Early August in Montana, 2007. The afternoons burned hot, but the mornings were bitter and covered in frost. Our days swam together until neither the time nor the day of the week mattered at all. Dad and I had two weeks and more, long enough that the internal nagging and questioning about how long before all this had to end were sent away. We watched no television and kept the radio off. We visited no restaurants and no bars. With two coolers and a camper-freezer full of food, we restocked at a grocery store only once. It’s as far away from everything and anything as I’ve ever been, for as long of a time as I’ve ever known. There were timeless, surreal moments, and they were fantastically long.
Dad and I towed his small camper from Pennsylvania, 1900 miles in 32 hours, with no stops — just gas fill-ups and bad fast-food to go. A long road trip done that way seems fast, because your progress never stops. You burn through states and cross county lines at 80 miles an hour. And yet, you’re not doing much besides holding a steering wheel and drinking coffee, as the wide highway passes in slow motion.
Traveling west and chasing the sunset is like driving toward the past. Night falls and weariness creeps in, begging for sleep. But when you make it through the dark, your sails are hoisted with the dawn. You feel the sun push from behind as it rises again. And then on the other side of a second day, at the next sunset, the orange fire pulls you like a friend into the gentle darkness. And your headlights cut through the dewy space again, speeding west at 80 miles per hour.
The rivers were big, full of wide water like I’d never seen. The rivers were fast, tumbling down mountains taller and steeper than I’d ever known. The rivers were hard, full of huge granite boulders that dwarfed the soft limestone of my home. And I felt small. I remember the first phone conversation with my wife. I told her all of this, how Montana was a gorgeous, incredible place, but that it was so big that I somehow felt half-sized. The valleys were rugged, jagged and wide, not like the comforting green shadows and protective arching limbs of my own familiar waters.
Within two days, I lost the small feeling, and I found a balance with the land around me. And I fell in love.
We fished morning into night until it was habit. We explored and waded large rivers and back country feeders, with few breaks in between. Dad and I sometimes lost track of the day and the hour, enough that we felt at home in a place that wasn’t our own, if just for a while.
Two weeks. Then we packed up and burned back down the highway with the sun pushing against us. It resisted us from the east, and when the shadows shifted to the road ahead, the sun pulled us backward toward the setting horizon. The time zones and clocks added to our travel, contesting our progress eastward, until we finally crossed the Pennsylvania border, back to the familiar. In the last three hours of travel, the wheels felt like we were slogging through mud.
Then, in the final stretch, the thoughts of home warmed me from inside. Dad and I were both ready. Sixteen separate days was enough, and at last we were home. The embraces, the smiles, the stories and the laughter shared with family was welcome because it was missed.
I remember being restless on the first night home. And I walked outside at 3 A.M. to feel the summer breeze, to smell the familiar scent of oaks and maples. I stared forever at the truck and the hitched camper, motionless, until my own legs were stiff and needed sleep.
I still daydream of those miles. I remember the cross-country travel with Dad as much as the fishing. I remember the lonely campsite atop a windy knoll. I can smell the burned-out sagebrush. And I can feel the wonderful emptiness of just me, Dad and our Border Collie. I remember the nothingness and the peace that came with it. I remember it all.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N