Leaving Bismarck, you see the land begin to change, finally, after sweating through hundreds of miles of humid cornlands. Odd droplets of land, small grassy peaks, more rocks. Thick sod and fields of sunflowers. You say to yourself, “the west.” Derricks pop up. There, behind fences, are stacks of pipe bound for the Bakken. You squint and try to see mountains, but it’s still Interstate 94 needling the distant white sky. It’ll come.
Curt is moving west, so I flew out to Minneapolis yesterday to join him for the last few thousand miles. We haven’t spent much time together in the last year or two, and he’s picked up some good new expressions:
Make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here // Make like a hat and go on ahead // Make like a stripper and take off.
Last time we drove across country together was in 2003, just after I’d left graduate school, when we were researching for the film that became “King Corn.” Before that, we’d crossed in the summer of 2000, delivering a chest of drawers for a guy named Kohnstamm; we'd kept a ledger of our expenses and our food consumption, which we later folded into the corn movie, rather untruthfully stating that it had happened later. Films are full of little lies.
Anyway, this is Curt’s 10th crossing, and probably my 5th or 6th, since I’d tromped across with my family a few times in the 80s and 90s. We’re driving a 14’ Penske truck, drinking shocking amounts of coffee and eating mostly cookies. We don’t have a map. I can't keep track of my tenses.
Not long after the turnoff for Williston, where the film “The Overnighters” takes place, we enter the Little Missouri National Grassland. Evidently a National Grassland is still a place where you can make haybales, run fence, store grain. Now, as I type, we’re beginning to see the badlands off to the southwest, smooth stacked layers of sediment and ash, bentonite clay and mudstone, sandstone, worn into knobs and mounds, intercut by dry gullies, peppered with sage-green trees. The fence runs through too, hilariously dipping into steep cuts and out again, reminding me of yesterday’s fences that ran clear into the lakes and marshes of eastern North Dakota. I’d wished we were in a balloon above the landscape, which on our Google Maps seemed more blue than brown.
We pass by the signs for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Though I’m a National Park addict, we’ve got about 700 miles today, and there’s been some construction, so we push on. We see a truck called the SiDump’r, which can evidently side dump. A hawk wheels above the colorful soils. Curt has been on the phone with T-Mobile for 25 minutes or so, trying to add 50mb of data roaming. I used to get annoyed with him when he wrote emails while driving, but what’s the big deal, this road just rambles on, and soon we’ll be in the mountains. There’s a town out here called “Beach.”
Today we’re making for lunch in Billings, then coffee in Butte, and sleep in Missoula. We’ve seen two sets of bee hives so far, and have eaten far better food than we did in ’03. As Curt says, “the food system is changing.”