Thursday I left in the dark to be at the eye doctor in Great Falls at 8:30 AM. Eighty mile drive, clear dry road, rackety old pickup. Rackety old driver. I fastened my seat belt. I do not take the iPod because I think while I drive. I drive this road at least once a month. If there is a blizzard or a lot of ice, I don’t go. Along the road is a sign that tells me where to tune my radio to get weather news. There is no radio.
Dawn on the prairie in fall is like the tide going out on a long sandy beach like Seaside, Oregon, drawing back the sea of darkness with its million minnow stars to reveal the day. Do you know how the beach is not flat but has long shallow places where the water lingers and reflects shine? The east — which is the direction I drive at first — lightens.
Many people are on the road, going to work, headlights strung out behind me and red lights in front of me. The headlights are not like they used to be. Some are intense but purplish. When they pass, I see that their taillights are a cluster of dots: LED’s. Often one red light is high in the back window. The trucks, mostly new and very clean, are one-ton and one-and-a-half-ton, which is why the drivers need their jobs enough to drive so far. The cars have moved to hybrids, shaped like computer mice, urban, often from the Canadian cities to our north. Antennas like a single whisker on the back.
The first section is fifteen miles of two-lane, then I turn south onto I-15 and there are four lanes. Traffic thins. I trundle along at 55 mph, fast enough in the dark. Now and then is the long dark blood smear of a killed deer. Just the smear. No carcass. One can guess where the smears are likely to be: across from a wood lot by a ranch house or where a coulee leads up to the highway.
Now the vehicles are huge trucks, relentless, pushing the speed limit. Canadian. The land is tilted towards the west and south so that it’s easier to find momentum going south. The land swells so that the truck slows going up for three or four miles and then speeds for three or four miles. My little pickup has to fight to get to seventy so I can pass. If I do manage to pass, the trucker resents me being slower when he’s coming on the downhill (downlow) so he rides my tail and might have time to pass me again before the next upswing. I can see their faces, sometimes amused and sometimes full of rage. Resentment is a fuel that fights fatigue.
Pretty soon the white bands alternating with shoals of purple cloud begin to redden. Instead of getting brighter, the light grows rosier until all the grass and crops everywhere are brassy with it. More intense, redder, then it all begins to go pale again and the sun passes the horizontal shining streams of sky until it is veiled in cloud and everything has gone Payne’s gray. The cursive dark script of the edge of the mountains is scribbled along the horizon, sharp-edged. Gradually one sees there is snow up there — a little patchy, probably mostly gone by afternoon. The cinematography has gone to black and white or maybe blue and white. I ponder the Wallander series which I’m watching on DVD at night. Leaving the peach and purple, or the red and custard yellow, this designer likes bluish black-and-white with caution yellow slashed across it, hard-edged.
When I say I’m from Montana, people say, “Oh, it’s so beautiful there.” They mean the technicolor national parks with animatronic animals. This is different: a hard beauty seeded with the bones of what has been, made slick with primal volcano dust. The cows cluster, not knowing they will be killed and eaten — not caring. Remnants of old brushy wind breaks still march in lines across the fields. Good places for crows to build nests.
Now I travel at roughly a mile a minute. Forty miles to go, forty minutes left. I kick it up a bit. One can go faster when it’s light. I pass the rest area without stopping. Fewer parked semis than usual. They like to idle there for a nap in the bunk behind the seats. I’ve never seen inside a truck cab sleeper. Some women make a living there. Others drive. The second is new.
Great Falls is not just located at the falls of the Missouri because it is a pretty place, though prettiness is the main industry there now where there are five museums, if you count the Cowboy Museum in a log cabin. Under the land that subsides to the southeast there is a great shelf of rock exposed by water. Not today’s streams, but the mammoth run-off that returned the water of the last huge North American glacier to the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. The continent creases along the Mississippi, like a folded letter responding to hidden motives, now open on the desk. That waterway allowed the Europeans access direct to the heart of the Blackfeet and took away their buffalo before the railroad got there.
Besides pretty the other industry of Great Falls is medicine. Off the freeway onto Tenth Avenue South, the commercial artery just renewed with cement, and I turn towards the campus of ugly modern buildings — rafter ends and sheets of glass — I turn a little too soon because I go by landmarks instead of street numbers. While I wait for the technician to test my field of vision, I hear the clerks say, “It was so hot in here yesterday it was just intolerable.” Nothing opens. One cannot roll up the edge of the tipi to let the breeze enter. If the electricity fails, these buildings will be uninhabitable. They won’t be able to use their machines anyway. I look straight ahead for seven minutes, clicking when I see a dot of light. It is just like driving in Montana.
When I return to my pickup, someone has put a small tab of caution-yellow paper under my windshield wiper. It says, “Repent. The end of the world is near.” As if I didn’t know. What THEY don’t know is that the apocalypse is continuous. Something is always dying; something is always birthing. Along the way I could see that the winter wheat has sprouted. Wind. Shield. Wipe your eyes. The tide of dark goes out to reveal the day. Then it returns with its million minnows.