On April 2, 2020, I went to the bank to withdraw some cash in case my car broke down somewhere, threw a small compendium of my most cited books into the trunk of my two-door hatchback and started to drive across the country — West, from my studio apartment in Ypsilanti, Michigan to my friend in Gardiner, Montana.
I think rather fondly of the first time I traveled by myself across the country by car, back in 2017. I took the commuter train through Chicago, got on the Empire Builder and learned how to play chess between Union Station and Fargo, North Dakota. The young man who taught me was a math major at the University of North Dakota. He explained to me how he’d taught hundreds of people to play the game on this train. He was patient while I took long breaks from playing this game he clearly loved.
In 2017, my destination was Portland, Oregon. At the time, I’d just been visiting Michigan and was about to spend Thanksgiving with an old friend, a time we would wind up splitting between the houses of a divorced polyamorous couple. This interest in strangers, or in reading their lives, was what infused my life then with meaning. For so long, not much else truly interested me.
Invisibility also piques my interest. This might explain a predilection for foggy weather, and why I thrill at the edge of a train platform while an eccentric female professor from Eugene, Oregon smokes grass at a stop outside Glacier National Park. I watch as the smoke coils and disperses, evident as it spreads among the airborne droplets, “seeping back and forth” along the formless borders of fog in a “recursive dance” (the writer Norma Cantú’s phrasing).
Even in the throes of what many define as loneliness, I consider myself a true introvert and I think of the time I spent making conversation with someone I spoke to twice over the phone in my apartment, to catch up at the beginning of the pandemic. As they spoke I thought, “at this moment people are dying, they’re really dying.” The reality thickened into lumps like knotted scar tissue in my larynx. In a way, these perfunctory, obligatory conversations only made me more stir crazy.
I kept on reading the predictions in the news: about how many more people would die, about how long this pandemic would go on. As the weeks and months passed, the predictions worsened.
In 2017 the train to Oregon led to a rewiring of my brain, turning me into a true impromptu journalist. It was an elegant confinement. But quarantine, alone in my apartment, was no elegant confinement.
Taking leave from home, for me, is about finding home in other places — getting relief from the confinement in our daily routines.
In direct opposition to this idea, I’ve always found the road to be a formless place that has no preconceptions. In that sense, going on the road for me is about a limitless sense of sharp relief; its energy feels endlessly renewable.
On the road, starting somewhere between my first time hitchhiking (in the state of Montana where such an act is legal) and that 2017 train trip to Oregon, I learned how solitude can foster tranquility as you learn how to be more yourself.
But the act of being myself in confinement started to feel relentless and unbearable in the absence of accumulated interactions and distractions from daily life. Every time I feel insurmountable sameness and repetition closing in on me, I go West.
In her Outside magazine article “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream,” journalist Latria Graham writes about the challenges of being a Black woman in the outdoors. The article came after a revolutionary summer in which the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement led to historic demonstrations calling for racial justice. Graham opens with her pondering her mother’s gift to her, a gun intended for her safety.
What strikes me the hardest throughout her article are her experiences as a Black woman moving in spaces where she finds herself constantly encountering a nullifying, blinding presence of whiteness. As a white woman, I cannot pretend to understand what it’s like to be glaringly visible by virtue of my skin color.
In 2020, when I arrive in Wyoming, I find a truck stop, where I curl up inside my car like a small animal. While I pride myself on my ability to execute long stints of driving, my bodily limitations tell me I cannot exceed 12 hours without pausing to consider whether I must rest. Usually, the answer is yes. I have the distinct privilege of camouflage, a cloak of invisibility lent to me by generations of white privilege. The other aspect of my form I’m implicitly building into my stops is that I was born a woman.
As I’m driving along, I listen to my favorite LitHub podcast, “Phone Calls from Paul,” which is narrated by the inimitable Paul Holdengraber. He interrogates the source material of writers and critics through conversations with them. On the podcast, one word keeps surfacing like a note in a bottle: quote-o-mania.
Holdengraber defines this as the relentless urge to quote others. He informs his guests that he is inflicted by this ailment, which I also take to mean that, like many academics, he often finds that someone else has captured meaning far better than he can. I don’t exempt myself from this category.
For example, I believe I can find any wisdom that exists elsewhere in the world in the words of Toni Morrison. I believe Audre Lorde has distilled the abstract yearnings of activism’s varying states of well-being among the collective better than anyone. Bessie Smith is the master of bringing beauty to bear on the distorting emotional pangs of loss and heartbreak.
While quotations are concerned with originality, I think about how the original sources of culture haven’t been traced correctly to their source.
Whiteness consumes culture without this adequate acknowledgment in so many forms: blues, jazz, many other artistic genres. We traverse a country built on blood and fruitless labor, but keeping the pain in the past is how whiteness rules.
I have started to read this as quiet, unstable violence enveloped in our society. I frequently catch myself growing complicit in this harm, consuming curated and appropriated forms of culture on a daily basis. The marginalization of what is out of frame twists my mind into knots, because, in many ways, I long for invisibility and textual representation but understand my baseline visibility.
IX. “Horses are like dogs.”
I curl up again inside my car like a small animal. I’m less than five hours from Gardiner near Billings, an oil town that everyone seems to know about outside Montana. Upon every inhale I can smell compressed bones and plants oozing up from the earth in thick, congealed dark drool. I set up camp while snow hushes against the plexiglass, stifling the world of darkness and distorted light emitted from trucks and safety lights.
On the road, I unravel into instincts. The horizon is a threshold until I’m stopped, and I check every crevice of my surroundings. I pat beneath the passenger’s seat for the bear spray I always take with me on trips and observe the oblong, gargantuan containers of cargo atop some of the truck beds. I pay attention to where I am in space, and always make sure to park far from other vehicles.
I think about how, in a year, I might look back on how driving across the country at the beginning of a pandemic may have been one of the riskiest, most impulsive acts of my young life.
I think about how as a writer I long to disappear into text and become invisible. Someone I once respected informed me that I should become an academic because, they said, academics live on the page. Now not sure such invisibility is truly possible.
In the morning, I realize I only have seven hours to go. I realize I’ve already crossed the Black Hills and much of Wyoming, but it was in the middle of the night and I only saw the sacred hills as blue outlines.
When I’m almost at my friend’s apartment, I see a horse ranch, but immediately something astonishes me. In the distance, I see a horse rolling around on the ground on its back like a dog would. I see it toss and angle itself, as if to scratch its back against the dull, bitter winter earth.
When I tell my friend upon arrival, we talk about how aphonic intelligence is similar across all species.
“Horses are like these towering, super intelligent dogs,” he tells me.
XII. Livingston, Montana
I drove into town to go running. Livingston is one of the windiest places I’ve ever been; the town is a tidal wave of densely pressured air that slams into you and, in the process of receding, sucks you down by the arm. Its reputation is such that the novelist Walter Kirn wrote an entire essay on the town’s relentless gales.
By comparison to where I’ve been, either alone or positioned at the interstices of other people’s solitude, the idle pods of people standing between homes feels like a bustling city. The whirligig of metropolitan life is juxtaposed with the peaceful stretch of the earth feels almost convulsive and energizing.
Nostalgia strikes at random. I remember the first time I tried to go running in an unknown place when I was in Great Falls, Montana, a similarly windy place, for work in 2016. In Great Falls, though, the wind isn’t the only problem, one must look out for both stray and fenced-in dogs as well — hundreds per block. A Greek chorus of dogs would begin wherever I ran, to the point that I stupidly resorted to blasting music from my headphones.
It’s no wonder, of course, that I never saw anyone else running. I noticed a few locals looking at me with their smooth, mocking gazes, but in 2016 I did not know that in four years time I’d need to weather another level of craziness; the risk felt worthwhile, moderate at best.
When I stopped to stretch, I’d notice someone open their curtains to stare, which had never happened to me before.
One night in Missoula in 2017, when I was walking home, a man attempted to grab at me from his rusting, asthmatically loud pick-up truck. I had always imagined the moment, but you never really know what reflexes can do. It was almost 4:00 a.m., and I was lucky enough to still have them.
Once I’ve settled in, I sign in to my virtual class on my iPad at bleary morning hours, but in the afternoon I go for drives, on hikes or into town just to walk around and feel myself glow in the sun.
I hear a gun go off during class several times, and my friend informs me his neighbor shoots. To me, the idea that shooting guns is a worthwhile pastime doesn’t make sense, but Montana is a place where the people seem to enjoy a euphoria from their sense of lawlessness: gun culture, free movement, tourism, public lands; all stolen lands.
The contrast sharpens between the visible spread of curved and angled rock before me.
I’ve only shot a gun one time, and when I did I felt myself shrink behind the force of what I’d done. I felt frozen, as if my body was instinctually thinking about what I could have set in motion. I shook with adrenaline. The bullet formed a trademark upon impact, in that the powerful tidal wave of noise that was unleashed by my finger pulling the trigger echoed through the valley for up to a minute; A Morse code of violence that rippled in the air like a pebble striking water.
X. Gardiner burns
In July 2020, months after I departed the state of Montana for my Michigan apartment, the first of many expanding fires that licked along the earth and incinerated ancient forests burned through the center of two buildings in Gardiner, where I’d been.
My friend informed me that a bar over a century old was destroyed in the fire, and a young man got out alive, about one month after he’d moved in. I think about how erasure of any kind isn’t really about the incineration of buildings, but the incineration of memory.
At the end of this last fire season, they say you could see the remnants of scorched earth in outer space.
As we gather the threads of our imperialist pasts and lock ourselves in a planetary war with the environment, we might be forced to confront our relationship to nature’s receding and towering, nameless graves: lost memory.
Everything we call gone, everything that came before dried up, or was siphoned up. How we state and restate this depends, of course, on the angle from which we examine what happened.
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.