Why I went to Montana

the why behind impromptu road trips


At about 1:15 yesterday afternoon, I got in my car

and started driving east. I didn’t stop driving until I was two states over, in Missoula, Montana. This morning, I woke up at 8 AM in Missoula, ate breakfast and toured around downtown, and then promptly got into my car and drove back west. In total, I clocked 962 miles and about 16 hours of driving. Why did I do this? Why Missoula? The answer is, of course, that there isn’t really answer. It was more of one of those “about the journey” trips. Yesterday I realized that there was nothing stopping me from doing this, and, without thinking about it too much, I just did it.

I’ve been dabbling in spur-of-the-moment drives pretty much since I learned to drive. At first it was circling around the neighborhood one more time before I got home. Eventually it led to impromptu beach trips (when I lived in Houston), and finally, monumental cross-state-lines, multi-day trips.

Let’s get something straight here: I have no illusions about how ridiculous this habit is. I also understand that I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to randomly dart off for hundreds of miles. The song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle” played on this trip, and I couldn’t help but think of how apt it was. Just having a car alone is an enormous privilege, let alone the financial stability to afford gas and random hotel stays, as well as a job with the flexibility necessary to be gone at unplanned intervals. This also isn’t something I do frequently. Once in a blue moon, I’ll get this itch that I need open road, that I need to be far away. Some people go on drinking binges. I go on driving binges.

Why? What is it that is so appealing about sitting still for 8 hours, hearing the mind-numbing hum of rubber on asphalt, putting myself in a higher risk environment than I would otherwise be in had I stayed home? If it seems irrational, this is certainly because, to some extent, it is. But, if I break down the components of what goes along with road trips, it starts to make a little more sense.

First and foremost, the peculiar American pastime of road-tripping is lent a mighty helping hand from music. For me, this has nearly infinite appeal: rolling along, singing at the top of my lungs to whatever is on the radio. Occasionally, you get something that fits perfectly in with the moment. Not that long ago, on my long trek out west from Texas, I managed to be standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, driving on a dark desert highway, with cool wind in my hair, as my trip took me through the canyons of the coast, to the Malibu. And that’s just one band! If I’m looking for a perfect way to listen to music, I can’t think of one much better than a road trip. And if that’s the only goal, then, as the Dawes song say, “any road will take you there.

But this isn’t why. I get more than enough music on my commute to work. I think instead it may have something to do with another Dawes lyric: “so I’m driving up to Oakland/for a good look back/And a few revisions to my plan of attack.”

A lot of these drives involve introspection. And a lot of it. Perhaps I take in data over a period of time, and eventually the buffer gets full and I have to stop and sift through it all. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect over the past two months, and I’ve also had a lot of new things happen to me. I think, to some extent, getting physical space from where ever I am in the present moment helps me get some figurative distance and perspective. It helps me be mindful of how I’m feeling, and it helps me figure out if I need to do things differently.

Idaho during the golden hour. Also, some road construction.

But that can’t be all of it either. These trips don’t happen in a vacuum. I almost never go places I’ve been before. In part the trips are to gain experience, to see new things. Yesterday I was in Spokane for the first time ever. I was in Idaho for the first time ever. I was in Montana for the first time ever. To some extent, these trips are the result of taking Carpe Diem (and Jack Kerouac) a little too seriously. This is where we get back into the irrationality I mentioned above. Sometimes I just do it for the story (though I didn’t go to Montana just so I could write this). Sometimes I do it just because I can.

That last notion ties in deeply with ideas of agency and destiny. Maybe I just went to too much Presbyterian church as a kid, and now I’m trying to shake off any predestinationist affinities. Maybe this is a way for compensating for feeling helpless. In away, these trips help me reaffirm my own efficacy and ability: if I set my mind to driving 900 miles in two days, I can do it. I can also take really terrible pictures while doing it:

Disclaimer: taking pictures while driving is stupidly dangerous and certainly illegal. I’m just a guy on the internet though, so it’s entirely up to you. You wind up with crap pictures like this, though.

So the take away for why I do this, at least, endogenously, is that I’m a human being, and human beings are complicated. But if we look at the ends, rather than just the means, I think it helps explain why I haven’t stopped whimsically bounding out into the unknown.

I am incredibly lucky to live in the United States of America, where we have well-maintained roads that go just about anywhere. The US also happens to be a particularly interesting place to see, also. This was an idea that began to be beaten into on my first reading of The Grapes of Wrath, and only made worse by things like On the Road and Into the Wild. Something about me has always resonated with these kinds of ideas, not only that I could be free to do whatever the hell I wanted, but also that I could see really cool things and learn about people, places and things that I would have otherwise never stumbled upon. Yesterday, I learned that the Columbia River looks like this in places:

I’ve also learned that Washington State is immensely diverse, climatologically, geologically, and geographically speaking. East of Puget Sound, you have the Cascades, a rain forest covered mountain range, then in central Washington the mountains give way to low rolling hills. Moving east some more, the hills give way to steppe (complete with tumble weeds) before finally ramping up onto the Columbia plateau and into the Selkirk Mountains (foothills of the Rockies). There are redwood forests, grassland prairies, scrub deserts, and pine forests, and that’s just in one straight(ish) line from east to west. To prevent myself from going off on a Melvillian discussion of tangentially related, fully qualified scientific fields, I will sum this up by saying: sometimes I drive really far ‘cause I get to see lots of neat stuff.

I don’t know if there will ever be a concise answer to my occasional and intense urges to flee my current habitation for somewhere far-flung and unknown, and if there is, I probably don’t want to know it. Suffice it to say that I enjoy the escape. I enjoy being unplugged from computers and smartphones, even if only for a little bit. I enjoy being on my own, dependent on myself alone. At the end of the day, that’s why I do it: because I like it. Or perhaps I just have some crazy notions about living out a Tom Petty song.

p.s. Why Missoula? DFTBA