Unfolding the Map
Here we are passing with William Least Heat-Moon through Cut Bank and into the flat plains that make up middle and Eastern Montana. I went across those plains once, and it causes me to reflect a little on that trip and the experience of being in places that are lonely and flat. Speaking of which, you can locate Cut Bank on a flat Google map!
The posts might slow down a little for the holidays as I am due to fly to Florida in a couple of days. I'll bring the computer and see if I can get some posts in as we continue, but I hope that you'll indulge me a little if I'm not as regular over the next week and a half as I have been.
"At Cut Bank, the rangeland and wheat fields and oil wells began. Montanans call U.S. 2, paralleling the Canadian border all the way to Lake Huron, the 'High-line.' The most desolate of the great east-west routes, it was two lanes of patched, broken, rutted, mind-numbing pavement running from horizon to horizon over the land of god-awful distance."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 4
Cut Bank, Montana
LHM is traveling now over land that I've traveled before, briefly, in the late 1980s. While I was doing volunteer work in Milwaukee, I was asked to be the best man at the wedding of John, a good high school friend. John lived in north-central Wyoming in a little town called Cowley, where he still lives to this day. A lifelong Mormon, John got married to his bride Sally in the temple at Salt Lake City, and as a non-Mormon I couldn't attend the actual wedding. However, I could fulfill my obligation in Cowley at the wedding reception, so I saved out of the $75 a month stipend I received for my volunteer service and took a Greyhound bus from Milwaukee out to Billings, Montana. John drove the 85 miles or so to Billings to pick me up and take me down to Cowley.
A lot of the bus ride was through Montana. Though the route traversed through about half of Montana and was on the interstate rather than the "two lanes of patched, broken, rutted, mind-numbing pavement" of US 2, I distinctly remember the land running from horizon to horizon. Between Bismarck, North Dakota and Billings, I don't think I had ever seen land so flat in my life.
Imagine being on a calm sea. You look ahead, behind, and side to side and all you see is water and horizon, a flat, smooth surface that runs up to the edge of the curve of the world and then drops off imperceptibly. If you were able to actually reach the horizon, you'd see that the drop is not perceptible, but from a distance it almost seems like the edge of a yawning precipice, and that you are in the middle of a circle defined by that precipice.
Going through the flat lands of the upper Midwest and West is similar, except that sight is puncuated by natural features such as the occasional tree and human-made features such as houses and buildings. These serve as initial welcome breaks in the unending flatness, but eventually they get maddening. They mock you because they offer a whisper of something different, and then you are back to the flat farmland. Over all, depending on the time of year (I traveled in the late fall) the smell of earth and manure sits, reminding you that you are in farming country.
As I rode the bus that served as our ship on that flat sea of land, day dissolved into night and night back into day and it seemed like nothing changed, like one of those cartoon backgrounds that repeat as the cartoon characters run, passing over and over the same tree, the same house, the same barn, the same clouds. Perhaps the people of Montana who ride the bus are a subset of society, but they also seemed to absorb the flat affect of the vastness of the landscape. That flatness seemed to generate no interest in anything around them, after all if they've been running past the same scenery all their life it was nothing new to them. Therefore, it was great theater when the mother with the screaming children, clearly out of sorts from having suffered some kind of rupture or upheaval in her life, got on the bus. The ambience in the bus went from something close to hypnosis to mildly annoyed as the noise permeated the boundaries of the other sleeping and disinterested riders. At one point, a man shushed at one of the kids. The mother, in a flash, turned on him and said in an aggressive tone "don't you 'shhh' my fucking kid." After the novelty of this little exchange wore off, people's ears began to mute the sound of the sobbing children, and most drifted back into their hypnosis once again, noticing only briefly when she ushered her children off at a stop farther down the road.
I am probably overdoing my memory of the flatness, because I'm sure that somewhere along that route there must have been a dip or a rise, a low hill in the distance. But in a part of the United States scraped by ice age glaciers that scoured the land like a giant frozen sander, those features are few and far between. I can see where a person, in the middle of the unending plane of the unending plain, especially in the dulling light of a setting sun, might find themselves insignificant in the whole even more than if they were in the shadow of a huge mountain or on the shore of an ocean. Either that, or they might feel themselves in the center of the planet in the midst of the universe as the stars come out and arc from horizon to horizon. I can't remember how I felt in that bus that seemed to crawl, rather than speed at 70 miles per hour, across the Montana landscape, but I do remember how happy I was to get to Billings, meet my friend, and head into the high desert toward Cowley.
Whenever I hear of Montana, I think of Frank Zappa's song of the same name. The lyrics are silly, but the underlying music is amazing and shows the musicianship of a number of accomplished musicians including Frank himself. It also caught the attention of Tina Turner who volunteered herself and the Ikettes to sing the chorus. I'm giving you a double shot here again, because there's a studio version and a live version from 1973. I like them both. Enjoy!
If you want to know more about Cut Bank
Next up: Shelby, Montana