top down was akin to bliss.
These days there are few better down ramps leading to an illusion of the eastern plains than when I-90 rounds a bend off Homestake and pours out of the Boulder Batholith. You couldn’t say “whoa” if you wanted to, unless …
… you’re boxed in by three — three! — semis, then hit the orange diamonds of road construction. For interminable minutes or, likely, long seconds you’re in a rocking chair with no way out. Then you’re not, and your Buick jumps to 80.
Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to ...
Nothing is more entrancing than a summer sky show east of the mountains at 65 mph. You can’t feel it just by reading or writing about it, but at least try smelling sunrise painting the prairie over the Terry Badlands; thunder clouds rolling into the Judith Basin; dusk softening Haystack Butte and the Rocky Mountain Front beyond Highway 200.
... You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.
At the top of Judith Gap, where water drains north to the Missouri River or south to the Musselshell, a pronghorn grazes in a a field of green beside Highway 191. You have to stop and drink in the scene. Maybe 15 feet, maybe 50 yards from his or her head, is a tower of steel. It’s one in a jungle of 90 in the Judith Gap Wind Farm that rise 262 feet above the prairie and this ant of an antelope.
Shadows are still long in the early morning. Those of the churning 126-foot blades — each of which must have taken its own double or triple semi truck bed when it was hauled here in 2005 — skip across the fields to the far side of the highway. The sound is that of pure and resolute power. Climb back in your SUV and roar off north, with 790 AM out of Billings coming in strong. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” plays in its entirety. The antelope pays no mind.