After a few great days at the start of my trip, Lucy and I have come to a snowy, skidding halt. Minnesota in a blizzard is the last place I would have imagined our travels would take us. How did we get here?
From Whitefish, Montana, Lucy and I headed to Great Falls to visit Kari, Keith and Kiara for Kari’s birthday. Along the way we picked up Colleen and Alakea at the airport as her birthday surprise. The next day, with the Horton/Kester clan plus Gaga, we travelled to Kathy’s parents’ house on Seeley Lake for the real party – a Polihale-style barbecue by the lake. It was cold but beautiful, and light snow held off until the next day. As a group we went to Kathy’s grandmother’s retirement home the next morning in Missoula for her 100th birthday party. It was also Kathy’s mother’s 75th birthday, which is why Kathy was visiting from New York. It was great to have so many of the girls back together again after a few years away from Kauai together.
Minor note – if you’re in Montana, buy anything with Huckleberries except the Huckleberry coffee. That was a mistake.
All was looking good as we continued the party back in Great Falls, and I set my date for heading to South Dakota to visit the Badlands and Bear Country, the only things I had planned for this trip and was set on doing. Mt. Rushmore has been on my to-see list for so many years and I finally had the time to explore the area.
We sat down for a final evening and looked at the weather, and what should appear but a monster spring storm, completely unprecedented and unwelcome. It seemed to be centered on the exact area I was headed – South Dakota; 18″ of snow predicted for the next day, with gusting winds up to 60 mph. My backup plan was Colorado – 12″ predicted. South: snow. West: snow. East: snow. North: maybe an escape. I decided to make a run north and see if I could get back to the Badlands after a couple of days – I wasn’t prepared to see snow for at least another 8 months!
The roads out of Great Falls weren’t bad, snow wasn’t expected until the following day and the rain was only a heavy drizzle. It was still an intimidating drive, but the quality of the roads were impressive. One aspect of this country I have greatly missed while living in Hawaii is the amazing system of highways through the mainland. I stuck to smaller roads to go north but they were smooth and well kept, and I could find a nice road to take me to any small town I wanted to go. I’ve had similar thoughts ever since I picked up my truck in Seattle – our highway system could be one of the great wonders of the world, as long as you don’t look at the local, potholed lanes in cities. In 1956, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act and that made possible the trucking industry, transporting goods across the nation, and allowing wanderers relative ease to find interesting places to visit. I have been stuck in a pretty negative place lately when I think of our country and the direction it’s heading, but looking upon an act of greatness (even if it’s from the past) has been a welcome change.
I set my sights on Sidney, Montana, and took a lonely route where I didn’t see another car for nearly half an hour at a time. Without phone reception this was a little scary but the roads were perfect and the rain had stopped. I hadn’t quite gotten used to passing cars yet, still a bit intimidating, but every once in a while a slow truck was in my way and I was trying to outrun the coming blizzard. It’s not easy seeing around some of the monster semis hauling giant pieces of farm equipment, and I finally worked up the courage on a fairly straight piece of road with only some minor hills. I hadn’t seen another car pass in the other direction for a while, so chances were good that nothing would come out of nowhere but I’m sure you can guess what happened: a car the exact beige color of the road appeared as I was halfway past the truck. Nothing to do but a pedal-to-the-metal, butt-clenching burst of speed (thank you, Nissan) and cut-in the moment I had clearance. I silently apologized to the passing motorists for scaring them, but it was probably more dramatic in my head than in real life. It’ll be a long time before I attempt to pass another truck.
I picked the Holiday Inn in Sidney, Montana to stop for the night and plan my next route, which I do not recommend if you happen to find yourself there for a cattle auction; people pounding on doors after midnight (don’t tell my mom, but I finally had to open my door to tell the man outside to shut the hell up and go away), and someone else’s food left in my refrigerator. Gross. On the positive side, it rated ‘pretty good’ on the hound dog sniff test (see previous posts for Lucy’s potential job calling).
So Lucy and I are planning our route by means of Google maps, NOAA weather, and phone calls. Mark had previously sent me his address in Colorado but made sure to tell me that his area was expecting a foot of snow and I should stay away. I saw phrases like ‘snow bomb’ and ‘thunder snow’ in the forecasts everywhere around me. I researched a route up into Canada and down through Michigan, and tried to find a way south but the storm was too big. I finally called Colleen (whom I had picked up in Great Falls for the party) and we calculated that I could make it to her house in Minneapolis just as the blizzard was predicted to hit. The drive was 10 hours, I just had to wake up super early and move. Thanks, angry man pounding on doors – I didn’t need to sleep anyway.
Lucy and I managed to wake up at 5 a.m. and fly across North Dakota. I didn’t stop at any of the scenic overlooks (yes, ND has some beautiful spots) or ‘the world’s largest buffalo’, or take pictures of the clouds of birds flying in mesmerizing formations over the fields. It was a full-on sprint across the state while listening to tips on how to keep your herd safe in the unexpected spring storm. The winds began picking up and driving with both hands white-knuckling the steering wheel, especially while passing a semi coming from the opposite direction, became essential. With only a few feet between me and the giant trucks, every time one went by accompanied by a wind gust, it was like someone threw a flashbang at me. I reduced my fluid intake as a precaution, and I don’t understand how Lucy slept through those, scared as she is.
Trying to maximize my gas tank capacity and make fewer stops led me to a bit of difficulty somewhere between Bismarck and Fargo, literally in the middle of nowhere. I was forced to take side roads in search of a gas station and lost about half an hour, but found the most pleasant people I’ve met so far on this trip. Lucy always pokes her head up when we stop, and the man at the ag center came outside three times in the 30-degree cold and blowing wind to see if she was okay. He told me I could let her out to wander around off-leash if I wanted (which would have added another two hours to lost time by the time I collected her), or she could wander around inside his store for some exercise. We took a nice, if cold, walk instead.
I’ve often exaggerated how I’m freezing to death, like when I’m getting into the ocean in the morning or the evening, or waking up in 50 degree weather in Hawaii, or outside in the Pacific Northwest in the 40s. But for once, in North Dakota, it was real. I couldn’t find my socks in the truck and hadn’t thoroughly thought out my wardrobe choices; I was thankful that I found a winter coat on sale in Washington.
When I left Portland, I had packed a few things into the bed of my truck that wouldn’t fit inside (since I had packed far too many sets of useless clothing – why did I think I needed 8 sundresses for this trip?). One large item I picked up from Clare was a set of my (deceased) grandmother’s dainty, light-weight end tables. I had wanted them when she died, and I never thought I’d be in Hawaii for so many years, so she kept them in storage for me. I nested them inside one another, wrapped them in bubble wrap and put them in a large plastic bag to keep them watertight, then taped the single package shut; tie-downs kept them in place. As the wind picked up I could see bits of the bubble wrap poking through as the gusts began to rip the bag open, already weakened by the severe cold. The packing tape froze and slowly stopped sticking. With holes in the bag, the tables caught the wind and forced the straps to loosen, and somewhere near the Minnesota border I began to worry that the whole mess would take flight, land on someone’s windshield, and cause a 20-car pileup. Again, my imagination amazes me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it and pulled off right before downtown Fargo to assess the situation. My plan was to tighten the straps, add another, and buy some duct tape to close the holes in the bag; I would get new plastic bags when I got to Colleen’s house and redo the entire setup for the final stretch home. I found some duct tape and covered the holes while my truck gassed up, but it wasn’t sticking like I thought it should. Damn cold. I though duct tape fixed everything. I got back on the road, conscious of the time since Colleen had texted that it had started snowing in Minneapolis and I was still about three hours out. As I came off the entrance ramp into downtown Fargo traffic, the first piece of duct tape took flight in the wind, apparently unhappy with being asked to work in the extreme temperature. Two other long strips began to flap over my tailgate but were putting forth a better effort at sticking. I pulled into traffic and headed for the fast lane, trying to make up for lost time. Moments later I passed two state patrol trucks in the median, one of which pulled out right behind me, and don’t you know that’s when the second strip of tape let loose, caught the wind, and landed smack on the trooper’s windshield before sliding across and flopping to the ground. I prepared to get pulled over by sliding in front of a semi in the middle lane, but hopeful that there was too much traffic for him to stop me and give me a ticket for littering. The trooper came up next to me, flashed on his lights, and pulled over the car in front of me! I sincerely hope he was doing something bad that I didn’t notice and didn’t get my ticket. As the last length of duct tape gave up life about half a mile later, I noticed the Adopt-A-Highway sign of the Fargo Jaycees; I’m going to send them a donation when I get home for picking up my trash. I just wanted to get out of there.
Also while in Portland I noticed Lucy’s fear of walking under bridges; I thought it was the noise the cars make while driving on the steel grate material they use on some of them. Turns out she’s afraid of all bridges. Minnesota has a lot of overpasses, and since we had been in the truck for nine hours, Lucy was wide awake. With every approaching bridge, Lucy stared until we drove under, then made a mad dash to duck by trying to jump off the seat to the floor (which was full of random bits of travel stuff). Get back on the seat, stare at the bridge, jump to the floor. Over and over. It was funny until it started furiously blowing snow.
We had managed to beat the snow until about an hour outside Colleen’s house, but it came on like a true blizzard. Almost immediately I was on the phone with her trying to figure out where to go or what to do. If I could just make it a bit closer, she could grab a friend and pick us up but I was still too far away. I was considering stopping at a hotel, so close to my destination, because the wind was causing an almost total whiteout, even though the roads were still fairly clear. I thought driving through downtown Portland highways in the dark, in rain, during rush hour was the worst I could encounter on this trip, but a blizzard in Minneapolis during rush hour beat that hands down. I was shaking, since it’s been about 20 years since I’ve driven in snow, and Lucy diving under bridges wasn’t helping. As I was about to quit and pull off the highway I saw blinking orange lights ahead of me – a wide-load truck hauling a backhoe, going 55 mph as opposed to the 70+ of the veteran winter drivers around me. I snuggled in behind it and followed those flashing lights, sometimes the only thing I could see, for the remaining 29 miles of highway to Colleen and her family. After a few miles of slow, suburban driving (in 4×4 of course), I crawled down the final street to see Colleen and her children building a snowman and waving me down. After 11 hours of driving, little food or water, cramps from holding the steering wheel against the wind gusts, seeing them outside looking for me became my new definition of happiness.
After a beautiful snow day, watching TV with Alakea and Kala, listening to Haku play ukulele, and cocktails with Colleen (Huckleberry liqueur is a million times better than Huckleberry coffee), I’m preparing to leave tomorrow to make a dash south. It’s still snowing here but I have a job interview to get to (and I really really want the job), and the snow lets up about an hour away (although now I see a massive storm over Ohio). This has been a lovely break, especially since Lucy and Makoa have been playing so nicely, but it’s time to get to the end. South Dakota will have to wait for the next trip.
Aloha from freezing Minnesota,