I woke with a start to the sound of Sprocket barking. My friend leapt from her bed to calm him as I dressed hastily and went out into the motel corridor to see what the disturbance was. A lady with a room service cart disappeared into a motel room halfway down the hallway and suddenly, from nowhere, a smiling, delightfully lived-in face with a full beard and oodles of character popped into view and said “No horses allowed here.” I was still half-asleep and looked confused until he explained he had been shouting down the corridor at a colleague when Sprocket had barked in response. “He sounds big enough to be a horse,” he grinned, and then his face changed to one of concern. “I didn’t mean to wake you, I’m so sorry.” “Oh no,” I reassured him, “you’ve helped us get up in time for breakfast for the first time since we hit the road.” As I said this, I checked my watch and realised we had actually missed breakfast and were now in danger of missing check out time. The previous night’s harrowing drive along Beartooth Highway had obviously worn us out and we’d slept late. Again. “The name’s Griz,” he offered, and I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, but a quick glance at his name tag confirmed it in big shining letters. “Last name Bear, middle name Lee.” I shook his hand as I told him my name, and went back to my room to pack up my stuff.
We checked out with seconds to spare, and Griz appeared to help us with our luggage. Sprocket had done so well in the car the day before that we decided to see how he would get along in the back seat without his crate. Griz volunteered to tie the crate to the roof rack while we stuffed our overnight cases and laptops in the front seat. As he clambered on the roof and expertly knotted ropes around the crate, he told us of his life in the mountains where he resided in a teepee and made moccasins and leather clothing which he sold at markets around the area. When he’d finished securing the crate, he sprang down with the agility of a gazelle, which was remarkable, because he looked at least mid-sixties. Eager to show off his teepee, he led us to his truck parked nearby and pulled out a few photos; one of his teepee, one of him behind a market stall, and a third of a young boy in military uniform. “That was taken just before I went to Vietnam,” he said quietly, and put the photos back in the truck. As I looked into his eyes I wondered what terrors that young boy had seen, what hardships the young man returning from the war had overcome, and what kind of journey had brought him to his life now. Nothing about Griz made sense; the mountain man working in a motel who imagined dogs to be horses, and I loved him for it. Griz is the type of person you only meet on road trips, which is why I think everyone should do a road trip at least once in their lives.
I opened the back door of the car and patted the seat. Sprocket hopped up and looked back at me, surprised at the lack of crate. His doggy eyes met mine and then he did the doggy equivalent of a shrug, turned around and flopped down on the seat. I got in beside him, thrilled at all the extra space in the back seat now the crate was on the roof. Just to be safe, I grabbed a drool pad from the back of the car in case the new travel arrangements got the better of my canine companion.
As we’d missed breakfast yet again, we decided to get something to eat in Red Lodge before hitting the highway. The main street had a welcoming, rustic feel to it, with lots of wood and colourful brick buildings. Red Lodge began its life as a stage coach stop back in 1884, and later served time as a mining boom town when coal was discovered in the 1890s. Those days are long gone, but the spirit of those early years seems somehow to still resonate through the streets. On this day, however, the streets were filled with bikers on their way from the annual motorcycle rally at Sturgis in South Dakota. Red Lodge was well-prepared for their arrival, with ‘Welcome Bikers’ signs on display everywhere.
As we walked the length of the main street I was struck by the number of references to teepees. There were neon teepees hanging over store fronts, ads imploring you to stay in teepee lodges, an entire shop window dedicated to paintings of teepees. After a little research, I discovered several theories as to how Red Lodge got its name, all of them agreeing upon one thing. The Crow Indian Nation used to dwell in the area during summer months, and they lived in teepees (or lodges) that they coloured using local red clay. Hence the name Red Lodge – and the teepees.
It was such a glorious day that the thought of retreating indoors for food didn’t sit well with us. Instead, we bought breakfast sandwiches at a small bakery and piping hot cappuccinos at a nearby coffee shop and sat in a park watching the world go by. These are the meals I enjoy the most; meals cobbled together from different places. It reminds me of biking along cobbled streets in Germany, selecting a ripe Camembert at the cheese shop, purchasing a warm loaf from the bakery, choosing fruit from a market stall and stacking up the purchases in the white wicker basket on the front of the bike. As the basket filled up, so did your soul, and the food tasted all the better for it. Supermarkets are a necessary evil in today’s world. We move at such a frenetic pace and are so constantly short on time that it makes sense to shop in one-stop-shops where bread and shoelaces sit side by side in fluorescent-lit aisles. But I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the way, we lost something precious in return for convenience.
It was high time we were on our way, so we got back in the car and followed Highway 212 until we met I-90 again. At Billings we headed north onto I-94 which would take us through North Dakota. The thought of leaving Montana weighed heavily on me; for I had fallen in love with this state and its impossible, perfect skies. Oh, those skies made you feel like you could fly. Driving along the highway almost felt like flying, the way the horizon dropped down so low and the heavens opened up so wide. It filled you with such joy and hope and freedom, imparting a sense of weightlessness that was intoxicating. I can only imagine what early pioneers must have felt when they first set foot on the earth under Montana’s wide blue yonder.
Past Miles City, the Big Sheep Mountains loomed large, giving us a sneak preview of the terrain up ahead and then we were through Glendive and across the border into North Dakota. Pretty little hills of sage green and rust red, dotted with squat shrubs, lined both sides of the highway. We pulled off at a rest stop and promptly mislaid the car keys, each of us convinced the other had them last. Sprocket was all too happy to help us look for them as we walked the perimeter of the rest stop in search of the keys, which eventually turned up at the bottom of my friend’s voluminous handbag.
The gentle rounded hills gave way to sharply eroded buttes with steep inclines and spiny pinnacles as we travelled further into North Dakota and closer to the Badlands. These were bad lands indeed; early pioneers must have cursed this harsh, rugged landscape as they struggled to traverse its inhospitable terrain.
We turned south into Theodore Roosevelt National Park with a couple of hours of daylight left to drive through the park and see some of North Dakota’s baddest lands. Shadows lengthened behind the buttes as our car travelled the winding road up the slopes and onto the prairie.
Off to the left, the prairie dogs had built a town, and we got out to watch their antics. As we walked through the brush, our boots crushed wild sage which grew in thick clumps all around us, and the crushed leaves released their clean, spicy scent with such abandon that it made me a little light-headed. Well-fed, chubby little prairie dogs emerged from their burrows and barked at our advance, but when we stopped at a safe distance, they went back to business as usual. We watched them bustle about for a few minutes and then returned to the car, not wanting Sprocket to feel we had disowned him in favour of smaller furry friends.
Up and up we drove, rolling the windows down to enjoy the fragrant prairie and slowing down when we spied some wild horses in the distance, and then something remarkable happened. The scent of the horses caught Sprocket’s nose, and he popped up in the seat and stuck his head out of the window, his nose sniffing delicately and his eyes wide with wonder. It was the first time he’d ever put his head out the window and I caught my friend’s eye. She looked for all the world like a mother seeing her son walking off to school for the first time, unbearably proud of her little man. I was just as proud of Sprocket as she was. A breeze caught his ears and they flapped gently, and that was the undoing of us both. A lump formed in my throat and my friend hastily brushed a tear from her lashes as we watched Sprocket experience a canine rite of passage. Every dog deserves to feel his ears flap in the wind, and today was Sprocket’s day.
And just like that, it was over. Sprocket plunked back down in the seat and lay his head on my lap as if nothing had happened, but we knew differently. We drove onward, both of us with irrepressibly idiotic smiles on our faces.
Sunset turned the sky a furnace of purples and golds and roses as we wound around the main loop of the park, spotting buffalo as we went. Sprocket ventured forth once more, getting a good sniff of the buffalo before deciding they were too big and too close for his liking. He snuggled closer to me in the back seat.
It was dark as we left the park and found a little bar serving pizza and neon yellow soda. As we ate our pizza and avoided the strangely luminous soda at a wooden picnic table outside, we witnessed the moon rise full and bright over the badlands and in a moment of absurdity that only very long road trips can inspire, we decided to teach Sprocket to howl at the moon. He watched with curiosity as we raised our voices to the moon, and then joined in with gusto. I know full well he didn’t care about the moon; he just wanted to make us look less foolish. Victorian novelist Samuel Butler got it quite right when he said “The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.” See Sprocket in full howl in the short video of today’s journey:
We drove on in darkness as far as Bismarck where we stopped for the night. At last, we had managed to arrive somewhere at a decent hour so I took the opportunity to soak in a steaming hot bubble bath. Tomorrow we would get up early and drive all the way to Hartford, Wisconsin, where my friend’s family owned a little farm. It was a twelve hour drive, so we needed to be well-rested. I tumbled into bed and could still smell the sage brush as I drifted into unconsciousness.