Another feature of the motel that I had not fully appreciated when I’d checked in was the 4.45am train that went past my window and lasted for two or three miles. In truth I found the clanking intrusion strangely reassuring. It was a sound from the world of normality, and was almost a welcome sign just for that.
The same woman was still on reception when I got up at 7.30 in search of coffee. A man, whom I assumed to be her husband, was there too and he seemed as overdosed on cheeriness as she was. The full joys of spring were a bit much for me, so I handed the keys over and got going. I had promised myself a break from the news and, contrary to all impulses, tuned the radio in to a music channel. I needed to clear my head of some of the cant.
A lot had been said about the effect of all this media exposure on people, and juveniles in particular. I, for one, felt befuddled by it all. In the absence of any dynamic plan – whatever the response to be enacted, it wasn’t going to be quick – there was little new news, certainly not enough to fill all the airtime turned over to the crisis. Nobody had yet come forward even to claim responsibility for the attacks. The same reports were being played out over and over, as if on a loop.
Wallace was another town billed by my guidebook as typical of the Wild West. It was nestled beneath the Interstate, literally. They had built a huge flyover and the town lay in its shadow. It felt very authentic, and the grid of four blocks by six was ranged with cowboy-style shops and buildings.
I spotted a museum that also advertised tourist information. It amounted to little more than a junk shop, but the guy was able to give me a map of the town that marked out in detailed illustration what each building was. I was intrigued by the sound of the Oasis Bordello Museum.
Presumably the site itself used to be a brothel, but nowadays it was little more than a damp warehouse. A plump painted woman was serving behind the counter who yesteryear could comfortably have passed for a madam. On display were a few souvenirs of the more seedy variety. I bought an embroidered flannel that doubtless was not intended for washing hands or face.
The rest of the museum amounted to a few manikins dressed up as the fallen ladies of the 19th Century. A sign promised more downstairs, but all that I could find were a couple of fluffy red boas and another manikin in a bathtub filled with polystyrene chips. “She” appeared to be naked. No information was available about the exhibits; the collection looked like it had been hurriedly assembled that morning as a bet or to raise money for charity or something.
I took to the road with the daunting prospect of driving half way across Montana, the fourth largest state, before the day would be through. It was known as the Big Sky State due to the improbable claim that the sky was bigger there than elsewhere. Given that the sky tended to be quite big wherever you went, I can’t say that I was struck by a different enormity when I crossed the state line 12 miles past Wallace.
Today was the beginning of the Clinton Testicle Festival where men painted their scrota luminous colors, and bulls’ testicles marinated in beer and then deep-fried were served up in celebration. This was one of the more idiosyncratic attractions I’d been able to find in my research before leaving England. I was unsure whether a testicle festival would still be going ahead in the current circumstances and even less sure whether I was in the mood to attend if it were.
Clinton proved to be a modest little town. A poster outside the General Store announced “Miller Lite welcomes hunters”. It was busy inside and there was a queue at the cash till.
At the back of the line were three bare-chested lads who had plastic identity tags slung around their necks (the sort given out to delegates at conferences). It may have been booze or drugs or both, but it was clear that when they looked at their feet, it wasn’t Planet Earth they saw. They obviously didn’t think that they’d had enough yet, as each of them was buying another 48 cans of beer. I suppose it was only noon.
I took their presence as evidence that I might be quite close, but didn’t want to ask them for directions in case it turned out that they were just inveterate pissheads and had never heard of any dang testeecle festeeval.
Instead I drove all around town looking for it myself. I didn’t have far to go as the town was only two blocks deep and eight streets long, and was comprised mainly of caravans and other types of mobile home. With no Rock Creek Lodge in any obvious place, all I found was a sign outside someone’s house advertising gifts.
I got out to investigate and was met by an old man, bewildered at the sight of a potential customer. He became flustered and told me to hold on while he went to call “her”, whoever she was. Presently an old woman came out of the house with a key and let me into a small hut on the side of the front lawn that was full of homemade crap. It may have been my Essex eye, but I did rather like the figures made out of wax and the hand-carved eggs.
It was impractical to try and get either back home intact but nevertheless I decided to buy one of the carved goose eggs. It was mounted on a plinth and surrounded by a tall glass dome for protection. The woman didn’t have a box the right size and tried to jam it in to a smaller one leaving the top of the dome peeping precariously out the top.
We both agreed that it wasn’t very satisfactory and so she went back into the house and emerged with a cardboard box slightly larger than your average tea chest. When I objected, she went off muttering that I should have said if space was important. This was clearly one of the many Americans who had never done any international travelling.
Eventually she came back with a catering size coffee tub and packed the small box into it with some tinsel. It wasn’t going to get much better so I paid up and left. As I was going, I asked if she knew the whereabouts of Rock Creek Lodge. Her faced dropped as she instructed me to continue on the Interstate to the next exit. She said that I couldn’t miss it and, with a shudder, added that they were holding a testicle festival there. I got the impression that it wasn’t very popular with the locals.
When I reached the next exit, I got an immediate sense of the reservations expressed by the old lady. The exit ramp seemed to lead to nowhere apart from a field in which there were only three types of vehicle parked: RVs, pick-ups and Harley Davidsons. There was nothing even remotely like a Mazda Protégé in sight.
As I got closer, I also noticed that all these vehicles had Montana license plates. I could see nobody who wasn’t staggering or holding fewer than three cans of beer in their hands. At the entrance was a trestle table manned by two men who would have made your average Hell’s Angel look clean cut.
Suddenly the whole prospect looked less amusing. This wasn’t a great stopover for anyone intent upon continuing their travels the same day. If I were to go in, I’d have to be prepared to stay there all afternoon and probably all night. It took me less than two seconds to conclude that I didn’t want to do this and so I turned around and headed back to the Interstate.
I’d missed out on trying prairie oysters, not necessarily a great loss, but I’d also missed out on a lot more that was certain to be bad for my general well being. A subsequent visit to the website has reassured me that I made the right decision.
Despite my best intentions, I found myself tuning into a current affairs programme. At least that was what I thought it was, as I listened to a sober discussion on the events of the last couple of days. I realized my mistake when they started to talk about the ripeness of modern America for divine justice being meted out and quickly moved on to draw a parallel with Sodom and Gomorrah.
One of the protagonists went out of his way to point out that they were not implying that those who died in the hijacked planes or the devastated buildings were in any way the specific objects of God’s wrath, but that “sometimes innocent people must die when there is wickedness in the country”. I wracked my brains, but I couldn’t remember this sentiment being expressed in the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18.
I set the cruise control to 78 and sat back to take in the scenery, and something strange happened. The sky actually seemed to be getting bigger. By the time I was passing Opportunity, I had to stop and get out of the car. No doubt there was a scientific explanation for the illusion, but the sky seemed very very enormous.
I wasn’t at a high point but I could see for miles and miles and miles, through all 360°. The mountains on all horizons looked tiny, but had snow on the top and so they must have been reasonably large. And rising hugely above all this was a giant dome of sky with more clouds in view than I can ever remember seeing before in one go.
Further down the Interstate approaching Bozeman, the sky was still looming large. In the distance I could see black clouds and lightning bolts. The rain was sheeting down. From this distance it resembled rain as I used to draw it when I was in primary school, just an intermingled confusion of lines descending to earth at a uniform angle.
I watched for fifteen miles as I got closer and closer to it. It was a more dramatic version of waiting in line at the bank to be served. Suddenly it was my go and I was into the rain. The highway was awash with water and a small river was running off the bridge in front of me. As I got more deeply in, visibility disappeared and rolling thunder shook the chassis of the car.
My turn lasted around a quarter of an hour, but only because I slowed to about 25 mph. And then, with equal suddenness, I was out of it into the sunshine and back on bone-dry tarmac. Ten miles further down the road, I could still see the storm raging in my rear view mirror.
They liked their bumper stickers in this part of the world, and most vehicles were making some sort of proclamation to the passing world. I tucked in behind a pick-up with one reading “Warning. Elk-oholic”. I was left wondering whether he was hooked on eating them, fucking them or shooting them. Possibly it was all three, but it seemed a pretty safe bet that he didn’t just like their company.
Livingston was where A river runs through it was filmed, but didn’t appear to be anywhere near as sexy as I’d imagined. In fact, it looked rather drab. I found my way down to the river, which was in a park. It was nice enough, but nothing special.
My guidebook mentioned a couple of B&B’s and I found one of them but decided against it, on account of its resemblance to the Norman Bates’ motel. Back on the grubby main drag, I stopped at a street corner by the Murray Hotel. I checked my guidebook. Yes, this was the place that boasted “Hollywood celebrities among guests”, despite looking like the kind of establishment that rented rooms out by the hour.
I went in to enquire about the price, and could then see the attraction. The outside of the hotel seemed to be a deliberate camouflage to the outside world of the loveliness within.
Behind an old oak desk sat the receptionist, who was in her fifties. I asked about a room for one person and she said she thought she could do me a special deal. She checked her screen and then told me that she could give me a 20% discount on room 14. Her expression suggested that “Room 14” should have meant something to me.
She showed me up to the hallowed space, and we took the lift for a ride up one floor. It was an old piece of machinery that dated back to 1902 shortly after the hotel had been built. It didn’t stop automatically at the floor, but needed to be manually driven by a member of staff. She told me that I’d have to walk back down the stairs, as guests weren’t allowed “to ride the elevator alone”.
I tried without success to telephone Adam’s friend, John, in Wyoming, left him a message and went down to the bar. A band was due to be playing later that evening, and they were tuning up and getting ready. The bar was dimly lit and was decked out in old, dark wood. Even quite empty, it had a good atmosphere and I stayed to have a couple of beers before going out in search of food.
When I returned, the bar was teeming and there was no room at the counter. The band was now playing and people were dancing. Everyone seemed to know one another, and this was obviously a regular Thursday night affair.
I had just settled in to a spot at the back when the hotel receptionist came bustling in. She came and gave me a piece of paper with a number on it and said that my friend John had phoned and that I had to ring him back tonight.
I’d only just got a beer after struggling through the crowd to the bar, and so I decided to finish it before going to my room to make the call. Two minutes later she was back, telling me that he was on the phone right now and I could go through with my beer and take the call in reception.
It transpired that John was going out climbing early the next morning and needed to make arrangements this evening to meet up the next day. He suggested a bar-cum-restaurant in Wilson and told me to look for a middle-aged man in a “disgracefully tatty white sun hat”.
When I put the phone down, I noticed that the receptionist was looking dreamily at me and appeared to have tears in her eyes. I asked her if she was OK and she said she was fine, and wiped the tear away. She told me that everyone thought that what my Queen had done today was fantastic.
I had no idea what she was talking about and, with some trepidation, asked what the old girl had been up to now. She had arranged for the Star Spangled Banner to be played at Changing of the Guard that morning and sent the entire American Nation into paroxysms of appreciation for all things British. And that included me, it would seem.
I returned to the bar wondering whether that was the reason behind my 20% discount or whether they just offered it to everyone. My spot at the back had by now been taken and so I found myself hovering in no man’s land in the middle of the throng. This lot loved their country music and the crowd was getting more frenetic by the minute.
One guy was dancing to every song, each time picking a new girl from the crowd to twirl around. I edged back and found myself staring down at the blue-jeaned backside of one jigging cowboy. Three strategic holes in the denim suggested he subscribed to the same underwear philosophy as Nevada Jim.
A face lurched up in front of me. It was the dancing guy, who appeared to have run out of women. I braced myself to refuse any invitation that was about to come my way, but he just introduced himself as Victor. I asked him if he came from Livingston and he shook his head and said that he came from “God’s own Good Country, otherwise known as Cleveland Ohio”, evidently America’s answer to Port Talbot.
It transpired that his family was originally from Volgograd. He worked at anything that paid him a living, but was currently a builder and decorator. Business had been drying up for a few months now and he was thinking about writing a book.
When I told him that that was what I was doing, he made me promise that I would give the band a massive plug because they deserved it. I told him that I would be more than happy to mention The Groovemeisters, but pointed out that it was a shame they didn’t have a slightly less shit name.
Victor liked Montana because it had no pretences. He said that in places like LA, the first question people asked was what you did, and if you gave the wrong answer they wouldn’t want to know you.
In Montana, it was different. His friends were plumbers, carpenters and bricklayers, but also included architects, doctors and artists. He’d followed his mom and sister out to Montana for the millennium, when they had been convinced the world was going to end and wanted to escape. With the world still going strong, they’d moved back now but he’d decided to stay because he’d found it so fantastic.
He then disappeared back into the sea of dancers, but I saw him resurface shortly over the other side of the bar. He was talking to one of the band members and pointing over in my direction. I had no desire to be called up on stage or have a song dedicated to me or whatever, so I took the opportunity to sup up and slip off.
I did remember to use the stairs, which is more than can be said for the drunkard in the lift who’d got himself stranded half way up and was mumbling in an equally loud but incomprehensible fashion. The stupid wanker.