Travels with Chuck.
It’s hot already this July morning. The sky is an unblemished sapphire. I’m running one of the longer of my usual neighborhood routes. A last burst of activity before the long road trip ahead.
The plan is for my son and I to drive his car across North Dakota and Montana, over the high pass in Glacier National Park, and on to his new home in Portland, Oregon.
The car is in what you might call its declining years. We’d convinced ourselves this was the practical way to get it moved out to the west coast, along with assorted houseplants and a couple of bicycles my son didn’t want packed in the moving van. In reality, it was my opportunity to go road-tripping with the son who was about to move with his sweet young family half a continent away from our home state of Minnesota.
The car is a 2001 Acura 2-door with leather seats the size of Lay-Z-Boys. My grandson has christened it Oldie Goldie Dentmobile. This is the same three-year-old who has informed us his name is Bless You Banana.
My son simply calls the car Chuck, because both the car and the name originally belonged to my late father. I guess the car is a sort of patrimony. My son still keeps my dad’s old cane in the trunk.
The Advil hasn’t kicked in yet as I hit the halfway point on my morning run. I feel as old and full of kinks as the car itself. I hope both of us make it all the way to Portland.
The first leg of the trip is up Interstate 94 to Bismarck. One giant farm blends into the next. Most of the interesting towns are somewhere off the highway, identified only by the water towers peering over the tree line.
Night one, Bismarck ND. Our hotel is on the high ground north of town and we can see huge thunderheads spread out across the plains. They ring the city, fired by the setting sun. We stand in the parking lot watching the light show until fat rain drops start plopping all around us. By the time we get up to our room the rain is coming in sheets. The wind drives it straight through the seal in the hotel window.
The next morning we cross the Missouri River, and The West begins. It’s as abrupt as switching on an old Gary Cooper movie. We’re driving through rolling rangeland populated mostly by nothing.
We pass a sign telling us we’ve crossed into the mountain time zone, so we gain an hour. We put the extra time to good use: a hike in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Since the idea is to walk not drive, we grab the first trail leading off the road into the park’s south unit. After a half-mile the trail dead-ends into the Little Missouri River. Apparently the trail’s “difficult” rating includes wading the river to reach the path continuing up the opposite bank and into spectacular badlands. There’s no telling how deep the muddy water might be.
We walk the other direction instead, up a grassy trail to a prairie dog town, and pick up a load of ticks. All afternoon through Montana we’re pulling them off our arms and legs and tossing them out the car windows.
Northern Montana is even emptier than North Dakota. The rolling hills turn to big, grassy buttes. Chuck was originally equipped with a premium sound system and it still works, although patching in an iPod is a challenge. We dial up a batch of Bob Dylan studio sessions from the mid-sixties. He is even better in these raw, unproduced versions. His harmonica sounds as lonely as the highway ahead. The car rides smooth as long as we don’t push things too far past 80. Everything is perfect.
Then a rhythmic thump starts coming from the front end.
It doesn’t go away. So we pull over to investigate. The thump comes from a little box under the dash by the passenger’s left knee. The iPhones have been blinking in and out of “no service” for a while, but right now there’s a signal. My son searches the internet while I check the oil. The culprit is a little electric motor that’s supposed to operate the ventilation system. The car will run without AC even if its passengers might not.
Our route takes us across Highway 2 toward Glacier. The old road is the northernmost highway in the U.S., originally built in 1919 to link a series of muddy auto trails and connect Portland, Maine to Portland Oregon. When we come to a crossroads the arrow pointing to the right simply says “Canada.”
White crosses dot the shoulders of the highway, marking spots where people have died in car crashes. There are an alarming number of them considering how unpopulated the surrounding countryside is. On some stretches it seems like a mile doesn’t go by without a white cross. Sometimes they come in pairs. On one curve in the road nine crosses sit atop a single post. Seeing them is a little like seeing the endless rows of white markers in a veterans cemetery, each one a silent testimony to a story we’ll never know.
That night in Shelby, Montana we sit at the bar in a restaurant-slash-casino. Everything along this stretch of road is a something-slash-casino. Gas station. Motel lobby. Pizza place. Laundromat. Picture a low building with a few slot machines and a huge neon sign and you get the idea. For some reason they’ve taken the shotgun approach to casinos rather than having one glitzy establishment where you might walk in and imagine yourself as James Bond in a tuxedo playing Baccarat. This is unhelpful when what you’re really after is a decent meal.
After bar food and a couple of beers we come up with a plan. Chuck has already shed one part. Who knows what might go out next. So we decide to skip the high pass on the Going-To-The-Sun Road and take easier road around the southern end of Glacier.
We call this The Conservative Plan and toast it with our beers. It will hopefully get us over the mountains intact, and as an added bonus make more time available for a hike in the western end of the park. The southern route is less famous, but also less traveled. It turns out to be stunningly beautiful.
At one point I see “TRUMP” spray-painted in 10-foot letters on a rocky cliff, a strange act of desecration so far from the boiling pot of Washington. But we’re driving through Glacier on the 4th of July. It’s hard to think anything other than magnanimous thoughts. The president is scheduled to travel to Montana the following day, but only as far as Great Falls. I wonder what might happen if he could somehow be loaded into one of his golf carts and taken up into these mountains. Imagine a man whose entire world consists of glass towers, manicured golf courses and flat TV screens come fact-to-face with the actual power and beauty of creation. Maybe it would help.
There is a good trail right inside the western entrance to the park, but it includes the possibility of a bear. A woman at the trailhead parking lot tells us she’d turned back when she saw a mother grizzly and cub. Since a number of paths branch out from the trailhead we figure there’s a decent chance we’d be headed down a bear-free one. For good measure we decide to talk loud while we walk, just to make sure we don’t surprise any bears coming around a bend.
Talking nonstop with your son for a couple of hours while walking on a trail filled with wild flowers and ringed by breathtaking mountains makes for one of the top moments in a father’s life.
We talked about his new home in Portland. We talked about the one he is leaving behind in Minnesota. My wife and I are going to miss having him and his family close-by and there’s sadness in that. But sharing the excitement of your kids’ next adventure is also part of parenting, even if that means sharing it from afar.
That excitement kept bubbling to the surface as I walked and talked with my son. I can be content with that.
The days ahead would bring the serious work of unpacking. Managing the huge piles of packing paper the movers had wrapped around anything even remotely breakable. Bringing the new house’s window hardware up to the standards of someone accustomed to Minnesota winters. Arranging the toys in my grandson’s bedroom so it feels like home when he arrives. Arranging my daughter-in-law’s spice drawer in the kitchen, for the same reason.
Until you’ve done it you could never imagine just how connected you feel to someone when you’re unpacking their household item by item.
But the unpacking still lay down the road, as would an easier life for Chuck. The car was headed for a neighborhood where it’s easy to walk or bike to just about everything. It would be spending most of its days blissfully parked in the garage.
We still had one important stop remaining before we left Highway 2 to merge onto a final stretch of Interstate. Troy, Montana. My dad was born in Troy, and spent the first five years of his life there. Then the town got clobbered by the depression and the family headed back to the Midwest.
But my dad never forgot Troy. He always talked about getting back there.
I felt an almost mystical connection to Troy as we drove through, even if I’ve only been there a couple of times in my life. It’s still one of the prettiest places on earth, with green tree-covered mountains rising above the wild Kootenai River. My grandson is not that far removed from the age my dad was when he left Montana. I wonder if he’ll feel the same sort of connection to Minnesota. His move is taking him half a continent away from the relationship we’ve enjoyed. That doesn’t feel so forbidding now that I’m covering the entire span at ground level, one mile at a time.
We can solve for distance.
It’s time that most often comes between us and the people we love. We let the busy little things eat our lives. Before anyone realizes it whole hunks of lifetime have slipped away, and we’re scrambling to catch up.
I learned this on a roadtrip that came into being because my son refused to let go of an old car. The miles separate us also connect us. Chuck will be living the easy life in a tuck-under garage. I’m more determined than ever to make sure the path away from my garage stays well worn.