Friday, September 12, 2014

St. Regis, Montana

I’ve been listening to Country Music for weeks out here on the road, from the rest rooms of an Indiana rest stop to a Missoula 7-Eleven. It seems to be the perfect soundtrack to these interstates I’m travelling while crossing America. And here it is again. Travis Tritt is singing about a “Modern Day Bonnie & Clyde” on the sound system of this so-called travel center. I’m waiting for the Greyhound to get serviced, drinking a god-awful coffee in a styrofoam cup from the convenience store. It’s damn cold outside as I sit in front of the closed Gift Shop. They boast in their window that they have the largest number of gifts and souvenirs from Montana as well as a live trout aquarium, both of which don’t raise my attention even if the shop was open. I look around and think to that if this were my first introduction to the state of Montana I would be highly disappointed.

It’s close to midnight. Across the road there’s a big gravel parking lot where a few semi-trucks are parked, their drivers clearly getting ready for sleep inside the cabs. They move in their tiny driving/work/living spaces with such ease that I’m sure they’ve been doing this all of their adult lives. The dim lights of the parking lot almost conceal a couple of RVs to the back. An intermittent light flashes from inside both of them which makes me believe they are watching TV from their portable devices. I hear a commotion and look in the direction of the Restaurant to see two fairly young waitresses and two middle aged waiters leaving and locking the doors behind them. It was my damn luck that my bus arrived here just after 11 p.m. when the restaurant was closing and I had to content myself with a day old rancid Danish and this excuse for coffee from the open all night convenience store. The waiters and waitresses keep chattering between them in front of the saloon next to the restaurant. The two waitresses then go inside the saloon and the two waiters head down to the casino next door.

The rest of my Greyhound companions start leaving the convenience store with brown paper bags under their arms. The type of road food that after so long on the road I can surely live without. I look at what’s left of my coffee and throw it away although it’s still half full and head to the side of the road to look for any signs of the Greyhound. I overhear someone say that it usually takes two hours for the bus to get serviced here, so it’s probably another hour of waiting. With that I head to the saloon where I saw those two waitresses go a few minutes ago.

The saloon is empty except for the restaurant waitresses and the bartender who’s talking to them. I go in and Clint Black is singing about “Killin’ Time” on the jukebox. I sit at the counter and the waitresses indicate to the bartender that there’s a costumer. I order a draft beer from a local brewery he recommends and he asks where I’m heading. I say I’m just crossing the country on a 30-day Greyhound pass without any specific destination. He says that he did the same thing years ago and that it was one of his most liberating experiences. Next up he’s planning a trip next summer on his motorcycle from up here in Montana to the Southwest and the Deep South. One of the waitresses comes to the counter and asks for two more Gimlet cocktails. Caroline and she’s in her early thirties. Giddy and talkative to the bartender and while waiting for the cocktails, she sits next to me and says, “I couldn’t help but hear you talking to Jim and I’d love to do what you’re doing someday. Just take off for thirty days on the road, with no compromises, nothing to tie me down, to meet interesting people and see America the way you’re seeing it. I’ve been dreaming about it for the past four or five years.” I say this is not my first such trip, that I just love to be out there on the road, it’s the best feeling when your mind is free, and you become someone else entirely, different from the one that society imposes on you. I add that this won’t probably be my last time either. That I need to get away every once in a while, to take stock of who I really am and the road is the best place for that. She’s been listening attentively and in the meantime her friend, Julia, comes back from the restroom and joins us at the counter. She’s also in her early thirties but a little less enthusiastic and interested in the conversation. Caroline is from near Coeur D’Alene, Idaho but she’s been living here since she can remember when her parents found jobs in the vicinity. Julia is from nearby Thompson Falls and could only find a job out here after dropping out of college. They seem to be the opposite of each other. Caroline the optimist who prides herself on getting asked out nearly every day on the restaurant and whose perfect slim body almost can’t be contained by her tight uniform. Julia whose shy ways probably didn’t get her that many prospects even in her twenties. Caroline seems to be only passing through while Julia seems to be reconciled to the fact that she’s probably gonna be stuck in here waitressing for a long time. I find myself thinking that Julia attracts me the most. There’s something about her ways that tells me that she has a great deal of love to give to the right person who can get through her shyness and barrier of silence. The bartender interrupts my thoughts and serves them the Gimlets and noticing I’m about finished with my beer asks if I’m having another one and I say I’m afraid I have to get back outside so I won’t miss my bus. “One for the road then” the bartender says to me. I say I’m on the end of my trip this time and have only 7 more days on the pass and I’m saving my money for the 3-day trip back to the east coast. Caroline signals to Jim that she will take care of my tab and he pours me another beer. I thank Caroline for the beer and we all toast to the open road, to the freedom it gives. I finish my beer and thank them. George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning” starts playing on the jukebox as I leave the saloon singing about “Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on” as  Caroline sings along in unison. I wave goodbye at Caroline, Julia and Jim and they wave back at me wishing me a good trip back home. Caroline calls out to me and says “Hope to catch up with you one of these days, out there on the road”. I nod in agreement and step out.

Outside the saloon my travel companions are already lining up to board the bus which is slowly coming down the road. At the next door casino I keep hearing the tilting of the slots and the angry yells of the gamblers at the machines. I walk towards the intersection where the bus is supposedly going to stop and I look past the gas station adjacent to the convenience store and I’m marvelled at the amount of pine trees ascending to the mountains as far as my eyes can see. And I’m suddenly made aware of a big beautiful yellow moon hanging over those endless pine trees. And even with the smell of diesel and gasoline from the gas station, I can still smell those pine trees and take a long deep breath looking at them. As I wait to board the bus, Caroline and Julia are heading home in separate cars. Waiting to board my bus, I see a semi coming off the ramp of I-90 and heading our way carrying a big load of logs. From the parking lot across from where I stand, the driver of one of the parked semis starts his engine, ready to hit the road. On the gas station sound system, Dan Seals is singing about those “Big Wheels In The Moonlight.”  I take my seat up front after everyone else has boarded the bus and find comfort in knowing that I still have a few more days out here on the road.

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