Wednesday, May 31:
Montana is a big and beautiful state.
So big that you can leave Missoula, in the western part of the state, and drive all day to Billings, in the eastern part, and still find yourself a couple hours short of the state border with South Dakota.
So beautiful that you can’t just drive through it. You’ve got to pull over to the roadside and snap at least a few photos that attempt to capture the rugged beauty of the place they call Big Sky Country.
On our trip, we saw pristine rivers; muscular peaks, still capped by snow; spacious blue skies, with white tufts of clouds; and, late in the afternoon, ominous storm clouds over the Crazy Mountains.
Montana is the fourth largest state after Alaska, Texas and California, measuring 630 miles across (roughly twice the length of Oregon) and 255 miles up and down. Even with a legal speed limit of 80 miles per hour, it still takes several hours to traverse the state.
On the second day of our trip, we aimed to get from Missoula to Billings by early evening and keep on going into South Dakota. It didn’t happen, though, because we got another flat on our moving van. We had to endure another three-hour wait for a service call and limped into town closer to 9 o’clock, well short of our 500-miles-a-day goal.
Here’s how it happened:
We got up early and left Missoula without even touring the town. It’s too bad because Jordan and I had visited the University of Montana campus when he was a high school senior, trying to decide where he wanted to enroll in an Army ROTC program. We both had good memories of our visit in 2006 but there was simply no time to dawdle.
All was going well as we passed by Butte, the former mining capital, and smaller towns like Deer Lodge en route to lunch in Bozeman, the home of Montana State University, about 200 miles from Missoula. We had our one sit-down lunch – burgers from Five Guys – and resumed our travels. We had gotten barely than 30 miles east of Bozeman when the front tire on the passenger’s side of the U-Haul truck came apart as Jordan was driving.
The same frustrating scenario from the day before repeated itself. We were just outside Livingston, a town of 7,000 residents nestled along the Yellowstone River, and just a half-hour from the college town, with ample services, that we’d just left. Yet, we had to wait three hours for service. Turns out the U-Haul dispatcher, based in Arizona, gave the repair guy a wrong location, so he was driving back and forth on Interstate 90 looking for us, when we were miles up the road.
When he finally arrived, he replaced the tire in 15 minutes but also advised us to check the lug nuts the next morning because he’d forgotten to bring a special power tool to tighten them properly.
We hit the road again, drove a few hours, and checked into our motel in Billings, tired as heck. We ordered Chinese takeout to be delivered to the room, watched some mindless TV, and fell dead asleep.
Before we did, I reflected on the similarity of this experience with a solo road trip that I made on this same highway some 33 years earlier. In the spring of 1984, I had just finished a fellowship at the University of Michigan. I was traveling with our two cats in a U-Haul trailer, hauling our tired Volvo station wagon back to Oregon after 10 months in Ann Arbor. Lori was flying home with Nathan and Simone. (Jordan wouldn’t come along for four more years.)
Entering Montana from the east, the plains of North Dakota, I remember being numbed by the sameness of the barren landscape in eastern Montana and then dumbstruck by the awesomeness of western Montana, with its towering mountains, endless vistas of evergreen trees, and occasional waterfalls. I recall stopping several times just to admire the state’s beauty.
This time, driving eastbound on I-90, I felt cheated.
Because of the long delay caused by the second flat tire and bungled service call, we had no time to really appreciate what we were driving past. We had a schedule to keep and now we were looking at 600 miles a day for the next two days to arrive on time in Missouri.
Next up: Road warriors diary: Day Three