by Raju Peddada
Dedicated to our God of Car Trips -- my Audacious father
[Read Part I of this travelogue.]
"The implacable Truth is the King, and the Minister that reside within the Soul of the River that brooks forth into the future."
—Raju Peddada, 30 July, 2012.
(Swans - September 10, 2012) I woke up at 3:45 am on the 8th of July, 2012, after some fitful sleep in that Bismarck motel, wondering if we were in the Mountain Time Zone. A quick hot-cold shower washed off my sleep. I got ready, and went on the balcony to feel that cool pre-dawn breeze. Then I saw this silhouette to my left, on a tipped chair, leaning backwards, with his legs on the railing.
"G-mornan!" He said in a slurred voice;
"Good Morning... or good night?" I responded;
"... Jus havin some beakfast." I saw the Budweiser can in his right hand after my eyes had adjusted to the dimness.
"Wher ya from?"
"Illinois" I said;
"long way off, hic... how wassa drive?"
"Smooth... you traveling too?"
"Naw... I'm widda friggin rairoad crew... on a job heer - hic... where to?"
"Montana... gotta to get an early start, avoid the heat."
"...hear ya... stay gool, man."
I loaded up the car, and woke up my crew. On the way down, I said "hey buddy... here's my railroad chief," pointing to a groggy Mani.
"Dey'll werk you haad man... lyke me, lill bosss... have a saffe go, g-guys, hic!"
"Byyye!" In unison.
I shook my head in cogitation -- life is nothing but an aggregate of the consequential and the inconsequential encounters. I could hardly see the man's face, with whom I had this exchange, and here I was, fantasizing about tracking him down years from now, just to see if he'd remember it. Drunk -- I doubt it. I can't remember many chance encounters in my life, but some get tattooed on us forever. Like this one, in the middle of nowhere, at four in the morning.
We were on 94W at 4:50 am. Yesterday, Butch had suggested: "Daddy... you have about 80-90 miles to Dickinson from here (Bismarck)... sun's still out... why don't we keep going?" He had been my navigator since Barnesville, in Minnesota. "Yeaah, we should keep going," chimes in Mani. Maybe I should have -- if I had been maniacal like Jack Kerouac, who typed his 120-foot-long scroll-novel On the Road in three weeks, we would have been in Montana. Sitting still, while moving at 75 mph, induces the brain to wander. In those pre-dawn hours, while the boys slept, I traveled backwards, into the early 16th century, while we crossed quietly over into the Mountain Time Zone, after Hebron.
People today file for divorce just for looking cross-eyed at each other -- Henry the VIII, in the early 16th century, had involved his whole court, the parliament, and several executions, just to get an annulment on his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, from the Papacy in Rome. You are probably wondering how in the hell did I drift into such a sphere. Well, I am reading Wolf Hall, a deftly crafted 2009 Booker Prize winner by Hilary Mantel. To put it simply, at least for the sake of our bawdy entertainment: the moment he penetrated Anne Boleyn, Catholicism was screwed. And, in retrospective, Boleyn's girl by Henry, in due course, transcended every man of her age, becoming the yardstick by which every monarch had been measured. Then, a smile breaks on my face upon glancing into the rear seat, when suddenly, brrrrrr-phut-brrrrr-phut-brrrrr -- the car began drifting into the bosom of a purple dawn.
Driving west, the sun will not fry you till about 1:00 pm, but when you are driving east, you're cooking by 10:00 am. Butch's navigation was accurate; Dickinson appeared like a ghost town underwater, as I saw the first oil well immediately northwest of the town and the highway. We were passing through an ocean of grassland, with only a handful of trees that appeared like sentinels guarding some mysterious heritage. And, as we approached Fryburg, buttes (eroded mud hills) started to materialize in bewildering shapes and sizes, appearing like eroded boobs. Then the first sign: Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Exit at Medora.
The boys stirred up as we passed Belfield around 6:45 am. We pulled up just before Medora, at the historic scenic overlook. A cold breeze sliced us as we scampered back to the car in our boxers to get blankets and my camera -- it must have been no more than 43 degrees. Moments later we were at the fence and were gifted with an astonishingly profound sight: the Badlands canyon, painted in the morning light. The sun rays gave the buttes gray shadows in the west, yet created an inexplicable easel of hues to the east. In fact, everything out there had its own subtle tint that competed for attention. "Oh...my... god!!!" exclaimed the boys in chorus. I was speechless... and remained that way. "Daddy... how far is the end... there?" "Daddy... wow... I see so many purples!?" "Can we go down... please, please...we won't be here again?" A rockslide in questions. Our smiles and wonder possessed, for a moment, what had arrested Teddy Roosevelt over a century ago.
The boys threw off the blankets and were twitching to descend into the canyon through a breach in the fence. I was tempted too, but we had an objective: to be in Great Falls by lunchtime. We ate our breakfast while devouring the canyon with our eyes. A few pictures later, we reluctantly exited this majestic theater for the highway, the canyon still lingering in us, yet slowly shrinking and receding on either side of the highway. 94W veered north into Montana after a settlement called Beach, with "No Services" posted on its exit. At Glendive we merged onto 200N -- later -- 200W, a two-lane highway that cut through the heart of the state, all the way to Great Falls.
Every vehicle that appeared around the corner or over the hill from the opposite direction at the speed limit, with just a metaphorical yellow line separating the two opposing lanes, was a potential agent of death. In such conditions I could not afford distractions, but sleep was overpowering me in an attempt to recoup the principle owed to my body. But I managed to keep it at bay by constantly applying cold water on my eyelids, and thinking of my exes. It worked. Montana, on 200N, was more of the same -- huge ranches and farms surrounded by blonde fields, spotted with Black Angus cows, like moles on the ass of a gigantic Swedish woman. Farms so huge, they required cowboys on dirt bikes to corral the herds that wandered far on the range.
We experienced a diabolical increase in the protein blobs impacting our windshield: Bugs. "Daddy... what would that protein taste like?" Mani, our resident carnivore, asks with a rascal smirk. I respond: "Boys... like it or not, bugs will become a source of food in the near future... a few days ago, a newspaper had a huge story on it." Response: "... Eeeiiiooo... eeekk!" "Why, it's meat... don't you guys love meat?" "Nooot thaaaat meat... it's yuckee!!" During this exchange, we arrived at a crossroad, a small settlement called Circle, a fifties time capsule with a full-service Sinclair gas station. I asked Cory, the man who serviced us, "What was the entertainment in town?" Pointing towards himself in all earnestness, he claims: "I'm It!" Incidentally, another car arrived with an Illinois license plate. Now, what are the chances of that happening? The driver, a Mulatto, was in Great Falls for a class reunion. We exchanged pleasantries, and in no uncertain terms he stated "we have to be in Chicago tonight." That was over 1,150 miles from Circle.
As we gathered speed on the way out, suddenly, this huge, blue, iridescent butterfly flutters to the left and ahead of the windshield, as I follow it fascinated. It struggles up, but gets sucked down into the car's drag, and vanishes beyond the hood. The drive from Circle to Stafford was a war against sleep. Somehow the drive dissolved in memory flashes, as a three-hour montage of jump edits in monochromatic surroundings. Then abruptly, 200W morphed into a gravel road under construction. Visibility was less than manifest, as I saw the flashing lights of a Montana State Trooper behind us. We were pulled over shortly thereafter.
When I looked up, I saw Joe Don Baker, I shook my head, and looked up again... it was him! He scrutinized us, and said "Sir... cannai sey youaa lycence un unsurance... d'youaa kno whaai I stopped youaa?" I mumbled something incoherent, he cuts me off and asks: "... d'youaa sey da post'd sped limt, un da no passin segn a-da beginin o'da constraation zone?" Showing inconvenience, I asked "Officer... can you cut me some slack, we drove all through the states at the posted speed limits... I just couldn't see..." He cuts me off again: "Sir... Aa onlee sey wha youaa deed heer... set taght, aa'll bey raght bac!" He writes up two citations -- one for speeding and one for violating the no passing zone, and cuts us loose: "Bee saafe... than sorre... youaa got kiids." I recovered from those two slaps on the wrist by the time we passed a beautiful town called Belt, only twenty-four miles from our destination.
My daughter, Lizzy, and son-in-law, Eddie, are gifted gamers. Despite having recently moved into a new house on the Malmstrom Air-Force Base -- living out of boxes, they didn't hesitate... "Sure dad, come... we'd love to have you and the boys... we'll rough it!" was their sporty invitation. I know many people who would postpone such fun to get organized, which is quite predictable, but not them. A feast awaited us, prepared by the resident chef, as we arrived famished around 2:00 pm. The fantastic menu was kale rasam -- her invention -- toor dal, and cilantro chutney, with basmati rice... lovingly conjured, based on her grandmother's recipes. It was astounding as to how she accomplished this over two demanding and indefatigable creatures, my grandchildren: a two-plus-year-old Satya, and the eleven-month-old, River. Then, this other entity, Saske: a wolfish Husky, with Marilyn Manson-like eyes that pierced through us, but was puppy affectionate, hardly two, they had found it on the streets of Great Falls. What a find!
Our conversations were droll, banishing all tedium. It is nearly impossible to counter the light-speed comebacks from Lizzy, whose radial mind turns over constantly at 5,000 rpm. On the other hand, my son-in-law, a sincere man, despite being a Packers fan, earnest in every manner, with a titanium disposition, to take all the darts from his mind-raking wife, and my Bears jabs. Both insanely delightful! The infuriating paradox: Pretty-knockout daughters turn their fathers to grandpas rather quickly, dousing any potential detours into our youth. Nevertheless, I almost dislodged my teeth by constantly gritting in love over my grand-critters. Despite their life in the boxes, they opened up cartons of informal hospitality.
A week after our arrival, Lizzy ecstatically took delivery of her new Subaru. Also, my grandson took his first step on the 17th before his uncle Butch, a month from his birthday. Days evaporated rapidly as we devised meals and a target game in their back yard: an empty milk carton on a stump about twenty feet away, which we had to knock off by pitching three times at it. The pitches were baseball oriented, but the scoring was 6 points a hit, like in football. Several games were played in the ensuing days in ferocious intensity -- dogfights to a draw.
On Sunday, July 15, we took off for Helena in the late morning, but were lassoed by the majestic canyons on the way, inducing a detour. We took the canyon access road that hugged the Missouri, with many alluring recreational spots. At one point we waded into the river, under the awe-inspiring landscape, with a meandering train line. The two babies were virtually tossed into the strong Missouri current... Satya was frolicking in the waters before we could blink, and River plunked down in the 60-degree current up to his armpits... then suddenly, with everyone watching, he put his head into the river, grabbed a fistful of pebbles, and put them into his mouth, algae and all. It was mystifying -- this fearless boy was devouring the mighty Missouri's lunch. Lewis & Clark would have journaled such a scene. We meandered in the canyons, and are still there.
Departing was difficult, especially from River, as we both had bonded over the course of our ten days there. The night before we left, the last thing I remember seeing was River's eyes, and that unforgettable and seemingly cryptic smile, as if prodding me: "... are you going to go... and leave me with these Packer fans?"
[Continue to Part III of this travelogue.]
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)