Last Thursday, my sister and I woke early and began our long drive to Bozeman, Montana.

Many moons ago, I used to go on long family road trips from Texas to visit my father’s relatives in big sky country. While I’ve seen a few faces since then, it’s been at least 14 years since I’ve seen many of them on their home turf.

Numerous factors brought this trip about: my uncle from California was heading to Helena for an annual marathon; my other uncle wasn’t in jail, my father was able to get off work to meet them, I needed a place to live between Portland and Thailand, and my sister had room at her apartment, my sister also had a car just itching to be broken in, and my grandmother had a place for all of us to stay.

Opportunities like that happen only once.

The sister’s Hyundai was gassed up, stocked with jerky and water, and on the road by 6:30AM. Most of the morning drive was during desert rainstorms. By 1PM, we had made it to the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, to pick up my father who had flown in to avoid the first part of the drive. The first few hours until my father’s pickup went quickly, but once entering Wyoming the journey became eternal. The state is beautiful, but there is nothing but repeating scenery along the highway. By the time we rolled into Billings, it was nightfall. I was getting sleepy, but safely got us across the pass and into Bozeman. By 11:45PM, we pulled up the driveway to my grandmother’s house. For all 17 hours I was the driver. It was a crazy decision on my part, but I get nervous as a passenger on the highway. It’s not a high nervousness, but it means having a hard time relaxing for the journey. Instead, I chose to be exhausted by driving. But 17 hours is a pretty long time, both in distance and in stamina. I don’t know how my parents could make such long drives every year, especially with two small-bladdered kids in the back seat. Maybe they feed of our energy as shadow soul stealers.

The route (red is the return route):

Here are some photos of the trip:

The endless, green hills and open road of Wyoming.

A strange cloud formation in Wyoming. I expect God to hammer a square cloud into it any day now, if he’s capable.

Sunset on the dirt road my grandmother lives along.

The mountains as seen from her front yard. It’s a pretty ridiculous view at this time of day.

One morning, I walked along the trees planted as snow breaks at the edge of her property. Apparently, a deer had babies somewhere in there and I intended to find them. I did not.

But the mother eventually showed herself at the bird feeders in the backyard. She was systematically testing the rope for weaknesses. She remembers.

On Friday, we went to a construction site to pick up my uncle.

My father and uncle hauling supplies and watching their footing in the mud. My uncle hadn’t changed in the ten years I hadn’t seen him. Despite his incarcerations and hard living, he’s just as funny, friendly, and smart as I remember.

While my uncle got cleaned up for dinner, I sat outside his apartment and tried to get as close as possible to the Magpies.

That afternoon at my grandmother’s house, we had an early feast of homemade lasagna, salad and other vegetables. It was washed down with tea, pies, and coffee. Afterward we packed up the cars and drove and hour and a half to Helena to register for the race.

On the way through a neighborhood in Helena, we passed a family of deer eating a row of bushes. The people from Montana were quick to mention that the capital is infested with deer.

The starting line of the 5k race. My uncle was the only family member to tackle the full marathon. He started at 6 in the morning. Throughout the day, various races started. All finished at the same line, around the same time. My uncle brought an entourage with him from California. Combined with the rest of the family, we made a large racing group.

Aunt, sister, grandmother, and uncle.

Discarded water cups.

One of the judges staring out his apartment window.

My uncle, heading toward the finish line. He made it in 5 hours.

Someone who didn’t quite make it.

Three brothers and a mother: the core of Team Dauminator 75.

Orange slices at the finish line.

Back at the hotel, we had a surprise visit from my grandfather. I hadn’t seen him since I was a boy, and it was a little awkward at first. He’s a little bit like a living John Wayne: a tough, solitary man more comfortable around oil and cows than people. My sister, uncle and father ate dinner with him at a nearby restaurant. It felt a bit like a Chris Ware comic.

On the way out of Helena, we passed the bulk plant where my grandfather drove every day for 41 years to fill his fuel truck. I have vague memories of riding with him to this plant. Back then, we stopped to fill up the tanker and I ate some Pop Rocks.

A rollerskating pig eating a hot dog on a gas station sign.

That night, we got back to Bozeman. My uncle reserved a table at a lodge on the outside of town. The lodge overlooked snow-capped mountains and a small pond that stocked trout for the restaurant. Everyone’s meal was delicious, but heavy on the meat. I had a strip steak with vegetables and a salad. Others had duck, fish, and pork. But not rollerskating pork.

Sunday was a lazy day at my grandmother’s house. It started with a big breakfast and ended with a big dinner. Again, more meat around every bend. I ran around outside a little, kicking and punching a tennis ball. Early the next morning, we began our journey home.

Instead of heading back the same way, we decided to take a route that led through Yellowstone National Park. We entered through the North Entrance and left through the gates at the south end into Grand Teton National Park.
Cuss words cannot describe how beautiful the park is. But holy @*&#!

Mineral deposits and mountains.

A pack of bison wandering through the woods.

A herd of elk.

The closest we came to a bear. It’s in the center of the image.

One of the numerous shallow rivers flowing through beautiful valleys.

Chipmunk looking at me.

A large roaring waterfall.

More bison roaming in front of the smoking earth.

Scalding blue water of one of the Fountain Paint Pots.

A bubbling soup of minerals nearby.

Eagle sized black birds eating trash out of someone’s truck.

After my sister went to the bathroom and missed Old Faithful geyser, we headed south. When we reach the continental divide, the scenery became snowy. It was a whole other landscape.

A view of Yellowstone Lake, the largest mountain lake in North America.

My father and sister.

The foggy tops of the Grand Tetons loom ahead, as my father disobeys a warning sign and goes looking for bears.

As we got higher into the Grand Teton National Park, it started snowing. One section of mountain had collapsed onto the road and was being repaired.

A partially frozen stream.

A picture of the scenery as we waited for passage.

Within an hour of leaving the park, the landscape changed first into moist green woods, and then into weird ruddy badlands.

Rounding the bend.

It took forever to get to the interstate. The sun fading behind us. For hours, there was nothing but a view: no people, few cars, just us chasing the curve of earth as nothing more than a speck in its vastness.

I kept on driving.

Night fell and we rolled through Denver. We were all very sleepy. I was driving in a dream. We stopped at a motel to begin the journey again this morning. Now we’re back in Santa Fe.

Onward to Dallas and then Thailand and beyond!!!

June 9th, 2008. Categories / Montana, N. America

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