Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Getting out of Montana

We can’t get out of Montana.  And it’s eating me alive.

At first, we’d only planned to spend one day here. We arrived in Kalispell in the early afternoon, and planned to get up early the next morning, drive through Glacier National Park, and head on through Montana and North Dakota from there. Two days tops. Then after looking at some maps, and a book of short hikes I bought at a local bookstore, we decide to stay another night at the hotel we’re staying in Kalispell, so we don’t have to pack everything back up if we were just going to spend another day at Glacier.

Then, after a misdirected stop at the Alberta visitors center, we decide to head up to the Waterton side of the park for afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales hotel.  On a lark I ask them how much to stay for a night. I think it’s a splurge and just plan on tea, but David says “It’s just one night…”

By the end of the day we’ve booked a night in the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton. It’s romantic and beautiful in a remote, windsept kind of way.  We have tea, we spend a night on the sixth floor of the hotel as the wind howls all night long. The wind never stops here—it doesn’t even slow down. Winds over 100 mph are common. Wyoming has nothing on Waterton, Alberta. But the wind seems to be blowing us back toward Montana, if I have my directions right.

The next morning we dawdle through a hike after breakfast, dreading the inevitable. We’ve known it for days now, but we’ve been in denial. And now it’s come:  we have to drive through Montana and North Dakota.

With nothing on our agenda until we get to Minnesota, we just have to drive, drive, and drive some more for a couple of days.  We’ve driven a lot already, probably close to 3,500 miles, but this stretch has been the one we’ve dreaded since we started to plan the road trip portion of this trip.  And as much as we’ve put it off, we can’t do it anymore.

We get out the maps, and fire up Google. We decide to make our way south, to interstate territory, abandoning all notions of a quiet pootling drive across country highways. We are getting out the fastest way we know how.  Billings is about six hours away, so we decide to make for it for the night.  The GPS constructs a hodgepodge of Montana highways--a route that gets us there, in roughly the amount of time we think it should take—but it doesn’t take into account the fact that all of eastern Montana, everything east of Glacier National Park, essentially, is under construction.

We stop once to be shepherded through a section of construction by a pilot car, at 35 miles per hour. And then we do it again. And again. We stop maybe ten or twelve times, stop so completely that we turn off the engine and have time to talk with the person holding the Slow/Stop sign.  (Incidentally, never rise to the bait of talking politics with a road construction worker in Montana. Unless you want to be in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing with her supposition that the president--and by extension the entire government--is controlled by the Chicago mafia. If it happens, just nod and smile vaguely.) We begin to be slowly crushed by Montana, like it’s grinding us under it’s cowboy boot heel. Billings seems to shrink rather than grow on the horizon of the GPS, and instead of the time to our destination becoming shorter, it actually begins to add minutes. It feels like we’ve been sentenced to additional time for bad behavior.

When we finally arrive in Billings it’s nearly dusk. And we do the other thing we’ve been sort of dreading since Utah—we book a campsite for the night.  Our first night of camping and sleeping in the car didn’t go so well. David is, at best, a restless sleeper (at one point his mother turned the lock around on his childhood bedroom door to keep him from wandering around at night), and if you toss and turn in the back of a Subaru wagon, your sleeping partner will be tossed around like a cork in the sea. Neither one of us got much sleep that night, and it made us find excuses not to camp our way through Vancouver Island and Washington.  Also, and I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there are lots of bugs at campgrounds.

There are lots of bugs at the KOA campground in Billings, too.  So many, in fact, that we upgrade to something they call a Kabin, which is essentially a one-room cabin with a bed, power, a heater and an air-conditioner. And most importantly, window screens. We do a furiously quick load of laundry, skype with David’s mother, and then drive around looking for something to eat.  We get stopped by a train on the side of Billings that has no restaurants. Then we get stopped at every light all the way through town. It’s after nine and we can’t find anything open. We are done with driving, with Billings, with Montana. It has beat us down flat.

We get something to eat, finally, on our third attempt, and fall into bed in our Kabin, not even bothering to walk across the campground to the bathrooms to brush our teeth. In the morning we bolt down a quick breakfast and get on the road.

When we finally get there, North Dakota is easy by comparison. It gestures us to go on through, and we slice across its belly on I-94.  The whole state takes us less than a day. We leave Billings at  9 am, and even though we lose a time zone somewhere this side of the state line into North Dakota, we still make it to Fargo by 7 pm.  Only at one point are we delayed by construction, and only then because we have to reduce our speed from 75 to 65 miles per hour. North Dakota is a long, rolling, sunflower-filled prairie (containing the world’s largest Holstein Cow).

Yeah, that's prairie bug on the windshield
Eastern Montana? North Dakota? Same diff.

 Salem Sue

World's Largest HOLSTEIN Cow--recognize.

Montana, however, has given me a parting gift.  I have been bitten not once, not ten times, but a hundred million times by something small and evil. I notice a few lines of small bites on my legs in the morning, but by the time we stop to make a peanut butter sandwich lunch in Miles City I can feel a host of welts beginning to wake up. By the time we get to Bismarck I’m covered in large red welts that are hot and pulsing. They play a game of Marco Polo with each other, one of them scratching bow on strings like the lead violinist tuning up the orchestra. It plays a note of itch, which when scratched, resonates through all of them, and they swell the chorus.  My body reacts in gooseflesh that I don’t think is from the air conditioning in the car. Just writing this post makes the itching worse.  Bad enough, but I’m driving so I can’t take anything. 

My neck was unshapely with bites

The ones on my face showed up during a skype with my Mom


They were everywhere! and they grew together!

Finally, after I begin to use David’s cool fingers as a compress on some of the larger welts, he forces a Benadryl on me. After giving it a while to take effect, he returns to the driver’s seat. Fargo is still an hour away, but I’m concentrating on the horizon, and the hope of some relief.  Getting out of Montana took us almost a week, but we finally did it.

After a fretful night in Fargo watching the welts literally pop up before my eyes, I suss out an Urgent Care center near our hotel with Saturday hours. I walk in and wave a hand around myself vaguely and say “something bit me.” The response I get, from the technician who takes me back, from the doctor (named Lana herself), and from the nurse who eventually gives me a steroid shot in my rear is “Oh, honey. Poor you. You need a shot.”

I get a shot to get the ball rolling, then more steroids to take over the next 10 days and some Benadryl and Zyrtec for a month or so.  We get in the car and before the GPS can fire up our directions, we’ve passed into Minnesota. Just like that. 

Poor Minneapolis didn’t get a fair shake our first day there, as I spent most of it lying around a motel room moaning about how itchy I was, and how the steroids weren’t working.  I slept better on a Benadryl dope, and while most of me looked like this the next morning, I felt much, much better.

Bitten legs, day three

As I’m writing this we’ve made it to Michigan, but I still look like I’ve been in a barfight with angry-fanged bats. Thankfully it’s been rainy and cold and I haven’t felt like wearing shorts. Because poor David got a lot of looks while holding my hand as I walked around the Mall of America in shorts and flip-flops (my feet were soooo itchy!). 

More on Minneapolis/St. Paul, Wisconsin and its deliciousness, and Escanaba in the moonlight to come…