This article first appeared in Rova Magazine
“Gentlemen, I assure you there’s nothing to worry about. Your bags will be on the flight from Dublin tomorrow.” With something like optimism tempering our jet lag-addled brains, we turned our backs on the perma-smile and dead eyes of the desk attendant, made for the car rental booth, and pondered the journey ahead. Seattle to Boston in three weeks – it would be an ambitious itinerary at the best of times, and my friend Carl and I had drawn up a meticulous plan which allowed for precisely no complications.
The next day, we dutifully returned to the airport to discover that the promised flight from Dublin was entirely imaginary – but, thanks to the wonders of the domestic airline industry, our bags could be delivered to wherever we would be in a couple of days’ time. The journey was already unravelling before our eyes, but I had another problem. In a failure of literal and figurative foresight, I had packed my glasses and contact lenses in my lost bag, and was facing driving across America blind. So it was that, 12 hours and an eye test later, I slunk out of Portland’s most hipster optometrists clear-eyed and $200 lighter. And then, as quickly as we’d arrived in Oregon, it was time to go. The yawning skies and lonely majesty of Montana lay ahead; beyond that, the violent beauty of Yellowstone National Park.
We drove all day, hugging the east bank of the Columbia River, as road signs flashed by hinting at America’s great unknowableness: Bridal Veil Falls, Lost Lake, Mount Hood. We passed through eerie ghost towns like Lind, Washington, a self-described “wheat town full of wheat people”, where the rusted hulks of old coupés decayed in the roadside sun and peeling billboards advertised the annual Combine Harvester Demolition Derby. As we forged on east, Highway 90 cut a swathe through the forests of old pine, bending to the shoreline of Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene as the midday sun cast pearls of light on the water’s edge. As we crossed the border into Montana, the shadows lengthened and nature closed in – the valley walls reared up more sharply, their covering of conifers grew thicker, and I felt the irresistible pull of a world more alive with mystery and possibility than the cities we’d left behind. Snow dusted the pines and gathered in thick furrows by the roadside, untroubled by the May sun which shone meek but brilliant in the brittle blue sky.
We arrived in Missoula in late afternoon, checked into a drab motel, and set out for the college rodeo at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Going to a rodeo had long topped my American bucket list, partly because in Britain we are incapable of staging this kind of event. A university rodeo in, say, Bristol or Leeds would be a bloodbath: hordes of monumentally far-gone students clearing the barricades to storm the arena, a grisly abattoir gallery of thrusting horns and gored pallid bodies, brought to an end only when one of the poor inebriates fished out enough ketamine from a back pocket to euthanize every animal in sight. Here, though, all was cheerful calm: parents sat alongside young children in miniature cowboy hats, and students chatted animatedly over cups of hot chocolate and trays of fried cheese curds. Exhausted, I rocked back and forth and wrapped my hand around a styrofoam cup of steaming black coffee, with only that and the light jacket I’d worn on the plane to stave off the cold. Out on the dirt, lantern-jawed cowboys bundled terrified calves to the ground, rosy-cheeked cowgirls bounced on bucking broncos, and an assortment of young vigorous people partook in a programme of activities which could reasonably be described as wholesome, unless you’re a cow, a horse or an animal rights activist.
We repaired to the Rhinoceros, a rambunctious dive with a long sticky bar stretching off into the darkness and every inch of wood-paneled wall stickered with beer mats. The range of brews embodied Montana’s robust, down-home spirit: Bent Nail IPA, Slow Elk Oatmeal Stout, Brick ‘n’ Mortar Imperial Porter. We sat at the bar, which in America is a generally convivial experience – unlike in Britain, where the stools are reserved for pickled unfortunates who have acquired the ability to communicate telepathically after decades of drinking Glenmorangie out of their own mugs. We’d soon made friends with a group of girls who worked in a pet store in town. Deep in conversation with one of them, I daydreamed happily of our future life together: tearing along mountain highways three sheets to the wind, emptying rounds into TV sets, and romping around in barns with hay in our hair. Then her boyfriend arrived, fresh from his victory in the steer wrestling category, and giving the distinct impression that he’d grown bored of manhandling 500-pound bullocks to the ground and wanted to try his hand at snapping English boys in half like twigs.
With a fresh incentive to escape Missoula as quickly as possible, we rose early the next day and ate up the road toward Yellowstone. As we climbed, the sky grew bigger and the temperature plummeted; but thoughts of the cold thawed as we crested the peak of a mountain road and the pine forests cleared to reveal a strange and terrible landscape. The earth itself was a body twisted inside out; its guts were revealed in great welts and wounds across its surface; it exhaled noisily in belching pillars of steam. Boiling rivers surged down melting candle-wax canyons, and solitary bison, their heads blunted battering rams, wandered morosely between sputtering neon lakes. We spent the day in a slack-jawed stupor, exploring the mind-blowing natural features which Yellowstone throws up as a matter of routine: the bizarre earth-hernia that is the Mammoth Hot Springs, and the vivid blue eye of the Grand Prismatic Spring, fringed by lurid irises of green, yellow and red. “Hell, with the fires out” – that was how Theodore Roosevelt described the badlands of North Dakota, beyond the Rockies to the east. In Yellowstone the fires had never stopped raging, furnaces for explosive geysers and infernal lakes, and Mephistopheles and Beelzebub had been let loose with a pack of crayons.
We arrived at our hotel in West Yellowstone in late afternoon. Behind the desk was a severe-looking woman, dressed in overalls and with her nose buried in a Western Livestock Journal. On hearing our names, and without looking up, she said, “Airline called. They have your bags.” I felt a rush in my chest. “In Missoula.” My heart sank to my knees. Accustomed by now to an extreme poverty of convenience, we sighed, despaired for our ever-narrowing schedule, and climbed back into the car.
Montana’s road signs told of America at its most evocative – Cinnamon Mountain, Anaconda, and Wise River flitted by in the twilight. Back at the airport, I thought of our next move. We had still to explore the rest of Wyoming, where half a million people live in a place twice the size of England; where the otherworldly Devils Tower looms over ponderosa pines and empty, snow-dusted highways. A stout man emerged from the baggage office, clutching two battered backpacks. At last, I thought. Our journey could begin.