Montana is cold and harsh and everything you dreamed. The sky is so blue you think someone calmed the ocean and turned the world upside down. Out in the distance, the mountains tower nearly as high, peaks topped with snow, and you’ve never seen Everest in your life but you imagine it couldn’t look much different.
Montana is open roads, only roads in some parts, and in others, no town quite conquered the land as much as man may say they liked.
Little Bighorn was closed when we got there (a side effect of a government fighting itself what felt like a world’s away), and I wondered how you closed a battlefield? Would General Custer in his foolish arrogance be sad to find his grave closed and the Crow Agency Reservation general store open across the street? There, I was introduced to Indian tacos, made with fried bread the size of my dinner plate instead of tortillas.
Our waitress was full blooded Crow, stopping in half astonishment to ask us where we were headed. She didn’t see too many tourists in the winter months, but we had came at a good time, the weather was warmer than it normally was. Only unbearable instead of downright hostile. Using a napkin, she drew us a map from memory, inking lines on places we should travel if we made it as far west as we planned. There was a geothermic river several hours away we could swim in and wipe the cold from our bones.
While she sketched, a Native American cowboy approached us, his eyes squinting out to the pastures as he paused, mid-conversation deep in thought. He had been working at the general store a number of seasons now, but he came from someplace different, some moment in history old western tv shows could only emulate.
Montana belongs to the mountains and deer, to the moonlight shining through patches of clouds and highlighting one but not the other. The highways are littered with the bodies of dead deer, with blood spots soaked into the asphalt, and the grisly reminders of what happens when a car going too fast to stop hits something along the way.
At a stretch on the dark and lonely road, my body jolted forward as the truck half slid. My dad cusses drowned by the blood in my ears, I saw two sets of deer eyes staring into my own for a half second, one in the left lane and the other approaching in the right. We parted them like Moses might have the Red Sea, taking the the dividing line past oblivion. It would be hours before our hearts properly settled in our chests.
In Montana, the winter weather finally found us. The skies opened a little at first, a few flakes sticking to the windshield of the truck. It was just rain droplets, we wanted to believe, half clinging to the idea we could drive through the Midwest in winter and not encounter snow once.
We stopped briefly at a gas station hoping to wait the weather out. Gathering handfuls of snow near dried oil puddles, we had a snowball fight in the parking lot, running through parked cars hoping the same.
When the weather did not stop, part of us wanted to make camp in the safety of that gas station parking lot, but a more foolish pride took us. Surely, we could make it to Washington tonight. We made our move when we saw a passing snowplow, but not three miles up the road, the plow turned off leaving us. The farther we went, the farther we realized our mistake. The road disappeared underneath a foot of snow, crunching under our tires. We were alone except for passing semi-trucks, seemingly suicidal in the way they took curves. Our pace slowed to 10 mph. A trip that should have taken 30 minutes, turned into three hours.
Our minds turned to the horror stories of people trapped in their cars for days during blizzards. A sinking dread filled the silence. At the state line of Idaho, the snow faded to dark black asphalt. The mountains stretched to something greener if not warmer. And behind us, Montana faded away, left only to my dreams.