Trip #2 –

One late September afternoon I was looking through a box of photos and came across a few snaps from the motorcycle trip. In one, Hank’s mother had taken of us just before we left, we looked like early-days astronauts. My thoughts kept returning to that time—who I was back then, so eager to please, and the unfinished Missoula trip.

On the spur of the moment, I asked for a week off from my grant writing gig and decided to take my first solo road trip. I’d travelled to other countries, moved sight unseen to Vermont, and knocked around enough to annoy my friends who resorted to penciling in my current address. But I had never taken a vacation alone, completely alone. Missoula or Bust! Here I come.

I borrowed a modest amount of camping gear from friends and the night before I left had dinner with my mother. “Why are you going there?” she asked when I described retracing the trip to Missoula.

“It’s just something . . . something I need to finish.” I promised to call her often from the road to let her know I hadn’t been murdered. She didn’t smile.

“Well, keep your doors locked,” she said. “You never know….” I left tent camping unsaid.

Day One

I was driving before the sun was even thinking about coming up, passed eighteen-wheelers and smiled this time. One of them yelled something at me. I waved him off and then realized twenty minutes later that my left-turn blinker was still on.

After more than eight hours of driving, I found a campground and prayed that practicing putting up the tent at home would pay off. Ah, no glitches or public humiliation. After dinner I attended the ranger’s lecture. I was imagining this:

But instead, we got an hour of this, which was juicy for the kids—the myriad of natural dangers lurking in the woods.

I had a glass of wine to relax after the campfire and regretted it later when I was awakened in the middle of the night by footsteps outside my tent. Even though the footsteps retreated, I could still hear something moving around in the dark. “Girl of the woods,” what a joke, I opened the blade of my Swiss Army knife and finally fell asleep clutching it in my hand. I was awake before dawn, did a so-so job of folding up my tent, skipped the whole camp stove routine, and hit the road. I had to admit I wasn’t much of a camper.

Day Two

After breakfast in Ketchum, I was ready for a hike and checked in at the ranger station. He recommended a trail “that’s not too strenuous for someone….” I sighed while he outlined something on the map that was “well-traveled, if you’re hiking alone.” What is it with everyone? It turns out I saw less than a dozen people all day—not one murderer or ravenous bear. I was the ravenous one and devoured my gourmet lunch that cost way too much but was so delicious I practically whimpered.

As I headed for the car, my legs had that same rubbery feeling as when I climbed off the motorcycle. Only this time, I noted out loud, I was tired from doing something, not just from sitting for hours on the back of a you-know-what. I decided to stay the night in Missoula no matter the hour when I arrived. As the sun began to set and the western sky started it’s rosy lightshow a strange sensation came over me—I felt a touch braver and more competent than when I started out. Small steps lead to big ones my old therapist liked to remind me.

The day ended with a cup of “Evening in Missoula” tea at the only café that was still open. I was so charmed with the name I negotiated a small package to take with me.

Days Three and Four

Day three I spent walking around town, visiting the university campus, a great bookstore, and turned in early at the motel. Day four I got up early and had a big breakfast before leaving town. Just outside Missoula I pulled the car over and got out the map. The car and I, we didn’t want to go home the way we came. We wanted a new route; one we’d never taken. By now, I was regularly patting the dashboard and telling the old girl what a great steed she was. I saw Flathead Lake and thought it sounded interesting. It was beautiful there and can report that even in the summer the water is icy cold. I called my mother that afternoon from Coeur d’Alene. “Isn’t that where the skinheads live and that guy from the OJ trial?” I looked down the street from the phone booth and described two geezers, much older than me, walking toward a monster motor home.

I followed Route 2 and headed for the Columbia River, singing the only phrase of “Roll on, Columbia roll on” I knew, over and over. I leisurely followed the broad-shouldered river into Portland and ended the night in a Super 8 motel. First a shower, then dinner. This was how I wanted to travel. No head banging inside a plastic bubble, obstructed views, and stopping when I wanted.

I was too tired to get picky and walked across the motel parking lot to a Denny’s. While I waited for my soup and salad an older dude of uncertain intent ambled over to my table.

“Pardon me, Miss. Me and my friends don’t like to see a woman eating alone and wonder if you would like to join us.” I looked over and there were three more dudes—sheepishly smiling at me.

“That’s very nice of you to offer but I’m too tired to chat. Thank you, though, for the invite.” He gave me a nod and returned to his tribe empty handed. Life suddenly became . . . amusing? surprising? You just never know.

I left the motel by 5:30 am to get out of Portland before the cussed commuters and sang along with the Beatles and then James Taylor. And when I wasn’t singing, I was just driving and feeling so damn free and good. Then it was all business. Interstate-5 offered only intermittent stretches of scenery, close to several towns where friends were living. I would have loved to see them since it had been years; but didn’t call or stop. I was doing this trip solo all the way.

I ended my trip by dropping off the mostly untouched camping gear, unpacked, took a shower, and went out to the local Chinese restaurant for takeout. After devouring the beef with broccoli, I opened my fortune cookie. It read: Slow progress is still progress. Stay patient.

Photo credits: Moonlight over Montana – dick-hoskins, tent gear – fredrik-ohlander, ranger – library of congress, ranger-danger lecture – joshua-j-cotton, fortune cookie – charles deluvio.