Day 12 – April 16, 2014

I am bereft. With much roaring and flapping (it’s a long story), I drop Greg off at the airport. He flies back today to San Francisco to resume his work and life. I stay another night in Seattle with his wonderful friends so I can drive out east early the following morning. I spend my first alone afternoon booking a hotel in Missoula, taking a walk with my friend Holly, and packing my luggage. We three remaining Seattlites dine till stuffed at an Ethiopian restaurant. On the way home from the restaurant, we get stuck waiting for an open drawbridge to close–so Seattle. Chris and I discuss programming.

I wake on my departure morning to an unexplained parking ticket. The officer put the ticket almost on top of the residential parking permit next to the plastic stegosaurus on my dashboard. I won’t pay the ticket but am annoyed to draft a response letter.

I break free of Seattle morning traffic and drive east for the first time in six years. In 2008, I drove west from New Orleans to San Francisco to set up home. Now I return in the same car back east to Boston to take stock, reconnect, and relay the news of what I have learned. I feel like a returning fur trapper full of pelts.

Back east, we distinguish “Washington” from “Washington State.” In the west, I need say just Washington. Highway 90 picks up in Seattle with mile 1. I drive three hundred miles east across Washington up into misty mountains and across agricultural planes. I break for a BLT lunch in a fancy Pullman car in Spokane and add more oil to the aging car.

Spokane is the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis. Although I live in San Francisco, big cities scare me on this trip. I don’t like urban driving and the greater anonymity of a city makes me lonely. Easier to meet people in navigable small towns. I try wandering small Coeur d’Allene in Idaho’s pan handle but end up just driving through the odd campus of North Idaho University.

When I stop, I seek the essence of things, perhaps a futile investigation. How do I check in in Idaho? How do I prove I have been to the state? I feel like a strong man at the fair wanting to ring the bell with a mallet smash.

Greg warns me that white separatists with potato guns may not care for an urban dinosaur. Idaho is mountains, pine trees, investment services, alpine lakes, and lots of white people. I wish each state had differently colored ground, like on maps, so I could differentiate states better and know when I crossed a border.

There’s a big romantic lie about cross-country travel. Many envision scenic splendor, odd roadside attractions, and regional cuisine. Bosh. Cross-country driving is a brutal contest between how much I can suffer in the car versus how willing I am to go off trail to find something new. Should I find the dinosaur graveyard or just push, push, push on another hundred miles to Missoula, Butte, or even further to Billings?

When I stay in one place for a night, I’m torn between what I should do and what I want to do. This may be the only evening I will ever be in Missoula, Montana. I should eat a bison burger, catch a trout, drink a local lager, and (of course) write about all this.

Instead, I pick up a pizza, buy beer, and return to my Motel 6 hotel room for a decadent night of Game of Thrones. Time off means I can do what I want. I hope that a cross-country trip will be more than cheap hotels and tv shows.

Nonetheless, I’m quite good at travel. In less than an hour in Missoula, I gather information for the local and good. That pizza was half prosciutto and fig, half pear and goat cheese. That beer was the local Pygmy Owl from Warden’s, a shop recommended by the pizza waiter. Next morning, I “discover” the indie coffee roaster, Le Petit Outre, who also bakes bread and croissants.

In my travels, I search for regional versions of what I cherished in San Francisco. Where are the indie music stores, fancy coffee shops, and artisanal breweries? If trying to replicate my San Francisco in Missoula, I should have just stayed home.

There are differences out here, both subtle and significant. When I go to the bathroom, I leave my bag at my table. I don’t fear parking as not only are there empty spots, but also they are usually free. I say hi to people, as few are around. I go at peak times to enjoy crowds. Life feels easier.

Missoula resembles a cinematic ghost town. Almost as if the bad cowboys are just about to ride into town, the streets are deserted, even at 11am. Where is everyone?

Spring cars skitter down roads on steel snow tires. A mournful train whistle calls for stations somewhere else.

I could raise a family here. Unlike carefully clean Ashland, Oregon, there’s some grit to Missoula and some art. The big city (which one?) is far enough away that Missoula creates its own community.

I might even fit in with the good old boys of Montana. Although I might be their antithesis–an over-educated San Franciscan from Boston who doesn’t hunt, fish, or watch sports–yet I am out there scruffy with them putting motor oil in my beat-up car, looking for a good trail.