We’re a thousand miles from nowhere, man, and it’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse before it gets any better!
Windows – The Thing
Persistent snow drifts. Sheets of ice. Car moving cross winds. Fog. Snow. White out conditions.
My nine-hour drive from Rapid City, South Dakota to Butte, Montana has been one of the worst and most grueling rides of my life.
The day had started off well. Actually, the night before. Rapid City’s a blue collar entity of low buildings, and far too many franchises and chains, spread out amongst low sedimentary hills and patches of pine. However, everyone I met was cool as Hell.
I met James at check-in, who could have been prepping to be a modern day Santa Claus with large-gauge lobes and tattoos. We discussed the navy and the coast guard, and traded stories about our fathers before I headed out and down icy steps to a Ruby Tuesday. I don’t eat at this chain, but they have a gluten-free menu and I wasn’t about to drive anywhere else. Rachael, a kind-hearted woman with more tats than James, made me feel welcomed, and brought over one amazing glass of red wine to go with the ribs and vegetables I had ordered. And in the morning, after a restless sleep, I entered the dining area.
All of the free breakfasts to date have been lackluster: chemical carb city. I passed them up for the protein bars I carry with me. But Brenda’s a sweetheart and made small omelets (I had two) and sausage. The coffee was fine and it was great to eat yogurt. Brenda, an older woman with straw hair who slumped over when she walked, never frowned. We had a great conversation about the New Year, and “No more politics!” as she exclaimed before I hit the road on a very full stomach.
And though I went west on 90 again, things went south when I took 212 North.
This is the “Warrior Trail Highway” to honor the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapahoe, who had made Colonel Cole’s Powder River Campaign a bust in 1865, and the road reconnects with Route 90 again near Little Big Horn where Custer’s egomania led to the demise of his men as they formed three defensive lines against the amazing Crazy Horse and his warriors under the leadership of Sitting Bull. (From all I’ve read of Custer, Richard Mulligan’s portrayal of him in Little Big Man may be the most accurate.)
Where I crossed an ocean yesterday, today I crossed a vast desert. The two-lane highway offers a fast pace and much passing opportunities to circumvent lumbering trucks, but approaching a town dramatically curbs speeds at regular intervals as if a trap for tourist and trucker alike.
Granted, I did want to stop and take about a thousand pictures of the rolling hills, but the blue sky quickly faded to stark white and created a monochromatic scene that proved daunting. Patches of ice had truckers ahead of me slowing down, and snow drifts snaked along the road before they ultimately created a cloud as if in a uniformed attack against those on the road. That cloud hid ice, and when trucks up ahead began to move at a steady rate, visibility plummeted as snow poured off them like heavy smoke.
That’s when the words of Windows from John Carpenter’s The Thing resonated in my ears. Due to the weather and the holiday, vehicles were few and far between, as were towns. If I had wiped out and needed help, especially since my cell signal dropped off regularly, I may have had to hop a rancher’s fence. The worst part is that no houses were in sight. Who knows how many miles and how many hills one would have to go to find a living soul.
That was the best and easiest part of the drive.
Back on Route 90, wet snow fell, and the 80 mph (129kmh) speeds dropped way off, as did the temperature. With 4 degrees (-15.5 Celsius) plummeting to negative double digits, the snow fell as a fine powder, then silver confetti, and finally twinkling dust particles. Heavy crosswinds kept the highway covered, but the road was so packed with rock salt, many drivers mistook the brown looking ice for actual ice and moved with caution (then again, a pickup later slid into a ravine because of the slick powder from the salt. Another pickup was gearing up to pull him out by chain.) Passing other drivers became a nightmare because the right lane remained clear for the most part, but when trucks sped down the road, the dust and snow they kicked up went twice as high as their trailers, and created white out conditions of great length and duration.
At one point, a truck ahead of me seemed to disappear. The clouds of snow and salt had become so thick that his lights were completely blanketed. Even worse, with the shifting snow and packed down road salt, lines vanished. On several occasions, especially since the highway only had lighting near major stops, I had no clue as to my direction.
Driving through the white outs took three hours.
I was so focused on the road, I had forgotten that I had crossed the Continental Divide at 6,300 feet, that I had been listening to the debut CD from Band of Skulls for six hours straight, that I had unfinished coffee now congealing in a cup, and that I had driven through the 65 million-year-old Hell Creek Formation that resulted in sandy mounds covering everything from tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops.
When I finally pulled up to the motel at 8 PM, I limped from an overworked right knee that had bounced from pedal to brake. Having to remain constantly vigilant left me shaking, and only now as I write this, some three hours later, am I finally “coming down” and feeling justifiably tired.
The drive was a true horror, and like the guys at U.S. Outpost No. 31, I just wanted to make it to point B and discover some semblance of normalcy again. Every time I had the chance to see a massive hill or mountain before the sky turned black, I thought of The Thing’s opening sequence. After the credits, the great Ennio Morricone score begins, which welcomes us to a creepy, sullen, and doom-ridden world of isolation and oppression. And Carpenter presents us with a sheer rock wall the Norwegians fly their helicopter over in pursuit of a dog. This massive edifice is something those Norwegians will not be able to get over again, and MacReady and company will not be able to scale it as well. The forces against them in The Thing are formidable, relentless, and their uphill battle will be for naught.
I’m happy to have squared off against mountains and hills full of snow, ice, wind, and countless road hazards. I’m in a decent motel with a warm bed to dive into after I indulge in a steaming hot shower. I’m no longer a thousand miles from nowhere but nine-hours away from my beautiful wife and our pups in Seattle. One final ride from Montana through Idaho and into Washington will not be the end of a nearly 3,000-mile journey, but the beginning of a new one.
(Photo from “Warrior Trail Highway” (Route 212) near Broadus, Montana. Taken from Billy Crash’s iPhone 5.)