Big Timber, Montana
Paparazzi lightning and dime-sized hail heralded our arrival on the shores of Montana – a once-in-a-lifetime destination we’ve heard.
Flash, flash, flash. Day-night-positive-negative-day-night. The skies lit up in the Instamatic-flash, momentarily-blinding style. Ping, ping, ping. Hail. Rat-a-tat-tat. Machine-gun cadence. The hail’s rhythm picked up speed and intensity. Hail balls, lit up by the headlights, burst into shards of ice as they hit the asphalt.
“You’re worried the hail might damage the truck,” I asked, raising my voice over the pinging hail.
“Yes,” McGyver grunted, eyes glued to the road.
The storm was traveling east, we were heading west, the last 60 miles of North Dakota. Fifteen minutes of quiet tension, praying for softer hail, and we were left with rain and wind. We switched drivers at the Flying J in Beach. Yes, Beach, North Dakota. Did a frontier jokster choose the name? Is there a thin ribbon of sand along a frigid lake somewhere? Nope it was named after a man, Captain Warren C. Beach.
Back in the day, before air freight, when dinner outside the truck on a load was possible, we stopped at the Red Onion Grill in Lee, Florida on the Florida Panhandle. While we still have plenty to talk about despite our many years together and unnaturally close quarters, we have a dinner hobby – eavesdropping.
A four-top was seated behind us. One diner asked the young man handing out the menus: “When’s the wedding?”
“Soon,” he said. “I’m almost finished saving for the honeymoon. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip.”
Our ears perked up. Once-in-a-lifetime. Honeymoon. Young man. Paris? Rome? Hong Kong?
“MOHN-ta-NAA,” he gushed.
I love Montana! A once-a-month trip for us. Wide open skies, the expanse of land – it’s 250 miles from the North Dakota border on I-94 to Billings and another 460 miles across the state on I-90 – the changing weather, the snaking rivers, Yellowstone Park, mountains, foothills, prairie grass, dinosaur footprints, rock formations, piles of smooth, black rocks, sort of like giant mouse turds and abundant wildlife. It’s an exotic place and must feel like the other side of the world from down under in Florida’s panhandle.
“I told my fiancee I might not want to come back.”
October is hunting season in Montana. It attracts all kinds, animal and human.
A few minutes after settling into the driver’s seat, the heavens let loose with pounding rain. My shoulders sagged. Driving in pounding rain in pitch dark is difficult. By Miles City I needed a break and a treat. Montana is also home to my favorite egg salad on whole wheat sandwiches, found only at Town Pump truck stops. It’s not multi-grain bread, but it’s not cotton-candy white bread either. The egg salad is really eggy, not much mayonnaise, no weird relishes, not salty! No nonsense what-you-see-is-what-you-get, just like Montana.
Standing at the checkout in front of me three guys, stocking up on candy and Twinkies. I gave them my full up and down appraisal – if McGyver was standing there, he would have said: Stop it, you’re too obvious.
Tall and gym-buff slim, the three were wearing just-out-of-the-box hunting camouflage. The print so new, so clear, so detailed that my eyes hurt to look at it in the dim lighting. One guy must have bought his camouflage at Banana Republic, white and tan with green fern-like plants. Like no camouflage I’ve ever seen – I grew up in a small town near the Rocky Mountains, our neighbor hunted deer – I’ve seen a bit of camouflage. They were wearing matching pants and shirts under their hipster fleece jackets more suitable to Portland than the Prairies, Oakley sunglasses hooked on their caps. On their feet, not military-style or work boots, not even Timberland urban-rustic boots – they were wearing Merrell’s, city-comfy boots, suitable for leaving the groomed concrete of Madison Avenue for the wilds of Broadway’s pocked and worn.
I was itching to ask: What firm you from? Goldman Sachs? Ernst & Young? Team building exercise? I thought if I ran outside I’d see them slip into a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna. Faux hunters!
The rain was still pounding when I climbed back into the tractor, but the sky was ever so slowly gaining some light. McGyver does this every day, night time driving, how does he do it. I will never grumble when he spends an extra 15 minutes loading his iPod with podcasts and books.
Thankfully, the rain stopped at Big Timber, so I could put on 145 gallons of fuel. That’s where I found the real hunters. Three guys, is that rule?, wearing faded camouflage, a faded soup of dirt colors, fleece the color of dirt, mud-caked, lace-up, thick-soled working-man boots topped off by a Pontiac baseball cap.
Beyond Big Timber, the sun poked its way through the clouds, lighting up the now golden leaves on the trees. Each night is darker and longer, the days shorter. Winter is upon us, there’s no doubt about it. This is probably last good Montana drive until March or April. Here on in, we’ll be dogged by weather, snow and freezing rain.