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Monday, August 28, 2006
Roaming the Western States Part 1 - "No Rooms Left in the State of Montana"
In an effort to make this blog even more self-indulgent and boring, here's part one of a mutli-part series on my recent road trip through the western half of the US. My younger sibling and I tackled nine states in ten days and encountered weirdness nearly every step of the way. So if you're not interested in hearing about toxic sludge pits, a Vegas Star Trek convention, creepy Mormon girls in Salt Lake or what happens when several thousand goths invade Disneyland on a hot summer night, check back here in a few weeks. By then Welcome to Blog should fully return to its regularly scheduled slew of more localized anecdotes specially designed to send y'all fleeing back to Metroblogging Portland.
Idaho's oldest, most toxic historical site
Every town in America looks the same.
Take a strip mall from Los Angeles, trade it with one in the heartland and you'll never be able to tell the difference. I'm convinced there's not a city with a population over a thousand people in this country that doesn't have a Taco Bell. Still, I'm not quite sure this a bad thing. When you've been stuck in a compact Pontiac for four-hundred miles the last thing you want to take a chance on is Debbie's Spaghetti Shack, especially when the next rest area is two hundred miles down a windy stretch of I-90 E. In unfamiliar territory there's plenty of us that like our food quick, familiar and safe.
So we stuck with McGriddles and Crunch Wraps on this voyage and faced no gastrointestinal surprises as a result.
3. DO NOT ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN TO STICK DIRT IN THEIR MOUTHS
This is among the guidelines we found on a rusted out sign near Idaho's oldest structure: the Cataldo Mission, which sits on a golden knoll overlooking acres of toxic earth once used for mining. After conquering the dreariness of eastern Washington I had to pull over and see something on our first day on the road. We had hoped to drive nonstop from Portland to Yellowstone in a single day. By the time we hit Spokane it was obvious that wasn't going to happen. Still, a hard day's drive split into two with nothing touristy to take pictures of and only a AVI copy of The Wizard to keep us entertained? We needed relief.
The words of Fred Savage's mute, Nintendo-savant brother. One of the movie's unintentionally hilarious quotes was going to weasel its way into our lexicon but this is the one that took root. Not "I love the Power Glove, it's so bad" or "I know truckers," or "he touched my breast!" Just plan ol' "Cal-uh-fornia?"
Cal-uh-fornia/Calfornia? Sure, but first Montana, Yellowstone, Las Vegas and points between like Idaho's oldest structure/minor environmental catastrophe. Then we'll work our way into the Golden State.
The sign warned us to wipe our shoes before returning to our vehicles and, if we had plans for a picnic, to keep our food away from the ground and make use of the Cataldo's picnic tables. The soil around us was poisoned but apparently not poisoned enough to have a wall built around it with stone-faced workers in clean suits patrolling the grounds. But, as we would learn later in the week, folks in Big Sky Country like to turn toxic areas like this into historical sites. If my grandchildren come out glowing green and muttering like Napoleon Dynamite, we'll all know the reason why and it will be all Idaho's fault.
At 6 PM on a Saturday night the only people around were a family heading back to their Suburu and a group of men up by the mission that may have been robbing the place. From down below it was hard to tell what exactly they were doing with those two white vans with no windows. They kept to themselves and did little to interrupt the eerie stillness of the Cataldo's grounds. No birds or squirrels, just the hum of traffic on the distant freeway. I've never been to Chernobyl, can't think of a reason why I ever will but I wonder if this is what it would be like. The Shanghai Tunnels and the morgue at OHSU have nothing up on the tourist traps that lie within the Idaho panhandle.
The trail leading up to the mission was lined with broken speakerboxes that would have narrated the history of the place. I don't know if they would have explained what an immaculate teepee was doing halfway up the hill or why a horse was being kept behind a rickety fence a few yards past that. He sure seemed happy to see us.
When you find yourself in a situation like this, with a friendly, possibly radioactive horse trying to get your attention and shifty folks with white vans nearby, the obvious move isn't to wander into a graveyard. But that's what we did.
Because we are stupid.
After learning about a brave Native American woman that turned her fellow locals on to Christianity (she had the biggest, most well-kept marker in the cemetery), we decided it was time to flee as fast as possible for the Montana/Idaho border. The trees weren't helping. A wind kicked up and the pale limbs overhead sent down a steady trickle of white leaves as they twisted and turned, filling the area with creeks that sounded like footsteps in an old cabin. It was really quite beautiful, in a Japanese ghost story kind of way...
...but probably not the sort of thing you would want to stick in your mouth.
What it's like to sleep in a parking lot in Montana.
"You won't find a room in the state of Montana tonight."
11 PM. Far from home. Dead tired. Nowhere to retreat to but a freezing rental car. These are the words that bubbled out of the mouth of a greasy-haired teen working the desk at a Motel 6 in Missoula. He was a bit wild-eyed and was acting like a turn of the century innkeeper in a werewolf movie. All the rooms were gone and soon they would be coming for him. Stomping into his lobby. Their eyes bloodshot and the nerves even more shot. Suburban dads that had been driving since dawn. Weary backpackers from Chicago. All in desperate need of sleep, relatively clean sheets and complimentary HBO. And he would have to tell them The Truth.
"Everything from Spokane to Salt Lake is sold out. Sorry. You'll be sleeping in your car tonight."
And then they would get angry. If you don't think families and backpackers can get ugly, read on.
We didn't believe the clerk so we kept driving to every single motel within a two mile radius. Indeed, all the rooms were gone. The state fair had hit Missoula. The next town down I-90 was playing host to an Irish folk festival. I-90 sits in the shadows of both Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Despite the demand for rooms, the local economy can only support so many motels during the off season.
We were completely fucked but in complete denial. So we kept driving. In one tiny town, that consisted of only a Super 8, a McDonalds and one of the world's freakiest gas stations, a pump jockey gave us an evil smile as we tossed our dinner on the counter: beef jerky, Doritos and Red Bull. Drool running down his cheek, he rang up our purchase.
Several shelves in the place were devoted to dragon figurines, biker gear and music boxes inexplicably covered in drawings of demons, the sort of leering nasties you'd see on an Iron Maiden album cover. Faded cartoon beers danced around the sign for a walk-in beer cooler dubbed "THE BEAR CAVE!" Midnight in Montana and the only person still awake was this guy, a refugee from a Rob Zombie movie. We left quickly and double-checked the protective seals on our food. I'm kicking myself right now for not taking a picture of the place, if only to confirm it wasn't an hallucinatory mirage brought on by fatigue.
We weren't alone on that lonely stretch of Big Sky freeway. We met an elderly man and his even older father in the wood-panel lobby of a hotel filled with taxiidermied beasts. Who knows why they were out there in the middle of nowhere in an old Cadillac de Ville but they were beyond the point of reason. The younger of the two was practically in tears when the pretty blonde clerk said with her most empathetic smile "sorry, guys." The dead cougar hanging over the desk? No such sympathy from him. He mutely growled down at us like an angry, furry god.
Sadness. Denial. And anger. We'd also seen that emotion played out on the door of a Day's Inn. A Xeroxed note screaming "NO ROOMS!" had been covered over with the loogies and boogers of numerous frustrated travelers.
And so we trudged onwards into the dark, just another set of headlights in a wagon train of weary travelers without enough foresight to make a !@$!@* reservation. Forty miles outside of Butte, the lighting flashed and the thunder rolled. Our little Pontiac wasn't made for this part of the United States or the storm that hit. Downpour. With our visibility at roughly 40 yards, I struggled to stay awake and hoped that a deer wouldn't be stupid enough to run out in front of the car. My sibling and I had gone from denial to anger to resignation and back to denial. Worse yet, we'd exhausted all forms of conversation and the iPod was out of juice. 20 Questions had only kept our minds occupied for twenty miles. Now the only thing left to do was pray. "There's going to be a room in Butte. There has to be. How can an entire friggin' state be sold out?"
We tried two places in Butte. Exhausted in a coffee shop, we called a half-dozen places and received the same thing: "No rooms left in Montana." My sister ate burned pancakes and I wolfed down a tiny burger. Would the staff let us curl up for a few Zs in these green booths? Doubtful.
We received permission from another hotel clerk to join a cluster of SUVs parked on the outer edge of a shopping mall. We slid quietly into a camp a stone's throw from a JC Penny's and wrapped ourselves in t-shirts and hoodies.
"It's a long way down the holiday road...."
That's the last song I wanted running through my head at that hour, especially after I hit the panic button on the Pontiac's key ring and woke up everyone around us. The theme song from National Lampoon's Vacation and Christie Brinkley circa 1983 nowhere in site.
My sister was out like a light and, despite being dead-ass tired, I couldn't sleep. The mall's cheery neon sign provided me with near constant updates on the time and temperature. Each passing minute meant less sleep and a day of hell to follow the dawn.
It was 42 degrees outside at 4:15 AM when I noticed cars pulling out of a motel across the street. Why not? Maybe I could con the night clerk into letting us slip into a used room. But as the night clerk hobbit inside told me, the cars belonged to people in the same boat as us. The two men that had just peeled out of the parking lot had threatened him with one of the lobby's chairs. After throwing around furniture they finally left after he started dialing 9-1-1.
According to him, this is pretty par for the course. Over the years people had threatened him with everything from fishing rods to stacks of travel magazines. He seemed to get a thrill out of it. Since I wasn't going to sleep that night, I shared my own war stories. I told him about a British tourist I encountered while working as a night clerk at a hotel in Yellowstone. He had supposedly driven at top speed, nearly nonstop from NYC to "see the buffalo" before he had to return home. The clerk bristled at another one of my anecdotes about the time the power went out on a night when the temperature dropped below thirty.
Maybe my status as a former hotel clerk had worked as a secret password. Treating the move like a precious possession he'd kept hidden beneath the counter in an ornate box for just the right traveler, he called a compatriot at a nearby Day's Inn. Sure enough, someone hadn't shown up to take a smoking room on the first floor. This clerk hadn't even offered the room to a father that had staggered in an hour earlier, pleading for a room, saying he might keep driving on to Glacier, the safety of his family be dammed. He'd run them off the road. There's no way his kids were going to sleep in a friggin' parking lot.
But it was too late to offer the room to that guy or his no doubt terrified offspring. The godsend at the Day's Inn saved us the room and we slept like babies wrapped in its nicotine-scented sheets. Check-out time was noon and we used nearly every last minute for unconsciousness. Best $90 I've ever spent.
NEXT TIME: Why is there a gigantic sludge pit in the middle of downtown Butte, Montana?