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Entries in Montana (13)


Blue Highways: Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana

Unfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is about to exit Montana via Plentywood, and we're riding along with him wondering about the irony of a town named Plentywood with no trees.  Before we get into North Dakota, I'll stop for a minute to examine irony in relation to place.  Ironically, it will be fun.  I promise.  To see where Plentywood is located, and maybe find some other ironically named places, here's your passage to the map.

Book Quote

"US 2 followed the Missouri River for miles.  At the High-line town of Culbertson I turned north toward treeless Plentywood, Montana, then went east again down forsaken blue highway 5, a road virtually on the forty-ninth parallel, which is the Canadian border in North Dakota."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7

Downtown Culbertson, Montana. Photo by Colin Holloway and seen at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host site.

Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana

The quote today from Blue Highways got me thinking about the concept of irony.  What is irony, you may ask, as opposed to humor or sarcasm.  Let's check the definition.  According to Merriam-Webster Online, irony is:

1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

2 a : the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance

3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

Definitions 1 and 3 don't really fit into what I'm going to discuss in this post, except for maybe the idea of incongruity.  Definition 2 though really fits, especially when one examines place names which seem out of character with the actual physical reality of the place.

Some place names are simply named in honor of someone.  Culbertson, for example, was named in honor of Major Alexander Culburtson, who headed Fort Union in Montana for the American Fur Company.  Other place names are indicative of settlers' desires - their hope for beauty, tranquility, solace, etc.  Sometimes place names come from natural features of the area.

However, some place names, either by design or by accident, are truly ironic.  Plentywood is a prime example, and LHM points it out in the book by calling it "treeless Plentywood."  According to Plentywood's Wikipedia entry, the name was meant to be ironic.  It was established when, on this treeless plain of Montana, a chuck wagon cook was unsuccessfully trying to build a fire out of wet buffalo dung, to the frustration of the hungry cowboys.  One finally one told him to go 2 miles up the creek where he'd find plenty wood.

The ironic nature of the name got me thinking about whether there were other ironic names for towns and cities, and I decided to do a little Googling.  I found two things.  Yes, there are ironic names for places in America, and there are many people who don't understand the concept of irony.

For example, this website asked people to contribute ironic names for places.  One ironic place mentioned was Nowhere, Oklahoma (which is really somewhere, obviously).  How interesting to find out, truthfully, that Sutherland is the second northernmost county in Great Britain.  Or that Great Britain has other interesting and ironic place names, such as No Place, or perhaps Pity Me, which to me would be ironic unless the townspeople are really miserable.  I keep seeing references to Who'd A Thought It, Alabama, though I can't find it in Google Earth or on Wikipedia, which would make for a double irony.  It would be ironic if it existed because obviously, somebody thought it, but if it didn't exist even though there's numerous references to it, then there's obvious irony because nobody a thought it!  There is evidently an area in Cape May, New Jersey that is known ironically as Poverty Beach because it now sits near mansions for the well-heeled.

However, this same site also showed that people don't quite understand irony.  Some wrote about place names that were simply funny or strange.  Like Why, Arizona - though you could make the argument that somebody thought "because" and established the town.  Somebody very pruriently suggested Beaver Slide, Montana, because, they added with great color and imagery, it was filled with unsavory people who "couldn't get laid in a monkey whore house with a bagful of bananas."  However, that irony is based on assumption, not fact.  Ironically, Beaver Slide doesn't seem to exist, though I'm sure people would manage to have sex in Beaver Slide - just very ironic sex.  Others named places I couldn't find.  One just had to add Fucking, Austria (pronounced foo-king) because...well, obviously.  But just because a town in Austria is named Fucking doesn't make it ironic, though I would suppose it would be if the town was full of celibates.

There was a nice column by a guy who went to a place in Virginia called Dulles Town Center, only to find there was no town to have a center in - simply a shopping center and subdivision.  He used the column to look a little more in depth about how places are named, and discovered that subdivisions and developments are often named ironically.  I started thinking about it, and my wife's parents live in one such development called The Meadows in Sarasota, Florida.  It was built by an English development company that basically cleared a bunch of wetlands, put in grass, houses and condos, and a golf course, and gave everything English-style names.  For example, her parents live in the section called Heronmere.  What was swamp ironically became The Meadows.  With alligators.

So, when you drive past subdivisions with names like Quail Hills, you might wonder if there really are quail.  Or if you in the vicinity of a place called Paradise Park, is there really a park?  Names like Valley Heights are kind of ironic in that they don't make any sense.  If you want to have some fun, make your own subdivision name here.  Or, for even more fun, you can generate positive or negative subdivision names at this site.

Do you ever notice that when something's right in front of your nose, you often don't see it.  It was almost like a smack upside my head, after I started writing this post, when I realized that I grew up in an ironically named place!  Fort Bragg, California sounds like a military establishment.  It is not.  There is a true military base called Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  But Fort Bragg, California has no fort.  The original fort for which the town got its name existed for about 10 years from 1857 to 1867 to maintain control on the now long disbanded Mendocino Indian Reservation.  Over the years, the town has been mistaken for the military base.  I don't know how many times I've had to disabuse people of the notion that their father/brother/uncle had served there.  A teacher of mine drew a popular cartoon put on local t-shirts with a tourist on it wondering "Where's the Fort?"  I even heard a story about a draftee in World War II from San Francisco who was elated when he found out he was being sent to Fort Bragg because it was close to home and he would get to see his family.  He took the bus up, got off, looked around, and became more and more confused until finally somebody asked what was wrong.  He was gently told that he was supposed to go to North Carolina because there was no fort in Fort Bragg.  I believe the story related that he was given leniency for the mix-up.

So, in this post about ironically named places, I almost forgot all about the town where I grew up.  Now isn't that ironic?

Musical Interlude

Alanis Morrissette explains irony beautifully in her song Ironic.  "It's like rain on your wedding day.  It's a free ride when you've already paid.  It's like good advice you just didn't take.  Who would have thought?  It figures."

If you want to know more about Culbertson and Plentywood

Culbertson, Montana
Culbertson Searchlight (newspaper)
Sheridan County, Montana
Wikipedia: Culbertson
Wikipedia: Plentywood

Next up: A radar station in western North Dakota



Blue Highways: Poplar, Montana

Unfolding the Map

Come on, Littourati.  Put on your fat pants and let's talk about junk food on car trips as William Least Heat-Moon steps int the store to buy his road food.  You know about junk food on car trips!  The food that after you eat it, you have to drive with the top button undone because you feel so bloated, and you have to bite your hand because the sugar rush has become a sugar crash and you need to make it to a motel before you fall asleep?  I'm pretty sure you've had that experience sometime in your life. To see where we're getting our calories on, drag yourself to the map!

Book Quote

"In Poplar, Montana, where Sitting Bull surrendered six years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, I stopped for groceries.  Having resisted a chewing hunger for five days - before meals, after meals, in moments of half-sleep - I gave in to it...and bought a pound of raisins, a pound of peanuts, a pound of chocolate nibs and mixed them together.  By the time I got to North Dakota, the bag was empty, the hunger gone."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7

Downtown Poplar, Montana. Photo at Click on photo to go to host site.

Poplar, Montana

A Coke (or Coke Vanilla), some Pringles, maybe a package of Spree or SweetTarts, or maybe some Twizzlers.  That's usually my road food.

There's nothing like driving long distances to promote the eating of absolute garbage.  Why is that?  I have a theory.  First, you have to be able to get stuff that you can easily eat.  If you are planning to eat and drink while driving, then it has to be things with an easy-to-open package and that are easy to get out of the package while steering.  Mostly, those things come in easy to remove wrappers or bags that one can fit a hand into.

Though now that I think about it, Pringles are terrible for that.  It's a long, deep canister that you can only reach into about halfway unless you have a small hand and wrist.  About halfway through, you are relegated to turning the can sideways to try to get some of the chips to slide toward the opening, or you need to turn up the can over your mouth almost as if you are drinking the chips.  That hasn't stopped me from buying them, however.

Another food group that is relatively easy to eat is the fast food burger.  You pull into a drive-thru, order the food which comes in a handy paper bag, with a drink and a straw on the side, and you're good to go.  Especially if it's relatively dry hamburger.  Some places now serve juicy hamburgers with some type of sauce on them, and you are just asking for mustard and grease on your lap.  But a McDonald's hamburger is usually dry enough that you can get through it while steering without any major mishaps.

Second, and this might be a stretch, but I think that the interstate system tailored us to expect easy-to-eat fast and junk food convenience.  Before the interstates, driving was a leisure activity in itself.  There were no drive-thru's and off-ramp convenience stores.  The roads went through the center of towns and cities, and getting a meal meant stopping, getting out of the car and sitting down in a diner or a cafe.  Sure, you could purchase a soda or a candy bar for the road, but that meant going to the drug store or the small mom and pop place.  Once the interstates came into being, the main highways bypassed the downtowns.  Gas stations moved out next to the on- and off-ramps and then began to put in convenience stores.  Fast food places, catering to people on the go, moved out nearer to the interstate exits as well.  Suddenly, it became an inconvenience to drive into a town and get a meal at a restaurant.

LHM's quote comes really as the fast-food phenomenon is starting to take off in the early 1980s.  He mentions Sitting Bull, whose tribe's version of road food was probably some smoked meat in a small sack underneath the saddle blanket that had to be smoked carefully over a long period of time, after the animal was hunted, brought down, and dressed.  Now, if Sitting Bull were alive today, he could get 50 different kinds of jerky made from who knows what - perhaps an animal killed in a slaughterhouse - and run through some sort of industrial jerky-making process.  LHM seems to make something reasonably healthy for his hunger out of raisins, peanuts and chocolate bits to serve as road food.  I wonder if he were undertaking this trip in 2012 if he would eat similarly, or if he would succumb like the rest of us to the siren call of the convenience store, the beckonings of the candy, the processed food, and the colored corn syrups?

We have become all about getting places as quickly as possible.  Driving is not necessarily leisure.  It's the thing we have to do to get places, whether we are searching for leisure or not.  Therefore, I believe that driving has become a chore for most people that they accept and do because they have to.  Because of the compulsion to get places faster, we don't treat ourselves by stopping into a town and getting a meal at a local diner and take time to soak up the ambience, instead we treat ourselves to fast and junk food on the road.

Upwards of twenty-seven years ago, some friends and I tried something different.  We had noticed that when we went on trips together, we always ate junk food.  On an eight hour trip to northern Michigan,  we decided to try eating good food on the road.  We bought trail mix, fruit, and nuts.  We drank juices instead of sodas.  And we arrived at our destination fresh.  We didn't feel bloated.  We didn't feel oversugared.  We didn't feel tired.  We were really awake and alive.


It didn't feel right...

We had become so used to getting out of the car trashed from abusing ourselves with candy and chips, sodas, burgers, fries, milkshakes and such that it actually felt as if something were wrong to be so fresh after such a long trip.  On the way back home, we reverted to our old ways.  I don't know if it says something about how Americans have become addicted to garbage food, or if it says something about us as twenty-somethings who usually don't care what they eat, or both.  I still haven't learned my lesson, though.  I eat better and pay more attention to what I eat when I'm home, but when I'm on the road, give me my car and a Coke (and Spree and Twizzlers and a burger and some Pringles) to steer her by.

Musical Interlude

Don't hate me, Littourati.  I found this song, the Fast Food Song, by some group called the Fast Food Rockers.  It's wretched, it's horrid, but it fits.  Sorry.


If you want to know more about Poplar

Fort Peck Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
Fort Peck Community College
Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes
Poplar Chamber of Commerce
Wikipedia: Poplar

Next up: Culbertson, Montana


Blue Highways: Wolf Point, Montana

Unfolding the Map

As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) rides a storm out in Wolf Point, Montana, we take time in this post to reflect on storms and their symbolism.  Is LHM trying to use the storm in a symbolic fashion for Wolf Point?  Maybe, maybe not.  But storms are used to emphasize the turmoil within and without.  Where is the location of our stormy weather?  Find some shelter at the map!

Book Quote

"....At Wolf Point, a lightning storm struck the benchland, rain dropped in noisy assaults, and I took refuge in town.

"I had to go back to the highway for dinner at a truck stop.  Something moved in there - I couldn't say what.  Six people sat in the cafe, in the light and warmth, almost assured by the jukebox, and filled their stomachs; yet there was an edge to the voices, to the faces.  From a thousand feet up, the prairie storm, pouring cold water on the little cafe glowing in the blackness, held us all."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6

Downtown Wolf Point, Montana. Photo by Colin Holloway and seen at Click on photo to go to host site.

Wolf Point, Montana

It's amazing how darkening skies and storms feed into something primal within us.

When I was young, I was afraid of storms.  Where I grew up on the Northern California coast, we would have maybe one to two big storms per year with lightning and thunder, so it wasn't an occurrence that happened often.  What I really hated was the crash of thunder directly overhead.  These were the thunderclaps that happened right as the lightning flashed, or a split second afterward.  When I was young I didn't make the connection between the lightning and the thunder, but as I got older I began to understand that the closer the two went together, the closer the lightning was to me.  I particularly remember a large thunderclap that almost made me pee my pants with fright during my high school years that was associated with a lightning strike near my house that blew the wall outlets out of a number of houses and fried my neighbor's pig where it stood in its sty.

After college, I moved to the Midwest, where in the summer a thunderstorm was almost a daily happening.  Only these thunderstorms were different.  The thunderstorms on the coast where I grew up were usually big, grumbling, growling affairs that seemed to go on for an hour or two.  The thunderstorms in the Midwest, by contrast, were bombastic affairs that would start big, get bigger, and then be gone in the space of 20 minutes.  Except with these storms, there was the tinge of another danger.  Some of them might form tornadoes.  Tornadoes were not an issue on the north coast of California, but in the Midwest there were often warnings posted on local television about thunderstorms that seemed likely to form tornadoes, and even tornado warnings where a tornado had been spotted.  The ticker at the bottom of the screen would urge people in the path of the storm to take shelter immediately, usually a basement or an inside, windowless room.  I developed a love-hate relationship with tornadoes akin to my wife's love-hate relationship with snakes.  I desperately wanted to see one, but I also was desperately afraid of them as they were unknown to me.

I was also aware of the deep impact of storms in our psyches.  Storms are often used in literature to indicate disturbances within systems.  Storms have symbolized harbingers of impending doom, of division, of internal disturbances.  After reading King Lear, where he slowly descends into madness amid the storm on the heath, his rage at the storm...

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!...

"....Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join'd
Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!"

William Shakespeare
King Lear
Act 3, Scene II

...I saw the storm as being both symbolic of the outer storm of his relationship with his family, particularly his daughters, and the inner storms of his madness.  Either way, the storm is a primal element that is echoed within him.  We often refer to the difficult times in our lives as stormy times.  Things strike us like lightning or like a thunderbolt.  People move into and out of our lives like tornadoes and hurricanes.  Love and relationships are often described in meteorological terminology (listen to Thunder and Lightning by the band Chicago, or Stormy Weather by Lena Horne).  Storms are very apt metaphors for hard times either imposed by outside forces or the anger and fury that we nurture within.

LHM seems to relate the storm he experiences in Wolf Point to the town itself.  He writes of the people in the cafe having an edge to them.  Small towns, like the one I grew up in, are unique in that people become close to one another by necessity, yet such towns also harbor horrible secrets and the pent up anger and fury masked and covered from outsiders.  The storm that drenches the cafe where LHM is eating might be symbolic of hidden disturbances in the town.

It also might symbolize something more.  LHM tells a disturbing story about Wolf Point.  In his words...

"One November in another century, before Wolf Point had a name, the citizens complained of wolves.  They got together and set out poison, and the varmints died all over the prairie, and townsmen stacked a thousand frozen carcasses into high mounds that stood all winter.  When spring came, the mounds thawed and rotted.  One man thought the stink drove away the remaining wolves.  Whatever it was, nobody saw a wolf alive, and nobody since has seen one here.  On my night in Wolf Point, Montana, I couldn't imagine man or beast contending for the place."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6

Perhaps the massacre of the longtime denizens of the area is also symbolized in the storm.  What stands out to me is the hypocrisy of the name given the crime against nature.  If literature and historical experience tells us anything, it's that nature tampered with or defiled can lead to its vengeance, either slowly or quickly.  Perhaps, if this story is true, Wolf Point is destined to be a stormy place, subject either to the raging elements or the awful disturbance to the natural balance occasioned by the slaughter of the wolves.  I have heard, though I am not sure how heavily I believe this, that traumatic happenings at places can leave bad energy that manifests itself in subtle ways over many years.  Maybe Wolf Point is still working through its bad energy, embodied in a raging storm over this small town on the benchlands of Montana.

Musical Interlude

I must say that I never really was a fan of REO Speedwagon.  I kind of found them sappy (though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did own an album of theirs).  But, I always kind of liked their Ridin' the Storm Out.  So here it is for you:

If you want to know more about Wolf Point

City of Wolf Point
Montana Pictures: Wolf Point
Wikipedia: Wolf Point
Wolf Point, Montana

Next up:  Poplar, Montana


Blue Highways: Somewhere along the Milk River, Montana

Unfolding the Map

We are moving right along through Montana, and we stop in this post to consider whether we are alone in the universe.  Are we looking for something outside of us to help us understand who and what we are?  What are the prospects for civilization and humanity in general?  Lots of questions, few answers on the banks of the Milk River.  To see where we are pondering, go to the map!

Book Quote

"East of where the muddy Milk River begins rubbing its back against the highway, I stopped again, climbed a fence, and walked out to a pair of rusty boulders that an ice sheet dropped in its northward retreat.  Stones like these the Indians carved into billboards, scorecards, boundary markers, prayer books.  I hoped for a message from the first people, but the stones sat as featureless as the land."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6

Photo of the Milk River at the Follow the Piper blog. Click on photo to go to host page.

Somewhere along the Milk River, Montana

In an attempt to keep up-to-date in politics so that I can teach my political science courses, I often read opinion columns by writers with whom I disagree.  One person that I tend to have many disagreements with is the columnist Charles Krauthammer.  Yet a column that he wrote recently that ended with the observation that everything is political and everything depends on our politics, has had me thinking.  The quote from Blue Highways that I'm focusing on in this quote seems to remarkably fit with my thoughts.

Krauthammer's column asks two questions.  First, are we alone in the universe?  Second, why might we be alone in the universe.  With modern technology allowing us to see farther and more clearly into the universe than we've ever been able to see, so much so that we have discovered new worlds revolving around distant stars, and some of them have been within the so-called "habitable zone" of solar systems, we still have not seen any sign of life.  This goes for our own solar system, though we are still hoping that we might dig something up on Mars, and for everywhere out there that we look.  We have trained "ears" to the skies in the form of radio telescopes, hoping that there might be a blip in the cosmic radiation, some type of pattern in the white noise, that would lead us to conclude that the pattern isn't the normality of randomness but is in fact the product of distant minds.  So far, nothing.  Our own radio and television signals have had enough time now to reach the nearest stars, though the inverse square law would make them almost indistinguishable.  It would be nice if we began receiving the equivalent of alien television shows but so far, that hasn't happened and nobody has responded to ours though their response would probably take a long time to get here if subject to our known physics.  (Both Star Trek and a very humorous movie called Galaxy Quest explored the possibilities when alien civilizations who have received our radio and television transmissions model their civilizations or their understanding of us on shows they watch.  Imagine what they'll do when they see our reality shows!  Is a Jersey Shore planet still a possibility?)

The Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake who developed it, calculates the potential number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy.  Many of the factors that make up the equation are guesses, so by playing with the numbers and making guesses you can find that the number of civilizations could vary anywhere from 0 to in the tens of thousands.  Time is factored into the equation, so the overall figure based on the numbers input for factors shows the number of possible communicating civilizations at any point in time.  According to current estimates for the factors, there should be an average of 2.31 communicating civilizations in our galaxy at this point, plus a couple hundred intelligent civilizations that are not communicating.  The astronomer Carl Sagan, who was keenly interested in what the Drake Equation could tell us about our own civilization's chances for survival, felt that the number of communicating civilizations was actually quite high.  However, we haven't discovered any.  This is known as the Fermi Paradox, as the size and age of the universe, as Enrico Fermi put it, should make the probability that we would have discovered other advanced civilizations quite high.  Sagan argued that the problem is that rate at which advanced civilizations destroy themselves is probably quite high, and that this would explain the seeming silence.  In that way, he used the Drake Equation as a caution to humanity.

We also know that our planet has seen a number of civilizations rise and fall.  None has lasted very long in the larger sense of the time of human existence.  Many consider the 3,000 years of Ancient Egypt to be the longest-lasting civilization in human history, but if you consider humans have been in existence physically for about 200,000 years, and behaviorally for 50,000 years, then our civilizations have not been very successful enterprises.  Yet we know they have been there.  Past civilizations and the passage of peoples have left records, both non-written and written, that point to their existence.  LHM writes that he was hoping to see some of these signposts inscribed into the boulders he inspects, but doesn't find any.  However, in almost every area of the globe, signs of previous civilizations are plentiful.  One can walk in the open-air museum of Rome to see the signs of its past glory.  One can visit the ruins of Chaco Canyon, climb the steps of Machu Picchu, ascend the pyramids of Egypt, visit the lonely temples of Angkor Wat, traverse the top of the Great Wall of China, stand amidst the stone sentinels of Stonehenge, and even view Aboriginal rock art down under.  We know they were here on earth because of what they left, and we can even point to reasons why they are gone.

We don't have any signs of any extraterrestrial civilizations, and if all we have to go on is what we know, then we have really three choices.  First, in the vast expanse of the universe, we may be completely and utterly alone.  That would make life on earth a miraculous accident in what is otherwise a lifeless reality.  Second, we just haven't discovered other civilizations that, like us, are also wondering if there are others in the universe.  That would mean that, if we are patient, we might eventually discover them.  Third, as Sagan suggests, there have been civilizations capable of making contact but they have fallen and we are just the latest to attempt to create something stable that will survive and sustain us.

I don't know which possibility I prefer.  What I know is that when I think of whither and how far our current, 21st century civilization can go and what heights we can reach, I know there are many variables - availability of resources and resource use, human ability to heed warning signs, our own inventive skills and other things.  I also know the cards are stacked against us and that we are just the latest in a long line of civilizations that have come and gone.  What makes us any different than those that have preceded us?  I guess we'll find out.

Musical Interlude

I know nothing about the band Justice, but in looking for another song I ran across this song and its cool video.  Enjoy Civilization!

If you want to know more about the Milk River

Big Sky Fishing: Milk River
Wikipedia: Milk River

Next up: Wolf Point, Montana


Blue Highways: Somewhere along Highway 2, Montana

Unfolding the Map

Happy New Year!  January 1, 2012 finds us with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in the middle of Montana with a bad case of highway hypnosis.  What do you do on lonely roads?  If you can, you try to achieve enlightenment and transcendence.  But, most of us won't so we do what we can to make the lonely roads interesting.

Just a warning - I'm making a complete, utter guess (here's where I'm guessing on the map) about where LHM might have stopped on the Hi-Line.  He mentions stopping somewhere after highway mile marker 465, but I couldn't find where that was, including trying to track it down through Google Earth.  I don't think that I'm off by more than 50 miles, but it's more about keeping in the spirit of LHM's words.  And, to be honest, I will guess again in the next post, when he stops again along the Milk River.

Book Quote

"Pock-pock went the tarred road cracks.  Pock-pock.  The day remained dark, showers fell and stopped and came again, the uneven roadway collected water, the van hydroplaned every few minutes.  The clamor of wind numbed my ears; the fever made me woozy.  Pock-pock.  First the highway held me then it entered me, then I was the highway.  Pock-pock, pock-pock.  Prairie hypnosis. I drove miles I coudn't remember, and the land became a succession of wet highway stripes, and I wished for a roadfellow.  I sat blindly, dumbly like a veiled stone sphinx.  Finally, to dispel the miles, I stopped, got out, and held my face to the rain.  I shook myself.  But, once more on the road, I again became part of the machine: generator, accelerator, humanator.  I  knew nothing.  A stupefied nub on the great prairie."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6

Abandoned schoolhouse along the Hi-Line near at Savoy, Montana. Photo by Todd Klassy and seen at his Flickr photostream. Click on photo to go to host page.Somewhere along Highway 2, Montana

LHM is in the middle of a long stretch of driving a lonely highway.  There is a kind of a pleasure in driving at such times.  The miles stretch on endlessly and time seems to lose itself.

If you're an extravert, and you need companionship and stimulation, such drives shouldn't be undertaken alone or perhaps at all.  You will go a little stir-crazy in the car.  I'm not suggesting that you can't do it, but I'm just suggesting that unless you really need to drive over long stretches of lonely road alone you might consider doing something else.

If you're an introvert, like me, the alone time in the car is a time to recharge, to think and reflect, to simply enjoy the stillness in an increasingly loud and busy world.  There is a Zen quality to driving.  The highway sounds, particularly the sections of the roadway that create the "pock-pock" that LHM writes about, are white noise.  When you're in such places, even if you want to find a radio station to fill the empty air, you might be out of luck.  A radio scan might just scan through the entire FM spectrum and find nothing.  The AM spectrum is better, especially at night, but it might have a tendency to fade in and out.  In the times I drove in empty spaces, AM radio became just another part of the white noise, combining with the rush of air over the car frame, the sounds of the tires on the road, the occasional "whoosh" of a passing car, and other sounds from the car itself (the annoying rattle on the dashboard, for instance) in a barely recognizable symphony of the road.

My latest experience of drives over vast amounts of nothing when I was alone in the car was on my frequent trips back and forth between Albuquerque and Lubbock when I was teaching as a visiting professor.  Each weekend, I would make a five hour drive on Friday to see my wife, and return to Lubbock on Sunday evening in another five hour drive.  About two hours of the drive, roughly from Santa Rosa, New Mexico to Clovis, New Mexico, was through very sparsely populated areas.  The drive between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner, New Mexico was miles and miles of on unpopulated expanse.  I must say that even though at first it was a weekly chore to get in the car and drive so much, I began to look forward to those times.  I like driving in the first place because for me, the car is a place to relax, and I looked forward to the subtle changes that would occur along the road week after week.  Perhaps a business might open in what was a vacant storefront in Clovis.  Maybe I might notice, in the winter light, a geographical feature that I had missed in the late summer light.  On one particularly windy drive, I dodged tumbleweeds all along the road.  On another, I took a new route through even more remote territory than I usually drove and stopped, like LHM, along a grassy, treeless stretch of road to listen to a silence so complete that the small breeze brushing past my ear sounded like a freight train.  Speaking of freight trains, one night I saw what appeared to be shimmering water pouring out of the side of a freight train on tracks parallel to the road far ahead of me.  As I caught up, I realized that it was an immense shower of sparks from the wheels of the freight as it braked hard for some reason or another.

In those driving moments, when I did listen to music, I usually brought my IPod and I played songs on random shuffle, and I would often note an eerie convergence between the music and drive.  Perhaps it was my overactive imagination, but at times I felt that the universe aligned.

A number of years ago, I made a few long car trips and was drawn to taking rural routes rather than the interstate.  Driving through rural West Virginia, I allowed myself to listen to the radio and made the amazing discovery that I could handle country and bluegrass music, a genre that I had never really been drawn toward before.  As I drove through small Appalachian towns, it seemed to fit and it reinforced that the musics that we create and listen to really are products of our place.  To listen to rap and hip-hop in rural West Virginia, to me, would seem as disjointed as driving through an inner-city neighborhood and blasting out the latest Nashville hits.

The road, especially the lonely places, can bring such insights grounded in reality, and also flashes of inspiration and brilliance, such as the poem that came to me at a stop along the New River Gorge in West Virginia.  It can also be dangerous.  One's mind can be lulled into a Zen state of concentration and inner awareness, but it also can be lulled to sleepiness.  There have been many times when I drove alone that toward the end of a long day behind the wheel I was biting my hand to keep myself awake until I came upon a motel I was willing to use.  Especially in the lonely places, that might be a long time coming, yet I was never comfortable pulling off the road and sleeping.  I learned to give myself breaks, break up the "highway hypnosis," and end my trips more fresh.  I also made the discovery that the amazing amounts of junk food one can get along the road can make one sleepy while driving.  By eating better, less sugared stuff, I could keep myself more fresh longer.

In that sense, LHM's description of a "stupefied nub on the prairie" is only part of the story to me.  Yes, I've been a stupefied, sugar-filled, tired nub behind the wheel, but at other times the road has led me to awareness and even occasional transcendence.  I don't have as much opportunity now to go out on the road alone, but sometimes, especially on the loudest, busiest, noisiest days, I miss it.

Musical Interlude

I'm not a real big fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but occasionally a song catches me.  Running Down a Dream is one that I like, and it's lyrics are pretty compatible with the post.  Turn it up and rock along!

If you want to know more about Highway 2 along the Hi-Line

Hi-Line (film): I don't kow anything about this movie, but it is a road film set along the Hi-Line.
Montana Hi-Line Photographs
Montana Highway 2 Information
Wikipedia: Hi-Line
Wikipedia: US Route 2

Next up:  Somewhere along Milk Creek, Montana