Minneapolis 3:30AM; Why is it so cold out here? Why didn’t the hotel receptionist warn me? Why can’t I sleep?
The following morning finds me standing outside the hotel, with Styrofoam coffee in one hand, Marlboro in the other, both jackets buttoned and eyes squinting against the glare of the snow-covered swimming pool. From the experience of the last few days it seems almost laughable to have a swimming pool here at all, save for it being used as a skating rink, but I suppose this far inland you have to take the rough with the smooth – bitter winters, roasting summers. We had nothing to do but drive today, maybe twelve hours, maybe more. Doug had provisionally called Billings, Montana as the end of the road today. That is still a good 700 miles or so from here, boosting along I-94. Hang a slight left at Fargo (the Cohen Brothers Fargo…) and continue straight on through the entire of North Dakota…
A little east of Fargo we stop for sustenance, eating potentially the most unhealthy salad known to man (extra cheese, extra chicken), at a truck stop populated entirely by stereotypes. The Formica tops are gleaming, the slightly-older-than-she-feels waitress has a glint in her eye as she wanders round topping up coffees from a bottomless round-bottomed glass jug. The truckers plough grease into their cap-and-beard obscured faces with both hands, napkins tucked into their checked shirts at the neck. An old man waves a mop at the floor ineffectually, as he had clearly been doing for many years with diminishing results. For a moment I think that I don’t ever want to go home again.
We saddled up and drove straight on to Bismarck, capital of North Dakota, passing huddled buffalo and ethereally-drifting snow. Bismarck was a quick coffee, postcard, Hershey bar and cigarette stop, primarily to fuel up but serving the additional purpose of allowing those of us in “the back” to shake out the deep-vein thromboses that were gathering in our collective calves and buttocks. The sun was already getting low, but it was early yet and Doug was in the zone for another few hundred miles driving, mainly to either reduce tomorrow’s drive or make it all the way through to Seattle by late tomorrow night (Tuesday).
We rocked up to Billings late in the day and set about finding a hotel for the night. This was harder than it needed to be as the receptionist at the first one we tried (an internationally-known chain of fairly decent hotels who will remain nameless) was unable to check us in, despite them having available rooms and us having ready cash to pay for said rooms. The computer system being “too complicated”, we offered to take the rooms and pay in the morning when someone more competent was on hand, to no avail. This was the first (and indeed, the only) time that we witnessed Doug losing his cool for a second – “OK guys, just pack up the fucking van.” We drove down to the Best Western in the centre of town, which was remarkably David Lynch, including odd receptionist who thought he was a comedian and took somewhere in the region of half an hour to find some keys. Doug was by this point clearly at his wit’s end, but we finally got some rooms and, after a couple tins of Milwaukee Best Ice (“Beast”), of which we had acquired several crates en route, everyone slept soundly.
Tuesday morning found us heading unsurprisingly westward, to Bozeman, a town in the hills with an awesome health food co-op that Doug had been extolling the virtues of the previous day. After a massive salad, coffee, all manner of juices, a few packs of multivitamins and quinoa bars, a level of chipperness had returned to all. We were going to see how the driving went (crossing the Rockies could go either way dependent on the weather – which was looking like snow) and decide on the road whether we would make it all the way to Seattle tonight. We made good time, stopping once to try and buy a replacement headlamp for the van (with no luck), have a coffee, and watch another of those mile-long freight trains wind it’s way through the hills.
As dusk was starting to fall we stopped again, I have no idea where but it could have been Missoula, to get a new lamp and perform an excellent bit of parking-lot mechanics, and we were ready to head into the mountains proper. The higher we got, the darker it got, and the snowier it got. Around Lookout Pass we saw a massive truck ploughed into the bank at the side of the road, having clearly opted for stopping by whatever means in order to avoid the next stretch, where going over the side would mean not coming back. It was impossible to see the drops in the dark, but Doug assured us they were there, and his rather tense driving style hinted at it too. It was now a blizzard. I wondered how the US Royalty boys would get through here, as they were towing a trailer as well. Not a drive I would have liked to make.
We descended cautiously and the road started to level out a touch. We stopped at Spokane, I think, for Doug to take a break and to buy some hotdogs, in case this journey became less Lewis and Clark and more Donner Party. I floated the idea of hitting a hotel rather than pushing for Seattle, which Doug saw through immediately – “Look at you, anglin’ for the free breakfast!”. However, after another hour in the van of the damned it didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all and we headed on to the inappropriately-named Ritzville, Doug booking the hotel in advance on his phone to avoid any of the previous night’s shenanigans. We took the opportunity to do some laundry, I managed to sell the receptionist a CD, then it was a couple of tins of Beast from the seemingly never-depleting supply, and bed.