I drove up to Canada for my husband’s birthday. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and at the time I was I living in Anaconda, Montana. It was late May, but because I lived in the willful, wonderful, and wild mountains I woke up to a foot of unwelcome snow on that late spring morning. I was in such a hurry to leave that I incautiously drove in reverse down the length of my twelve-hundred-foot driveway, or, I attempted to. My car went into a ditch at the edge of where my driveway met road and my trip north was delayed three hours while I waited for a tow truck to come retrieve me from the snow bank. I tried in vain to get myself unstuck, salting the snow and turning the wheel this way and that while my tires spun in the mud, digging ruts, but I only succeeded in making a bigger mess. I had only wanted to discreetly escape, but instead my tire treads had tattooed a harsh and ragged line in the snow showing where I’d gone off the road and where my wheels had dug deep grooves into the soft earth.
I love driving. I love moving through spaces in such a direct and invasive way. Traveling by car feels like you are moving through lands, not over them with an inarticulate view from a foggy and cold plane window. You experience spaces more honestly when you drive through them. The only thing better than driving is walking, but I did not have the necessary time or weaponry to walk alone to Canada.
I took back roads on the way up, and drove through forgotten towns in Montana. Forgotten is such a bratty thing for me to say because people live there and they survive, and their little nowhere town is not forgotten to them; it is everything.
The spring sun melted the snow from the roads long before it disappeared from the ground. I was frustrated with all the small sparrows standing on the road. I was distressed at their insistence on staying put on the steaming highway because they didn’t want to be in the snow and they wanted to be somewhere warmer. I’d drive too close to these birds, honking, slowing down, and diligently trying to avoid hitting one. I saw all the dead feathered bodies on the road and was proud of myself for not contributing to the end of their little lives, until a robin flew out from a bush, directly into the front of my car. He bounced off, fluttered to the other side of the road, spiraling down like a warplane, mayday, in my rearview mirror.
Helmville, Montana—a one-road twenty-mile-an-hour-town lined with trees so old they curved protectively over the road and shaded the passive town from the sun. The houses were old. The buildings were old. The people were old. I was on the other side of it in thirty seconds.
As soon as the winter finally gives up its last fight to stay and the ice recedes, the gophers start to come up from the soggy earth, bewildered and starving after a long hibernation. You can see them scattered across the roads, tire treads leaving trails of their blood a short distance. Sometimes you can see them poised at the side of the road, standing upright and surveying the distance—I imagine them thinking, “Can I make it? Will I survive this one?” I always brake for them. I know I shouldn’t, because they are actually a nuisance and dig up gardens and ruin fields of carefully planted crops, but I still can’t bring myself to mow them down on the road like I’ve been told to. And I don’t have a garden, anyway.
Once I was in the car with my husband while he visited Montana and we were driving along Rock Creek through the foothills of the Sapphire Range of the Pintler Mountains. We’d stopped to examine a nameless tributary creek bed with ancient rusted cars sunken into its sluggish banks—vehicles that may, at some point, been sitting on the road too close to the creek, and then a storm dragged them down the muddy banks where they remain, decaying into the sparkling creek. As we passed the cemetery of cars rotting in the mossy creek, I spotted a distant moose and pointed it out to my husband. He then told me I’d make a good hunter. He said that I have a sharp eye.
I told him that I don’t, actually, that I have average to poor eyesight, but I am so paranoid and terrified of hitting animals that I am constantly watching the areas surrounding the road in front of me and scanning for movement so I can slow down when I see something. I’ve stopped for foxes, deer, moose, beavers, gophers, rabbits, birds, dogs, and the occasional lost and baleful calf. I was terrified of taking up more space in rural Montana than I was supposed to. What if I hit a deer that’d just birthed a faun? What if that faun got eaten, while bewildered and wandering, starving, thinking, where has everyone gone? What if that animal had a purpose? I was terrified of killing something wastefully. I am terrified of the butterfly effect and chaos theory, and impacting something I shouldn’t. I was scared of running over the gopher who was meant to burrow under a house and destroy the foundations because, you know, when it’s all said and done—some houses truly need to be brought down. Despite this vigilant observance of the roads, I hit one of those gophers once. He and a friend darted out too close for me to brake on a curved road and I felt his little body crushed by my tire. I felt guilty. I told myself not to look back but I did anyway and saw the live gopher standing bewildered above the dead one.
On that long drive to Canada, I saw more of these gophers lining the highway, congregating around their dead. I thought about their clement evaluation of distances and depths and how the highway must seem like insurmountable enemy territory, expansive and massive, with terrible armored beasts made of metal speeding through. I thought about being a terrible beast in a tin car, cold air blasting and windows down, iced coffee in hand. I drove past a cattle ranch and saw a German Shepherd dog standing sentry at the entrance, head held high and watching carefully. He was made of rare nobility, steadfastly protecting his domain. I wondered if he saw the horizon the same way I do.
The drive through Montana was so beautiful that I have difficulty explaining it. There will be times in your life when something you see can inexplicably bring you to your knees, and on this drive to Canada it happened to me. The Blackfoot River ran smooth and deliberate under a leaden sky of ponderous rainclouds that dipped so low they truncated the piney mountains. This silvery sky followed me on that drive, full of nothing—all I saw for hours was billowing and overlapping lines of gray and silver clouds. After awhile it felt like being underwater, like that sky was nothing but heavy floodwater coming to call for me, to drown me and take me home.
I had to take a considerable detour because US-89N was closed for construction, and it took me sixty miles out of my way, deep into the distant prairies. I drove past abandoned train tracks, cracking from trees and flowers pushing up through the beams. I drove past golden wheat fields shivering from a cold spring breeze under the silver sky forewarning of an incoming storm.
I surprised a strange creature that looked shocked to see a KIA Sportage so far out in the middle of nowhere. It had long black antlers that spiraled nearly straight upwards, and bulging black eyes that eyed me warily as I slowed down. It looked so alien to me that it defied every notion I ever had of American wildlife and I wondered if it had escaped from the zoo, which is the only context I could ever imagining seeing such a strange creature in. It did not flinch as I passed it; it just followed me with those bulging and bizarre black eyes.
Days, weeks, even months later, I would find openings in passing conversations to bring up this encounter with an odd animal in an effort to uncover what I’d seen. I tried to describe this exotic creature to my husband, my boss, my mother, and even the Internet, but no one had any answers other than I wasn’t remembering it correctly. Some suggested it was just a regular deer. I began to feel like I’d seen a ghost and I let the memory sink, unsorted, to the back of my mind.
It wasn’t until a year passed when I was sitting next to my mother on a small and sticky-hot bus with broken air conditioning as we toured the Cleveland Armory Animal Sanctuary in Murchison, Texas that I saw my ghost again. My sweaty thighs were sticking to the vinyl seats and I could feel wisps of my hair whipping across my forehead from the wind coming in through the open window. We passed pastures of languid llamas, expansive cages containing nervous chimpanzees with zoo-related PTSD, and fields full of happy pigs swishing their tails for a treat. We passed one such field and I saw the animal I’d seen in Montana. I interrupted our bubbly tour guide who was standing at the front of the bus and speaking to us, to ask what I’d seen. I told her that I’d seen it in rural plains, far from water and far from anything.
“Oh, that’s an impala. It’s a type of African antelope,” she said, before suggesting it had been brought to the States to be hunted on an exotic game reserve. I thought of the luxury guest ranch I’d previously worked at, where pheasants were imported in the hundreds for guests to hunt. Employees would swing the birds around in circles by their feet until they were too dizzy to fly away and guests could shoot at the bewildered inert birds on the ground in the woods.
After my encounter with the impala in northern Montana, I made it to Edmonton safely and landed in the open arms of my husband waiting on a porch under the lyrical orange glow of a summery streetlight late that night. I spent some days in a big city again and it felt as normal as can be, a human in a human domain.
I was born and raised in Mississippi and I grew up with total reverence of towering steel structures scraping against skies and wistful romantic notions of city life. I have since changed my mind. I think all natural places have a song to sing and I think when cement is poured over it, that the song silences as the concrete hardens. America is a beautiful country and it was beautiful before we got here. I’m not sure yet if we, the ancestral echo of colonizers, are a beautiful people. I often have doubts.
I reluctantly left Edmonton and my husband to return to my life in Montana and this time I took a different route home, deciding on a long and leisurely drive along the Missouri River and through the Cascade Mountains. The air was so clear that the distances I could see startled me. I saw mountain ranges in perfect, pristine clarity, and could see the ancient path slowly carved through them by the river, a painstaking construction lasting hundreds of years. I understood America for the first time, and I understood the songs we sing of purple mountains majesty. I exited the wilderness remorsefully, immediately wistful for riverside real estate and daunting distances.
The closer you get to Helena, Montana, the murkier the skies become. A familiar haze appears and the mountains go out of focus again. You drive down from the mountains and you can see that little city sitting like a scab at the foothills, blustering and blinking with winking streetlights and headlights flashing. From afar it looked like an eyesore but once I was in the city it looked and felt normal, outlet malls and chain restaurants; I was a human inside a human dwelling. The transition from wilderness to city hadn’t happened quickly because I could see Helena coming for miles and miles.
Big city natural history museums crack me up. Butterfly specimens pinned under glass next to hunks of boulders encasing fossils they ripped out of a mountain somewhere, right ahead of the exhibit about the Native people who used to live on this land, right here, underfoot this very museum. That exhibit is decorated with the “historical artifacts” gained by the robbing of graves, a willing participant in casual cultural genocide. Cities love natural history because they have none. Cities love bones. Civilization loves capturing culture and readily agrees to destroy something beautiful if they get to charge you admission for it.
I’ve cut quite a swath through this country in my car. I’ve driven down lanes held captive in the spectacle of a New England autumn, where an old black cat sauntered along the sidewalk over the dead leaves of red and gold. I’ve patiently waited at red lights under the blaring, blinking lights of Times Square for the never-ending stream of tourists to cross the street. I’ve carved a line through the South, stopping to savor that familiar hometown humidity where I’ve seen opossum innards viciously splayed across paved roads. I’ve carried on through the flatness of Texas, I’ve seen a deer hesitate at the edge of the road only to dart out and have its body instantly become mangled and caught up in the undercarriage of a semi-truck.
I’ve seen an enormous elk standing motionless at the side of the road late one moonlit night in Montana. Its tongue was dangling from where its lower jaw had been ripped off by a whizzing arrow, courtesy of the wayward aim of drunk hunters in the dark. My headlights were like a spotlight shining onto the wretched creature where it had stopped, standing perfectly still and solemnly waiting to die. I’ve had a staring contest with a fox in the middle of the road as I slowed down, waiting for it to cross.
I pray when I see animals wavering at the side of the road; I pray for them to decide against crossing and stay on their side. I pray for them to turn inwards, away from the humans, deeper into the wilderness. I pray for every creature that is doomed to exist on the fringes of humanity, only their bleached bones invited into the annals of history museums or immortalized behind glass display cases. I pray for every creature hesitating at road’s edge knowing that they will never be able to cross safely.
I’ve continued into California, toured the anarchist community of Slab City, and sat with the back hatch of my car open, toes dangling into the hot sand at Salvation Mountain. I’ve stood at the edge of the Salton Sea and smelled the decay of a city left to die, animal skeletons at the water’s breach, the eerie stillness of the sea stretching to meet the sky in a glassy display mirroring infinity. I’ve logged hours on Los Angeles highways, arterial lanes clogged with too many expensive cars. I’ve paused at stoplights lining the beach streets at the edge of the continent while men with leathery skin and track marks hold cardboard signs and make eye contact with me. I’ve been told that sometimes they’re soldiers, that they have come home from the war but they come home broken. They are everywhere, cast aside and relegated to the side of the road and the edges of humanity. I watched a man snatch a Bichon Frise puppy from a yard in West Hollywood and I was still watching when I saw notice me and slowly, deliberately, set down the puppy in traffic. I looked him in the eye as he held me against a rough brick wall by my collar after I’d snatched the puppy up, away from the tires that would crush its little body, and cradled it against my chest. I listened to him tell me that how he would first kill the puppy if I didn’t give him money for it, and next, he would kill me too. He said he would start by ripping me right open.
All across this country and lining miles of American highway I’ve seen forgotten farmhouses sagging against the hillsides, sitting like isolated islands in a sea of unkempt green; I got your manifest destiny right here, suckers, I think, driving past rural decay and all that remains of the founding fathers’ abandoned agrarian American fever dream.
I’ve never had anything resembling a religious experience but I can find god in grand fields of green grass and I can imagine parietal edges of someone’s divine design in the plight of the blighted dinosaurs.
Sometimes I feel rural America like a phantom limb. I feel that something was cut off when the Industrial age came and the wound was cauterized, but there is something arcane in my periphery that remembers. I envision the potential pains of all us beasts doomed by mortality—from myself, the meandering listless, wistful, and willful twenty-something girl barreling along this great country in her green car; to small birds splattered across snowy roads; to the German Shepherd proudly standing at the entrance of his home, prepared to fight. I imagine all my beloved highways are scars that transport cars and I imagine the new pipelines being carved into tarred and marred land from the residual chokehold oil has us in. I try not to take up too much space. I try not to hit the animals. I try to live like life’s a campsite, you know, leave no trace behind. This attitude is contradictory to the feeling I need to expand, I need to burst apart at the seams and accept my terror of skies and oceans and collapsing stars and that I need to make an effort to matter because I am a temporary being. (Or worse than inescapable mortal infirmity, sometimes I just wish I could howl so loud it’ll clear-cut starry skies and drench us all in desolate darkness because I’m a woman.)
Dinosaurs stomped the earth for 165 million years and modern humans have taken up residence for just 200,000. I read once that dinosaurs became so large because of the oxygen-rich atmosphere and nothing can or will grow that big ever again. I will remember the German Shepherd sentry and I will remember the gopher standing at the highway’s edge, solemnly staring ahead and daring to test his death. Do animals know how big the world is? Does that gopher know that there is a world outside the road and his perilous pilgrimage to the other side of it? Do they understand that they will die?
I have spent so much time hurtling along highways and crossing state to state. I’ve seen the best this country has to offer from the comfort of my car. I’ve also seen the worst. I’ve seen tottering neon signs of dead motels sighing and swaying along the muted backdrop of dusty sunsets and abandoned townships. This must’ve been such a beautiful country, once. Wild horse herds thundering around, buffalo roaming under endless skies too beautiful for man or god to take credit for, mountains spread high and wide, boulders jutting up from pink sand deserts in strange and inexplicable formations, amber waves of grain, etc. Sometimes I’m reminded that all this used to be underwater millions of years ago and then, all the identical suburban houses stuck to the hillsides will start to look like stubborn barnacles to me. Like ticks. Like something parasitic.
Still, there’s something beautiful about mortality and our desperate brick and mortar human ephemera—because we do try. Even though we’re as impermanent as the animals our cars splatter across highways, we never stop expanding all our edges and we build, raze, and rebuild our structures and we industriously advance our civilizations. We tirelessly exert dominion over everything around us. We pave new road after new road. On Elephant Island, Antarctica there is moss growing that is older than the Pyramids of Giza. Coral reef, in the correct circumstances, will grow new skeleton after new skeleton rather than die because coral reef is immortal. Somewhere in the void of the vast ocean there is a coral reef that predates humanity.
As for those frail bodies of dead sparrows I saw dashed across the road from all our damned tires, well, you know, scientists say birds evolved from dinosaurs. Maybe we can evolve into something new too. When it comes down to it, we will never live as long as the silty creek that carved its home though granite mountains over centuries. None of us will outlast the canyons, but my god—while we’re here we’ll still come in wave after wave of awed audiences, just trying to understand them.
Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.