The Place That Wasn't

 Sing along -- “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam…”  Nah, actually I want a home where the restaurants are within walking distance and the streets are neatly numbered.  I’m glad buffalo still exist, but I’m more interested in getting where I’m going.   I need not  to get lost.  Now, being a little confused about which turn to take isn’t lost.  Thinking, mistakenly, for several hours that you’re heading off in the right direction in an area that offers nothing in the way of pedestrians to ask or landmarks to spot, and doesn’t even show up on your only map – that is lost.  Last summer in Montana we were as perplexed and far astray as I ever want to be. 

One should, generally speaking, avoid being adrift in Montana – the miles are much longer there, so lost becomes a much more impressive experience.   One missed fork in the road and before you find a sign that raises an eyebrow, you’re already fifty miles off course. 

Last summer’s expedition was, I’m afraid, another Adventure with the Chadwells.  These adventures started thirty-some years ago when we left the tidy cornfields of eastern Nebraska and came west.  Our friends have learned to avoid traveling with us.

Once we ditched our raft in bad rapids, which produced some Reader’s Digest moments during which the icy water kept sucking me under and whacking me against bone-breaking boulders. 

Once we lost our way skiing in a blizzard.  I thought I’d taken a wrong turn and was headed straight down the mountain.  I dug my poles in hard only to discover that I wasn’t moving at all – it was just the wind and the total whiteout.  I can remember one of our kids moaning, “ I thought we left Nebraska to get away from all this.”  Good point. 

We’ve done the roll-the-new-dirt-bike-off-the-cliff thing, the left-the-new-suit-in-the-hotel-room thing, and, of course, we’ve been lost in Seattle; that happens to everyone.

But we’d never been lost in Montana.  That day we were attempting to drive south from Bozeman to Idaho Falls down through the Jefferson Valley; there really aren’t many highways there, not much to choose from, so it takes talent to get it wrong.  Especially these days.

Which is why I should bring up Dory.  Dory is our GPS navigating system.  (We’ve never actually heard her say, “42 Wallaby Way,” but we keep expecting it.) She has saved us many a time and has actually tamed Seattle, but she’s also made some really miserable mistakes.  I’d like to blame her and her annoying little “recalculating” voice for the Montana fiasco.  But I can’t – we had embarked on a 3,000-mile trip and left her charger at home. 

So there I sat riding shotgun, soaking up the vastness that is Montana, with nothing but a small atlas on my lap.  I value efficiency, so I had turned the atlas to the Idaho page since we’d be driving in Idaho most of the time.  I thought. 

We headed west out of Bozeman and left the Interstate at Whitehall turning abruptly south into the Jefferson Valley and down to Highway 41.  That would take us to Dillon and from there onto another freeway and down into Idaho.  By the time, that day in late June, that we hit a hamlet called Twin Bridges it was close to noon and the sun gave us no inkling that the road we followed had slowly veered east and morphed into uncharted Highway 287.

We ate lunch in some nameless village and drove on, clueless.  By mid-afternoon we were curious and very alone. We’d seen no other cars.  By the time we crested a rise and coasted into Nevada City, which is neither in Nevada nor a city, we were downright disturbed. 

Nevada City is a ghost town.  It consists of nearly a hundred weather-beaten, 19th century buildings, fully furnished, looking like the whole town had just gone out to the rodeo.  Chalk still lay on the abandoned slates in the old school house; the day’s assignment still scrawled across the blackboard.  The dressmaker’s shop was full of calico bolts and rolls of lace, a dress-form half-draped in brocade.  The banker’s house stood open – lace curtains at the windows, pans on the stove, but nobody was home.  Nobody had been home for a hundred and fifty years, but the furniture was dustless.  And this place wasn’t on the map either.  Not on my 21st century map. 

It’s profoundly unnerving to suddenly find yourself in an uncharted place in the wrong era, with no idea how you got there.  Time warp?  The Twilight Zone?  We couldn’t both be having the same hallucination.  But the afternoon was dwindling and, as far as we could tell, we were no closer to Idaho Falls.

Reluctantly we continued down the same highway; it was the only highway.  A few Montana miles later we drove through Virginia City (I know, what’s with these names?  Were the town fathers as confused about their whereabouts as we were?).  Virginia City is an inhabited version of the ghost town, quaint and charming, but according to the map, just as non-existent. We snapped a few pictures, trying to make the most of whatever this adventure was.   

Then we drove on to the next town, which turned out to be fully and comfortingly 2010. We stopped at a gas station.  I took my little lap-map in, swallowed my pride, hid my mounting fear, and, handing the clerk my atlas, asked if she could show me where we were.  She pointed to Ennis – which is close to Big Sky, a good fifty of those long Montana miles east of where we were trying to be. 

Eventually, after cruising down hours and hours of empty roads, through breath-taking terrain, past lavish ranches tucked into the base of black-green mountains (The only car to pass us was a Lamborghini.), we worked our way down into Idaho, and civilization eased back into place.   

We discovered that had I been turned to the Montana page I would have known about Highway 287.  (Why would mapmakers leave off random highways?  Were they trying to save ink?)  Aside from feeling like the universe had slipped sideways for a few hours, it was a grand adventure.  

 I’d like to revisit Nevada City (which is owned by the state of Montana and functions as both movie set and outdoor museum) I’d like to arrive there on purpose.  I’d like to sleep in the hotel and drink a beer in the saloon.  I wouldn’t even mind seeing a buffalo.  I doubt, however, that I will.  That adventure was a gift and gifts seldom repeat themselves.