The vast spaces of Montana obviate concern about driving distances. It is only in recent times, thanks to a meddling federal government, that Montana even has a speed limit; previously, the policy was a more libertarian “be prudent and reasonable,” which is exactly the kind of phrasing that filled this impetuous, irrational redhead filled with gusto about being behind the wheel. Culturally, though, even with posted speed limits, there remains a disdain in Montana for folks who think, “Oh, we shouldn’t go; it’s too far.” Rather, the state functions with a “Have car, will drive” mentality.
For example, my parents used to hop in the VW and drive an hour and a half, to Powell, Wyoming, for dinner. After wiping their mouths, they jiggity-jigged their way back to Billings.
Also, there was the time when I was in high school when my mom drove a crew of us teens to Bozeman, a mere two-and-a-half hour drive away, to see the totally-rad and briefly-legendary rock group Loverboy in concert (upping our excitement and in no way hardening our hearts: Quarterflash as opening act). That night, while we stood in the smoke-infested auditorium, waving our red bandanas in the air and bleating out “Everybody’s workin’/for the weekend,” my mom toodled around the city for a few hours, picking us up and driving back to Billings after the triple encore. Incidentally, two-and-a-half hours fly by when your ears are ringing and the only conversation consists of the word “WHAAAT?” hollered repeatedly.
As a consequence of big skies and open horizons, I became accustomed to getting in the car, pushing down the gas, and nosing my way into the next adventure. One weekend, this meant I ended up in Louisiana for Mardi Gras.
Admittedly, the drive home that time did chafe a bit. It’s hard to detoxify and pass an 18-wheeler simultaneously.
Having had a fair amount of time on the road in my formative years, I was a savvy road tripper by my early twenties. I’ll put it this way: I could eat a six-piece chicken nuggets—dipping them in honey—without ever tearing my gaze away from the ribbon of highway.
Thus, when I was at a transitional stage in my life, in between undergraduate and graduate school, I broke up the boredom of lurking in my parents’ basement by occasionally visiting friends in Colorado. There was no better antidote to too much time spent watching Jeopardy and playing Freecell on the new-fangled contraption called “desktop PC” than getting in my Honda Accord and driving ten hours south to Boulder.
During this stage in my life, I bobbled across, and got repeatedly hung up in, one of America’s little-known mystical attractions: The Wyoming Triangle—a region of bad luck and tales of woe; a place where folks went in, but they didn’t always come out. Laypersons referred to this Triangle as “the stretch of road between Casper and Cheyenne,” but those of us with faulty vehicles and even-worse judgment knew it better as a land of clunks and sputters followed by ominous silences.
It’s not as if I didn’t have warnings. The land tried to tell me. It tried to give me a heads-up that Wyoming was a place to tread lightly on the gas pedal. First there was the time when, a mere few miles over the Montana border into Wyoming (far from The Triangle, in fact), I got pulled over by a Wyoming state trooper for going 86 miles per hour. After I rolling down my window to let Trooper lean in, I quickly dipped my nose into my armpit in the hopes that a whiff might help drum up some crocodile (er, odor-induced) tears, the sight of which might soften Trooper’s heart enough to get me off the hook.
Unfortunately, his opening salvo was, “Why you got your head down in your armpit, Miss? You hidin’ some drugs down there?”
It’s a little-known fact that many Wyoming state troopers talk with Southern accents, even though they’ve never been south of Buffalo. Makes ‘em more cinematic. It’s also a little-known fact that speeders can clear themselves of drug charges by raising their hands to the sky, exposing their pits, and mewling, “See? No powder traces. No white marks. In fact, it’s a revolutionary new deodorant that absorbs entirely. Your wife might like it. Tell her to look for Lady Coke Stick. You, yourself, sir, might enjoy the male version. It’s called Meth for Men… not, er, to imply that you’d ever need deodorant yourself, sir, what with you smelling quite naturally like a field of freshly-mown hay upon which a warm apple pie is cooling.”
He followed up with a request for my license and registration before beginning to heckle: “You’re in Wyoming now, Miss Montana. Unlike you folks up there in the loosey-goosey Big Sky Country, we Wyomingites have laws, up to and including a perticc-lar called Speed Limit. All you unibombers and militia men might be happy to risk your lives bein’ ‘prudent and reasonable,’ but down here in the real world of Wyoming, we’re more realistic. You can go 75. Not a mile faster. Damn Montanans.”
Casting about for a way to lighten his mood and sway his opinion, I chattered, “Well, I, uh, know that Montana’s an anomaly; I’ve been all over the states and have spent fair amounts of time in Minnesota, along with some stretches in Colorado, California, Virginia. Oh, and we lived one summer in Manhattan when I was young; we didn’t drive while there at all. My mom still remembers my chubby little toddler legs chugging away like mad as I’d trip along behind her on our way to the next museum, but I promise I never went more than 75 miles per hour, even when I was trailing her excited self to the Met.”
His look darkened, and he reached into his pocket to retrieve his pad of tickets. Starting to copy down my personal information, he harrumphed a bit about “no-count states with their ‘we’re so free to be you and me’ jurisprudence.” As he ripped out the ticket, however, he conceded, “I suppose you’ve picked up one or two things in your time outside that big, wide, ‘don’t touch us’ state of yours. Good job wearing your seatbelt. I knocked off five dollars for that rare and unexpected sign of maturity.”
Grabbing the ticket from his meaty paw, I threw him a quick “Heil!” salute as I pulled away from the shoulder, gunning it up to 75—and exactly 75—in the space of 3 seconds.
The fact that he then tailed me for twenty miles rather deflated the juvenile “in your face” of my departure, of course.
He pulled off in Sheridan, though, which then freed my right hand—which had been flipping Trooper a low finger the whole time—to crank up a mixed tape of Michael Penn, The Sundays, Four Non-Blondes, and Toni Childs. I’m here to tell you that the Indigo Girls got my mood back closer I was to fine in a trice, and before I knew it, the miles had flown by, I was south of Casper, and I’d headed into The Triangle, a beautiful section of The Empty West in which gas stations can be hundreds of miles apart.
Rather a shame I hadn’t thought of that back when I’d had a hearty quarter tank still working in my favor.
Because as soon as the last notes of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Want to Do Is Have Some Fun” drifted away, so did my speed. All 75 mph of it.
Before I’d even registered the gas light on the dashboard or noticed how menacing the “E” for “Empty” can appear with its sideways devil horns,
the Honda coasted to a stop.
In the last moments before it halted completely, I managed to maneuver off the highway towards the scrubby ditch.
Well. Hmmm. What to do?
Good thing I had my Western-style fringed jacket along.
It would help cut the winds during my 12-mile walk to the nearest town.
However, people being what they are in largely-uninhabited, arid spaces, I didn’t get far before a pick-up truck screeched over in front of me.
“Oh, crap. I wonder if they want to push me down and take my awesome Western-style fringed jacket” was my first thought.
My second thought was, “I wonder if they’d siphon off a bit of their gas and put it in my tank, in return for pushing me down and taking my awesome Western-style fringed jacket.”
The next thought, which popped into my head as the driver rolled down his window, was “Why does he have his nose tucked into his armpit? Is he trying to work up some crocodile tears in case I’m a state trooper about to issue him a ticket?”
My fourth thought, which crashed into my head the second I got a better glimpse of the driver and passenger, was “Holy Hanna Barbera! It’s Snagglepuss and Yakky Doodle!”
Indeed, the cab of the truck contained an animated jumble of fuzzy faces, missing teeth, overly large heads perched upon too-small bodies, and suspiciously bright eyes.
“Howdy,” drawled the driver. “You in a pickle?” Simultaneously, he gave me a wink and elbowed Yakky.
A bit flustered, I started babbling, “Well, yes, I suppose I am, what with my car being out of gas, but really, I think I’ve got it under control. See, I’m quite a good walker because my family lived one summer in Manhattan when I was young, and I spent the whole time furiously tailing my mom around Midtown, which, as it turns out, was great training for situations like this one I find myself in right now. I’ll just pretend I’m trying to get to the Met before it closes, and I’ll have a gas can in hand before you can warble ‘Heavens to Mergatroyd’!”
“Don’t be ridiculous” was the response. “It’s 12 miles to the nearest gas station. Hop in,” commanded Snagglepuss.
Sheepishly, I came back with a, “Oh, no, really, I don’t think I could. My mom and dad would never forgive me—getting in a car with strangers and all…uh, not that I’m implying in any way that you’re ‘strange’ as animation is a highly-underrated art form and, plus, you both smell as sweet as a field of newly-mown hay with a warm apple pie cooling upon it. But, you know, I just can’t. Get in. Your truck. With you. Despite your many good smells and charismatic cartoonishness.”
“Okay, hon. But we can’t just leave you here. What can we do besides drive real slow behind you as you walk the 12 miles?” sniggered Snagglepuss.
“Well, I have this sweaty $20 folded up in my hand. It’s all I’ve got, but I could give it to you, if you’d go get me some gas.”
Grabbing the sweaty $20 and chuckling, “Yea, that’s right, sweetheart. We’ll be right back,” Snagglepuss tore down the highway.
So. Uh. That was a plan, then. Right?
Unless they were running short on Mad Dog 20/20.
In which case, they might put the $20 to more inebriating use.
In which case, I’d be walking 12 miles in the hopes of trading my awesome Western-style fringed jacket for gas.
Deciding to wait and bit and see how things played out, I headed back to my Honda and stood near a yucca plant. I’d barely started plotting out new choreography to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” when another vehicle screeched off the highway. Out leapt a middle-management looking type and his dropwaist-prairie-dress-wearing wife (picture the Chloe Sevigny character in Big Love) who rushed over to me to voice their concern. Within moments, they avowed they’d wait with me, just to be certain Snaggle and Yakky came back.
And in the meantime, perhaps I’d like to hear about their lives in Utah and about a little something called The Principle. Helpfully, they pointed out that, in their community, you don’t see stranded women standing alone, hoping strangers will return with a can full of gas. Rather, the women in their world would just unload all 24 of their children from the out-of-gas vehicle and string them out between the car and nearest gas pump, bucket brigade style. “Slosh Ma some gas there, Ezekiel. Don’t burn Ruby Sky’s arm, neither, while you’re at it!”
You know you’re in the West when you’re glad to see cartoonish, half-witted, rough-living guys sporting ponytails careen up in their pick-up truck–simply because they prove to be your salvation from a life of polygamy on The Compound.
Ever my heroes, Yakky Doodle and Snagglepuss had made the gas run in under 15 minutes, returning with a shouted “We had to give ‘em a $5 deposit for this here can, but we got a gallon of gas. Let’s fill her up for you.” Fixing a slightly-unfocused eye on the couple hovering near me, he snarled out, “And you all? Skeedaddle!” When they stared back at him, unblinkingly, he lurched forward and shouted, “Boogeda-boogeda,” putting his thumbs in his ears and giving them the moose antler treatment (a trick he’d gleaned from his compatriot in animation, a big lug named Bullwinkle).
Reluctantly, the couple turned and climbed back into their car, waving a sad goodbye to the ripeness of my ovaries.
Before I could mutter, ruefully, “Well, at least I could’ve learned to churn,” Snagglepuss was unscrewing the gas cap on the Honda, pouring a gallon of his very best refined crude into my car and memory. Finishing the job, he advised, “Now you drive down to the next exit and return this to the station there. Dusty’ll give you your $5 deposit back. And here’s the rest of the change from your $20.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I enthused, flooded with relief. “Please keep the change, though. Go get a beer [or a shave and a haircut—only two bits!] as my thanks for your efforts.”
“Naw, honey. That’s okay. You might need it to buy yourself a six-pack of chicken nuggets for supper. Just do me one favor, though?”
Well, upon further consideration of his beard and the food scraps hanging from it,
“When you’re eating those nuggets, even when you’re dipping them in the sauce, don’t take your eyes from the road. Keep them turned up, so you can see how the sunset makes the sky all pink and salmon right at dusk. When them colors drop down behind the sandy buttes, and you can hardly breathe from the beauty of it all, you’ll know you did the right thing getting in your car today. Ain’t nothing compares to the show of it all.”
Nodding, I slid back behind the wheel, buckled up, turned on my music, and screeched away from the gully,
edging the speedometer up to a satisfying