C-Tour: Montana, the Monster (or how to get to Calgary the hard way)

The day I left Custer heading towards Calgary was one of the most exhilarating and terrifying days of my life. It started with an early drive through Custer’s Gold Rush era main street, a Crazy Horse Memorial drive by, and a walkabout at Mount Rushmore. I really wanted to get to the Wind Cave National Park – and if I have one regret on this trip so far, it’s that I didn’t manage to squeeze a visit in this time round.

Mount Rushmore, though, is just what you would expect – huge, a feat of both human ingenuity and absurdity (really? blasting 450k tons of granite to put heads on a mountain?), and a fine example of modern botoxing (the monument maintenance crews apparently use silicone sealants to close the cracks in the faces – ‘sigh’ – if only). The Presidential Walk at Mt. Rushmore was well worth the up and down stairs work out, despite lugging a heavy shoulder bag (backpack would have been much more sensible).

There is an on-going land dispute with the Sioux descendants over ownership of the Black Hills, which is worth a read if you have time. What became clear to me in this neck of the woods is how many people barely make a living across a broad swath of our country, something I have seen time and again and has rattled me me right out of my 1st world point of view. We don’t have to look across large bodies of water to see 3rd world conditions. We just need to drive out of our comfort zones.

On this particular day, I did that on almost too many levels. One of the things that people asked when I committed to this trip was, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I answered regularly and glibly, “No. But what the hell! I’ll figure it out along the way.” The assumptions implicit in that statement were not remotely obvious to me at the time, but they crystalized when I went off interstate to the north of Spearfish, SD. All the planning in the world could not have prepared me for driving solo through Montana.

Having grown up on the Jersey shore where you could see the Manhattan skyline from the beach, I was surrounded by people, places, and services I took for granted every day of my life. I thought I had my lifestyle awakening when as a 30-something new mom, I was transplanted to the spires and shires of Oxford, doomed to dodge raindrops and horse pats (manure) and dress in wellies and trench coats. In summer. I knew the look of a field with more cows than humans. I’d even turned one back over after it tipped upside down on a hilly pasture and could not right itself.

But nothing prepared me for the sheer terror of wide-open spaces that stretched for a gazillion miles before and behind me. As I drove down endless two-laners gulping down a growing panic, I tried to pinpoint my fear, but it was more like a list of paranoia:

  • No cell phone coverage
  • No gas stations or services anywhere
  • No sign of life anywhere for interminable stretches of time
  • No gun, mace, or pepper spray in the car

In other words, no way to theoretically protect myself if Buffy, the Trail Slayer, were to break down and I had to rely on human intervention for help and assistance…assuming anyone would reach me in time.

I could hear the voices of all the sensible souls in my life who advised me to carry mace or pepper spray “just in case”. I realized then that all the worrywarts had reason to warn me and were probably right. I am c-razy, and worse, stupid. I was driving a Toyota Prius with New Jersey licence plates in Lululemons in a part of the country where the only vehicles along the way were tractors, Broncos, or flatbed Fords.

I had chosen this route between Mt. Rushmore and Great Falls, MT (not a C-town, but the only sensible stop between Custer and Calgary) simply by looking at a map. But maps are tricky little suckers. They don’t mark the places where most travelers lose their nerve. They don’t tell you which roads a solo female probably shouldn’t drive without packing properly (and I don’t mean clothes). I raced across Montana, fuelled by the fumes of my fears more than anything else. Because the days were shorter and this drive longer than I’d planned, night descended on a barren landscape and turned into something straight out of Area 51. When high beams would suddenly come up from behind and bear down on Buffy, my heart would race with my mind threatening to careen out of control. I started talking to Sniglet like he was Wilson in Castaway.

All of this feels wildly amusing in retrospect. I arrived back in c-ivilization via Great Falls, MT, though one could argue that the casinos that dot the country now are only just civilised. Earlier in the trip, I’d stayed at a relatively high-end hotel with a casino attached that had a sign on the door that read, “This is a weapons free establishment.”

What I really had was a huge wake-up call. A little terror goes a long way in terms of planning. I had a hard look at the map that night and figured out the time it would take to get to Calgary via Glacier National Park. I decided I would still head out that way, but would play it by head and heart whether I would take the time to visit or just fly by. The unknown is uncomfortable enough without leaving everything to chance.










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