I left Minneapolis at 8am with the car neatly organized, clutching a huge iced coffee. The drive out of Minneapolis was uneventful until I hit Moorhead, where I lost half an hour in a traffic jam. Who waits in traffic to get to Fargo? Besides me, I mean.
North Dakota was completely flat for 100 miles, but it’s all on this slight uphill grade. I crossed the continental divide, which I was pretty sure was in Montana, but who knows? The terrain in mid-North Dakota is hilly and open, like Kansas, only the billboards are less about god and more about the many benefits of ethanol. I stopped in Jamestown about 1:30 to see the world’s largest buffalo, not to mention the world’s largest buffalo balls, which were majestic and alarming at the same time.
I drove through downtown Jamestown and found nothing but scary bars, so I picked a mexican place by the mall for lunch. It sucked, but I was drinking coffee, and that’s all that mattered.
Making good time through North Dakota, I decided to pull off to see what the ‘Enchanted Highway’ signs were all about. I drove for a few miles and saw nothing of interest. As I made a u-turn in the middle of a tiny little highway, I noticed that it was really, really hard to turn the wheel. I freaked.
(Some background: I have intense car-trouble paranoia, which is not completely unsubstantiated. [Evidence: exhibit 1, exhibit 2] I occasionally have this sense that my finely-engineered Swedish automobile is nothing more than a jumble of parts held together with scotch tape and twine, and it’s just waiting for the exact worst moment to fall apart in a million pieces around me. And, really, as far as worst moments go, this was close: I was in the middle of nowhere – or at least I thought I was, until I discovered Montana, I was alone, I had no cell signal, and I was on the very first day of a trip of undetermined length.)
I pulled over and quickly realized that the car was still running fine, but the power steering had gone out. I asked myself, ‘Can I take this trip through the mountains with no power steering?’ Um, no. So I got back on the interstate and exited at the next town: Dickinson, North Dakota, the last glimmer of civilization for 400 miles. I stopped at T-Rex Conoco (right past the T-Rex Mall!), pulled out my manual, popped the hood, and located the power steering fluid reservoir. I opened the cap and a wisp of smoke rose from the empty tank. I went into the gas station. I grabbed a bottle of power steering fluid and went up to the counter to ask the mechanic for his advice. Is this the right fluid? Was this normal? No, there must be a leak. Try filling the reservoir and see if it leaks out again. He explained how to get the fluid back in the system: turn the steering wheel all the way to the right, and all the way to the left.
I bought two bottles to be on the safe side, went to the car, and emptied one into the reservoir. I got in the car and did exactly like he said. The power steering came back right away, but it was loud and whiny. I drove into a nearby neighborhood and turned donuts in the middle of intersections, hoping it was working. It seemed to be driving fine, so I decided to get back on the interstate and exit at the next gas station, to check the level again. 18 miles down the road, I discovered that the reservoir was once again completely empty. I drove to another little service station and asked the guy for help. He apologized and said he was about to close, still had work to do, and doubted he could get the parts for a foreign car anyway. My best bet was to go back to Dickinson. I wanted to cry, but decided that this was all part of the adventure, and if I had to spend a night waiting in North Dakota, I could handle it. I emptied the other bottle of fluid into my car and headed back to Dickinson.
When I got there, I stopped at Conoco again, and checked the reservoir. This time, it had stayed at the right level, and it wasn’t making the whining noise anymore. I went in and talked to the same guy, asking him if he thought it had just taken that much fluid to fill it up, so now it would be fine. He said that was probably the case, but wanted to take a look anyway. He came outside with me and inspected the whole engine, checking for leaks while I turned the wheels back and forth. He said everything looked fine, and that Saab had probably forgotten to fill the reservoir when they had replaced the hoses in January. I told him that I was headed into Montana, and was really scared to leave civilization with a potential car issue. He laughed, and said that his advice was to get on the road and head to Billings, 430 miles away. They had a Saab dealership. If I could get that far, there’d be no problem getting parts for the car. He told me to be brave. I wanted to hug him for being so awesome, but I controlled myself. I got the crappiest iced coffee of my life at the Java Hut (by the T-Rex Mall!) and got back on the road. 60 miles and three quick stops-to-check-the-steering-fluid later, I was in Montana.
The second you cross the border into Montana, you become very aware of the fact that you have entered the middle of nowhere. You think you’ve been in remote places before. You’ve witnessed the emptiness of Nebraska and Oklahoma, but you’ve never seen anything like this. And it makes you very nervous, because you have a car in questionably-functional condition, your cellphone is useless, and you’re alone. But a North Dakota mechanic has ordered you to be brave, so you have no choice but to comply.
I stopped at the travel center in Montana, and was a little weirded out by the fact that mine was the only car in the lot, apart from a broken-down pickup that looked to have been there for some time. I went inside and was relieved to find a woman working there. I told her I was headed to Glacier, and wanted to know the best route. She unfolded a giant map (Montana is so huge that it requires a map at least twice the normal size) and showed me how the route via the interstate was 750 miles at 75mph, and the Highway 2 route was 500 miles at 70mph. Taking Highway 2 required a hundred-mile detour through the heart of Absolutely Nothing, but it meant I’d still get to Glacier a lot quicker. Also, Highway 2 (known as the Great Northern Route, because of the railroad) is one of the trips featured in my travel bible, Road Trip U.S.A., so it held a certain appeal.
At that point, I had to decide: take the long route, which was also the path to safety because it was the way to the Saab dealership in Billings, or take my chances with the short route. After checking the steering fluid again, I decided to take my chances.
I stopped for gas and dinner in Glendive, the last city on I-94 before the exit for the Highway 2 route. I called Heather from a payphone at the gas station, figuring it might be my last brush with modern technology that evening. Then I went to find dinner. I decided it would be really funny to eat at one of the many, many casinos in town (in Montana, everything is a casino). I walked in and got a glimpse of the pile of meat on the buffet.
Me: Can I ask? I’m vegetarian. Is there anything I can eat here?
Waitress: (grimacing) Um… well, there’s the salad bar.
Me: OK. Do you know if there are any sit-down type places in town where I’d find something?
Waitress: (calling other waitress over) Do you know if Pizza Hut has a vegetable–
Me: Uh, I can’t eat Pizza Hut. Like, any regular restaurants?
Waitress: There’s CC’s. Or the Chinese place. No, that’s closed Mondays.
Me: And CC’s is, like, what kind of food?
Waitress: Oh, you know. You order off the menu.
I drove over to CC’s, and quickly realized it was the place where the locals hung out. Breakfast all day, sandwiches, liver and onions. The only things on the menu I could eat were a salad and cottage cheese and fruit. I ordered both. They had no light dressing. An old waitress leaned over the counter and raved about my hair color. The slutty-looking bleached-blonde chick in the corner was staring at me every time I looked up. I covered the table with my huge Montana map, AAA travel guide, and travel diary, and crammed fruit in my mouth while scribbling furiously: everyone here is either old or fat or both. awesome!
I was back on the road just as it was getting dark. The landscape in eastern Montana is beautiful, kind of scrubby and hilly, and completely desolate. I came over a rise and saw the most incredible sky I’d ever seen (OK, it’s goofy, but now I understand why it’s called ‘big sky country’. It’s completely true). There were low-hanging, dark clouds, and I could see rain off in the distance. The setting sun was vibrant fuchsia on the horizon, filtering through the rain. I saw huge lightning strikes off to the west. I hoped I wasn’t driving into a storm. By the time I got to Highway 2, it was raining a little, but not much. It was windy, with a sort of unsettled feeling in the air. I got out at a gas station to buy sunflower seeds (my new favorite roadtrip snack: 1) they’re low-calorie, 2) they’ve got lots of protein, 3) they come in many flavors, and 4) they keep you awake), and everyone inside was talking about how badly they needed rain.
I got back in the car and headed off along Highway 2. My plan for the night was to drive as far as I could, then pull off at a rest stop and sleep in the backseat. After a hundred miles or so, it became clear that there were no rest stops. In fact, there was nothing at all. No buildings, no signs, no crossroads that I could see, no lights. A car would pass me going the other direction every 15 or 20 minutes. If I could have seen well enough what was near the road, I would’ve been happy to just pull off and rest. But I couldn’t see anything, and was convinced if I did that, I’d wake up in the middle of a horror-movie scene. So I kept going.
Around midnight, I arrived at the town of Glasgow. There was one larger combination casino/motel, and four or five smaller motels. I was prepared to take anything, but all the little motels had ‘no vacancy’ signs out front. I turned around and went back to the Cottonwood Inn (don’t let ‘casino’ conjure images of Vegas or anything – this was essentially a Best Western with a cowboy theme and some slot machines off the lobby). I ran inside and asked the woman at the counter how much a single room was. She told me $63. I balked. She said, “You’re welcome to try the next town. It’s 70 miles down the road.” I took the room.
As I went back out to get my bags from the car, I was happy to have stopped. I had driven 770 miles, and had dealt with car trouble, too. The wind outside had picked up and was whipping garbage around the parking lot. I dashed inside and locked myself in my room. As I unpacked to take a shower, I suddenly became aware of the quiet. It was the first night of the first trip I’d ever taken by myself. I felt very alone.
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random notes from my travel journal:
yo la tengo is the perfect music for western north dakota. it’s like the badlands, only grassier. half the exits say ‘no services’.
things what suck: not having anyone to talk to. no signal. not sharing the experiences. i’ll never be able to say, ‘remember what the sky looked like that first night in montana?’
good things: i can drive a ton on my own. super-nice and quirky people everywhere i go. the way the crappiest food tastes good when you’re on the road and hungry. dill-flavored sunflower seeds!
i miss heather a lot tonight.
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