When I finished college, employment in the expected sense was a long shot. The cubicle craze that in the years since has flourished hadn't yet franchised the sleeper hold that today renders so many white-collar Americans comatose. Yet even then I was wary of office life and the wrinkle-free clothing it demanded. Between my English degree and my Harley I'd take my scooter any day, an admission that among others deep-sixed various job applications. I tried swinging a hammer but wasn't much good at it, and when a guy asked me if I wanted to drive a truck, I signed up.
This was in the early to mid-1970s and jamming gears coast-to-coast while staying on the road for two to three months continuously allowed me not only to see America's underbelly but to wallow in it.
We moved people and electronics, and still today I dream about humping glossy Steinways out of Manhattan penthouses bound for L.A. and the lighted swimming pools around which their newly bicoastal owners lazed while my help and I eased these and other heirlooms into their new digs.
Maximum 18-wheeler gross weight at the time was 73,280 pounds. Because I hauled household furniture — "sticks'' in truckers' parlance — I rarely exceeded it. But I cheated on my log books, as even preachers would, and when dispatch finally loaded me for home, I could run it nonstop, regardless of origin, window down, diesel whining, 16 speeds forward, cowboy boots double-clutching and my name on my shirt.
Those were good days, and when I can, I still road-trip, and the more open the country, the better. This usually means heading west, and two weeks ago I did just that: dropping the family pickup camper onto my truck, hitching up the horse trailer and loading my gelding, TNT.
Also my wife, Jan, stuffed the camper's refrigerator with food and otherwise provisioned the rig for eventualities imaginable and not. Then I skedaddled down Hwy. 169 to Mankato, following from there Hwy. 60 to Worthington and then on to I-90, trailer lit up like Christmas, Minnesota in the rearviews.
I had gotten a late start and knew I would need to punch it to make Kalispell, Mont., by the time Jan landed there a couple of days hence. However much a cattle call commercial aviation has become, it nonetheless is preferable, Jan believes, to riding shotgun with me while I blather on about road life, past and present. Our destination was Glacier National Park, at which we planned to meet my brother, Dick, and his wife, Patti, whose recent purchase of a travel trailer and a truck to pull it had thrust them into the Mr. Fixit world of RVing. It's there that plumbing, electrical and mechanical complications shatter consumers' naive hopes for relaxation, explaining why, in campgrounds nationwide, vacation happy hours are sequentially advanced until they overlap lunchtime.
"Now all I do is think about this thing, the trailer,'' Dick said after he had spent too many winter nights cruising Craigslist, resulting in the purchase.
Also on the docket at Glacier would be visits with our two sons. The older boy, Trevor, 22 and no longer a boy, guides fly anglers in summers near Missoula, while the younger, Cole, nearly 20, is similarly employed near Glacier.
I ran hard and in the middle of the night unloaded TNT and dropped my horse trailer at North Ridge Ranch near Pierre, S.D. He would be in good stead there until my return trip, when I would compete with him on the same site at a multistate cutting.
From Pierre I ran two-lane U.S. 34 to Sturgis, S.D., whose annual beer and T-shirt revenues confirm America's greatness, before dropping the hammer toward Sheridan, Wyo., and Billings, Mont., at which juncture I hung a left on I-94. Finally I crawled into the camper at a truck stop outside of Bozeman, Mont., and when I did I was reminded how fastidiously I had organized the sleeper of my old cornbinder International and later my Freightliner, a TV propped on one end, books on a makeshift shelf, bed made daily. Per diem, the company I hauled for slid me $7, on which I had to eat and sleep. Motels were out of the question.
On time, I picked up Jan in Kalispell, and soon our rig was aligned alongside Dick and Patti's in a campground on the edge of Glacier. An engineer, Dick had invested heavily in RV gizmos, water filters and complex levelers among them, and now his outfit seemed to want only for a rocket-launching turret. Our vintage camper by comparison suggested the disquiet lives of Okies on a Dust Bowl holiday.
A few months back, Cole had told his mother and me he had contracted to live in a converted school bus this summer while guiding, a declaration that "piqued our interest,'' as they say in the parenting game.
"On blocks?'' I asked.
"No way. Wheels,'' Cole said. "Two single beds on one end, a couple sheets of plywood in the middle, and two singles on the other end. One hundred bucks for the whole summer!''
Every day at Glacier we either fished, rode our bikes, rafted or hiked the park's countless trails, many bordered by vast carpets of wildflowers, bighorn sheep and mountain goats on the margins.
Largely inaccessible except by foot or horseback, Glacier's appeal is unique and arguably more inspiring than its popular rival, Yellowstone. Some of the world's clearest and stunningly gemlike aquamarine lakes and rivers are contained within Glacier's borders, and 10-mile hikes in the shadows of its unimaginably craggy peaks cast in perspective the inconsequence of the world's daily news bulletins. This year large sections of the park are on fire, or have been, and at times during our stay smoke enshrouded even Reynolds Mountain and Clements Mountain, which tower over Logan Pass, apex at 6,640 feet of the famed Going to the Sun Road and the park's highest point accessible by vehicle.
At dinnertime we ate well. The air was dry and the bugs absent. Rumor had it the stock market was tanking. Nonetheless we soldiered on, seeking dividends of a different kind, and with enthusiasm cast flies to cutthroat trout while drifting in rafts on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Wednesday afternoon last week I dropped Jan at the Kalispell airport and pointed the pickup-and-camper rig toward home. The boys were back working in anticipation of classes beginning this week in Missoula, where Trevor is in his last semester and Cole is a sophomore.
I've gained some age and spending time with adult kids who can hike faster, row longer and back-flip off steep cliffs into deep waters confirms that fact. Now also I tire a little quicker behind the wheel.
Still, I put a lot of blacktop behind me that night, making Billings before I sprawled to sleep in the camper. A lot of RV transients prefer Wal-Mart parking lots for quick overnight stays. But truck stops remain my preference, the whine of refrigerated vans memorably singsong of nights now long past, San Francisco to Miami, Seattle to Boston.
Having been kept legged up while I was gone by a trainer friend, Bob Janssen of Rush City, TNT was in good shape when I pulled him from his stall Friday morning at North Ridge Ranch. In the days since I had been there, cowboys from as far away as Texas and their big trailers had descended on the place, and now, for three days running, everyone was eager to show their horses.
Well noted is that towns, people and countryside seen only in passing through windshields suggests a willing disengagement that in the end can only disappoint.
However true, or not, the greater truth is that stops along the way provide the best memories.
Come Saturday night, win or lose, I would step TNT into the trailer and follow my headlights back east, diesel humming, trailer lit up like Christmas, cowboy boots on my feet.
No longer is my name on my shirt. That much has changed.
But I always liked loading for home, and from South Dakota the trip would be a chip shot, nothing more. I'd run it nonstop.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org