As my regular reader will know, I have already confessed my man-love for Bill Bryson. One of the charms of his book, The Lost Continent is the fact that it is the memoirs of a roadtrip. There are very few journeys as evocative as the US Roadtrip and if you’re honest I’m sure everyone has thought, or dreamed, of hitting the highway at least once in their lives. From Route 66, to Kerouac, Steinbeck, Springsteen and Hunter S Thompson, US culture is full of references to this mythical rite of passage. One line in The Lost Continent sticks in my mind, “for me, from here to Bozeman was a monotuous 5 hour drive across empty plains, whereas you dear reader simply turn the page”.
I had always wanted to do more that just turn the page, I wanted to drive 5 monotuous hours. And I did. Although it wasn’t that monotuous and the total distance I did in the 10 day trip would have barely got me from coast to coast had I driven in straight line, but that didn’t matter. I’d already driven from Orange County up to San Francisco, but this was the big, The American West. It was just me, a rented Pontiac G5, a woefully insufficient sleeping bag, 10 roadtrip CDs and 12 cereal bars. I loved it.
Having a deadline to stick to for the first time in what felt like a very long time I broke my normal protocol and actually did some planning (rather than my usual “I dunno” method of travelling) using my trusty and (now) ripped Rand McNally West Coast map, so I had a vague idea of the distances and the things I wanted to see. Arriving in Seattle from Ketchikan, I went to see a baseball game, Mariners vs Yankees (4-2 Yankees), sat in horrendous postgame traffic and was away from Seattle by about midnight. I drove for about an hour and a half in the dark and rain until I could take it no more and I stopped overnight in a ski resort whose name escapes me – it was something like Cle Elum which sounds unlikely but it was, honest.
I was away at 8am on a bright sunny Saturday morning and hit I-90 East and drove. And drove. It took me until past lunchtime to get past Spokane and out of Washington State. I was starting to to get an idea of ther task ahead of me. As cliched as it sounds, when I stopped for breakfast about an hour into the day I had the Oh Shit moment of looking at the map and comparing the distance travelled since Seattle (like half an inch) and the distance I had left in front of me (about 7 feet). No time for a coffee refill my son, get motoring. East Washington was pretty dull scenery-wise but things started getting interesting once I crossed into Idaho. The land rose and fell and the hillsides were covered in pine forests. It would stay that way for the next 5 days or so. Idaho didn’t last long and soon I crossed the Continental Divide into Montana. I also effectively lost an hour as I entered Mountain Time and the clocks went forward, one less hour on the road, oh no!
I had heard about the 50,000 Dollar Saloon from the bikers on the boat and true enough, it did what it says on the tin. There is indeed a Saloon with over 50,000 Silver Dollars attached to the walls. What else? But I didn’t stop long, I had miles to cover. I stopped in Missoula at around 5 for some lunch/dinner (lunner?) and then did the final 100 miles of the day across some incredible open countryside (this is Big Sky Country after all) and with the sun disappearing behind me I found a motel room in Butte and collapsed onto the bed, after a long 526 mile day.
The next morning I was up early (for me) and headed off, back on I-90 towards Yellowstone. I drove the first 80 miles or so in virtual solitude, barely seeing a soul. As it was getting to coffee break time I spotted a sign off the freeway saying Yellowstone National Park – I had intended on staying on the freeway until Bozeman so this was a novel idea. There was also a service station at the exit which decided me, so trying to check my GPS, look at my map and deciding what I wanted for breakfast I swerved onto the offramp. At the top, was a Stop sign and a pickup truck bearing down on me from the left so I braked somewhat sharply, let the truck past and then turned right.
As I glanced in my rear-view mirror for what must have been the first time in a while, I couldn’t help but notice that the entire view was full of bright, pretty, flashing blue lights. Believe or not, I’ve never been stopped by the police before, anywhere, let alone in Montana, but even so I managed to put 2 and 2 together and realise that, given their proximity, these particular lights had to be for me. Gulp. I pulled over, and having seen plenty of episodes of America’s Most Moronic Police Chases, simply wound my window down and waited for the gun-toting Law Enforcement Officer to scream at me to throw my keys out of the window and exit the vehicle with my hands up.
OK, I’m being a bit flippant, in reality I did kind of have a lump in my stomach. He strolled up, wished me a Good Morning (it was still only around 8am) asked for my licence and vehicle registration. I dutifully handed this over, shaking only slightly, and he asked me to get out of the car and come sit in his. As we walked over, he told me that I had been going a little bit fast (phew, so it wasn’t that the car had been registered as stolen) and that he was going to give me a warning. Yay! No ticket, the lump disappeared and I began to enjoy the experience. Sat in his nice warm car, he told me that I had been doing 81 (speed limit 75) and I needed to keep it down a bit. He was actually very nice and chatty. Asking me how I was enjoying my trip and where I was planning to head to next. The Swiss driving licence threw him a bit, especially as I had told him I was from London (it’s much easier to explain than Dorset), but it was all good in the hood and I got a little souvenir warning from the Montana State Troopers department. He even asked me how many official languages there are in Switzerland. Nice to share some knowledge around. I then asked him the best way to Yellowstone, and before I know it I was back in my own car, on my merry way.