The Road to Billings, Montana
A college road trip gone wrong
I’m sharing a bonus essay this week, partly to plug my spring special (20% off annual memberships through Monday), and partly to announce that I’m adding a new “Fiction and Memoir” section to the newsletter, where I’ll post previously published stories and essays, as well as beta versions of new literary prose. If you’ve enjoyed personal essays like “The Sweet Spot” and “How Sugaring Feeds My Soul,” I’ll move those over to this section for easier reference.
Tune back in Friday for a discussion of my interview with Gertrude Nonterah. I want to revisit her message about poverty in academe, specifically the irony of tailoring undergraduate education toward employability while rewarding advanced degrees with the same income (or less) than fresh college graduates earn in industry. I hope to write about this for Tuesday’s essay, and our discussion will help me organize my thoughts. And you’ll want to check out the Friday essay atby .
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in CutBank, the literary magazine at the University of Montana.
“Force is equal to the change in momentum per change in time.”
—Sir Isaac Newton
I was driving with the window cracked, because Aven’s car had no air conditioning, when we lurched forward. Something smashed against the door and I heard a dull scraping over the hum of the road. I glanced in the mirror and saw a tire bouncing down the road behind me.
“Good grief,” Aven said. He watched the tire through the rear window. It spun past us into the ditch as I bore down on the brakes.
I eased the car to the shoulder, but the driver’s door would not budge. Aven slid out his side as I fought with the latch.
“Door’s dented shut,” he said. “You’ll have to use mine.”
The car as I remember it was a Mercury in the late 70s style, boxy and huge, so I had room to swing my legs onto the seat and scoot out the passenger side. It was late August, and dust caked the fenders. We were somewhere between Thompson Falls and Plains, Montana, on a flat stretch of highway.
The rotor left a groove in the asphalt after the wheel bounced away. It looked like an action line in a cartoon, an arc from the driving lane to the shoulder.
Aven raised his hands with a grin that said what can you do. We spread out to search the ditch, and soon Aven bent into the knapweed and came up with the tire.
I jacked up the car and helped him screw the wheel back on. Then I slid across the front seat from the passenger side, Aven piled in, and we were on our way. We had more than two thousand miles to go from Montana to Tennessee. It would not have been too late then to turn back. We were just two hours from home. But if either of us had that thought, we did not speak of it. By the time we filled the tank outside Missoula and hit I-90 East, we were like children on a sled, inching over the crest of a hill then picking up speed, two bodies in motion.
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When Aven pulled up in my driveway earlier that day with an overheated radiator, my first thought was not to question his plan to take me back to college. He was a diesel mechanics major at Bob Jones University, an evangelical school in South Carolina that monitored student conduct so closely it was often compared to a minimum security prison. I was studying English at a Presbyterian college in Tennessee, and Aven said he could drop me off on his way.
Aven came from a large family in the Yaak Valley, a wild place in northwestern Montana that borders Idaho and Canada. He was a tall young man with dark wavy hair, prematurely thinning, and eyes that changed color depending on what he wore. Sometimes they were the grayish blue of river ice. Other times they seemed as green as a mallard’s head. Our families attended the same church, so we had occasion to talk now and then, but we did not know each other well.
He had a confidence that seemed imperious, but which cracked under scrutiny, a bravado that I have recognized in myself and in other people who grew up poor in the Mountain West. It was the very defiance that made me believe, without question, that I belonged in college, a willful blindness that allowed me to overcome my shock at being surrounded by classmates who vacationed at Myrtle Beach, bluffing my way through the first semester until I learned how to leverage my difference to my advantage. I had absorbed that way of thinking while keeping pace with my father as he tracked elk through deep snow. You did not whine, you did not question whether you could take the next step. You took it, and the next, and the one after that, and soon the day was done.
When Aven suggested that he could drive me to Tennessee in a car he had purchased for fifty dollars and rebuilt at the diesel mechanics shop at Bob Jones, I heard it as the kind of dare I had been accepting from my father for years, which was not so much a challenge as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are going to do this thing. So on that summer day, when I heard Aven’s car crunching over the gravel and went out to find steam boiling from beneath the hood, my thought was to get him some water for the radiator, pack my things, and go.
My parents stepped out to see us off. It was late afternoon, and the south side of the garage was coated with boxelder bugs. Aven filled the radiator, slammed the hood, and wiped his hands with a rag.
“Don’t set any land speed records,” my father said.
Aven grinned. “No, sir, we won’t.”
The plan was to drive straight through in shifts to save time and the cost of a hotel. I had volunteered for the first shift, and when Aven took the wheel for the stretch out of Missoula, I slipped into the back to rest. The sun was setting behind us, the timbered ridgelines magnified against the burning sky. The red light caught the dust on the rear window like blinds, casting stripes of shadow and color over the back of Aven’s head. Soon the car was dark and the world shrank to the column of light from the high beams, the interstate corridor, and the dark lines of mountains against the stars. I burrowed my pillow into the duffels stacked next to me and slept.
When I woke, we were sitting still. The dash said eleven o’clock. Were we getting gas, taking a bathroom break? A rest area, from the looks of it.
“It’s the radiator,” Aven said, before I could ask. “There’s no water. We’ll have to wait for someone to come along.”
We sat in silence for a moment, and I tried to distract myself by imagining the traffic on the interstate by sound. The growl of a diesel pickup. A tractor trailer moaning and rattling by. The whine of a sedan.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“It’s a lonely stretch between here and Billings.”
Aven said nothing. He had taken on the quiet resignation that we had both learned growing up. Stick to the plan, nose to the grindstone, don’t complain. Someone will happen along. It was a way of turning helplessness into resolve, refusing to weaken, the way we sometimes convinced ourselves that we felt sorry for people with money. It was how we turned hand-me-downs and mended clothes into badges of honor, even superiority. We can get by with less than you. We don’t need what you’ve got. I was looking forward to professors asking me about my travels. “Great,” I’d say. “Drove back with a friend who fixed up a car he bought for fifty dollars.” Then the look of surprise. Two thousand miles in a junk car? Yes, my expression would say. No problem. The trick was to turn poverty into a story, a conquest, a depth of character that no one else could claim.
So I sat with Aven in the dark. We listened to traffic blowing by in both directions on the interstate. And we waited.
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