5. North to Alaska: Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 – Life Out Here
The way was dark, the road winding. We lost elevation and the rolling Black Hills like ocean waves broke on the Great Plains, spilling out near-flat beneath a volatile sky. Electric air buzzed white, then the world went black again. The Buck Moon illuminated fence posts and barbed wire. Sometimes stars glinted as the calmer storm clouds wisped past. That’s the way of the prairie. The sky is everything.
Wyoming and the first small town. Civilization. It whooshed and crackled with fireworks. People darted into traffic from gas station doors to the parking lots of closed-up storefronts. Firecrackers popped on the streets and we gassed up, let the dogs out to stretch and hydrate. A Confederate-flagged truck billowed out of the shadows and into the chaotic night. We moved on into the darkness, alone and hours from the Buffalo Inn.
Out there, calm skies brightened miles of grassland. It must have been a herd of fifty deer we surprised just after midnight when we still had thirty minutes on the road, a detail I left out the next day when I assured my mother we had made it in plenty of time to Buffalo, Wyoming.
A first sight of the Rocky Mountains is always the first sight of home. They stand sentinel over Buffalo, Wyoming – a true Old West town. In the early morning light, we sought food at the Busy Bee, which was overrun with tourists and short-handed. The bar next door was interesting enough with its swinging doors, glass-backed bar, and creaky wood floors. The memory of it almost compels me to watch Longmire.
Then we took to I-90 and crossed that invisible boundary line into the only place that ever feels like home.
Now, I am a restless woman always pulled in every direction. To Texas, to the bright, sunny South. To places I’ve never been before. And it’s got nothing to do with the sense of home family secures, or God’s celestial shore. It has everything to do with time and memory and the way a place fills a soul, for better or worse. When you’re nomadic by fate, there’s something comforting in tossing aside Google Maps and measuring distance by the hours of land you almost know by heart.
We pulled off the highway to see where Custer took his last stand, a fenced-in square of grass overlooking the river from where the Lakota and Cheyenne emerged to overtake the 7th Calvary. His grave marker is haphazardly encircled by fistfuls of other markers, white tombstones to signify where loyal protectors fell. I always manage to see it around the time of its anniversary; it must have been a hot day when Custer stared up at the summer sky one last time.
Across the road an artist’s tribute tells of the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and their complicated relationship to Custer. What it tells of Sitting Bull awed and enlightened me.
“I give you these because they have no ears,” rings the voice of Sitting Bull’s vision of white soldiers falling.
Grasshoppers jump on the trail, in the tall grasses, against my legs. The humility of an Indian memorial which feels like an after-thought befits the history of the people of this place, and I have always been proud that the National Park Service renamed the site The Battle of the Little Bighorn, though the tourist trap just down the street still calls itself the Custer Battlefield Trading Post. I stocked up on stickers and postcards, and we shared an Indian Taco and a Coke outside, fanned ourselves with the local magazines that were strewn about. We had to leave the van running to keep the dogs cool.
By the time we saw Our Lady of the Rockies standing watch over Butte, an evening storm had cooled off the vehicles and streets. In the twilight hour, Butte was a rose, and we drove Uptown to explore the mines and admire the architecture of historic buildings. We ate the Pekin Noodle Parlor, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Butte according to the internet. The old staircase to its entrance is long and steep, and the orange-painted partitions are quite suspicious, though no one will ever tell you it was once a brothel. The food was alright, and, except for the absence of masks and a brief peek into the busy kitchen, we felt pretty COVID-safe in our private stall.
I relish the memory of the shining faces of my mom and grandma as I parked the UHaul in St. Regis amid the RVs and off-road vehicles the next afternoon, and, later, the proud smile of my dad as I mused I had driven clear to Kalispell, Montana from Kansas City, Missouri. That’s 1,523 miles.
With 2, 344 miles to go.
1,314 of which are the Alaska Highway.
The reprieve of an unexpected family visit had its affect, but I grew restless. The Alaska Highway. It still loomed large on the horizon, shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.