In The Mind of the Traveler: from Gilgamesh to Global Tourism, Eric J. Leed wrote that every journey is an unalterable sequence of three: Departure, Passage, and Arrival. Travelers pay closer attention to the first and last steps because they are leaving a familiar environment where they are known and because they are strangers entering an unknown community, unfamiliar with its customs and culture.
Passage, on the other hand, is often ignored. But like the flyover landscape that separates America’s left and right coasts, it is a critical and essential step in every journey; it has meaning, even if its immediately perceived significance falls short of a departure of arrival. “Motion becomes the medium of perception,” wrote Leed. It is an experience with its own structure, logic, and consequences.
Psychologist James Gibson noted that passage is organized around two points: the aiming point is where passage begins, and the vanishing point is where the route disappears at the horizon. Motion continually pushes the vanishing point forward, and what sustains this motion is autotelic need, an internal sense of purpose and curiosity.
Shunpike Canada was all about pushing the vanishing point on a roughly parallel track on the south and north sides of the US-Canadian border. Time defined its parameters. My two-wheeling wingman, Ed, who lives in Seattle, had to be at a western Massachusetts’s church to escort his daughter down the aisle, and I had to be home in time for my nephew’s northern Illinois nuptials.
A speed run west to Seattle would increase the time we’d have for our daily 300-mile passages eastward. Astride Old Blue, my 2004 BMW R1150RT, I unchecked “Highways,” which told my Garmin Zumo GPS that it was okay to take use the Interstate system as she navigated the quickest route to Ed’s house in the Seattle suburb of Renton. With a Bluetooth connection to my helmet communicator, Zumo’s polite but authoritative female voice said, “Drive the highlighted route.” As calculated, I would arrive in Ed’s driveway in 1,902 miles.
On my previous two trips between here and there I avoided the Interstates; each was a different route, and the shortest traversed 2,300 miles. The difference was a day’s ride. With my last long two-wheeled Interstate excursion, I-80 from San Francisco to northwest suburban Chicago, in 1974, I was looking forward to the surprises ahead. Trusting Zumo to ultimately lead me to Ed’s house, I didn’t look at the calculated route beyond the next turn.
Turning left on Main Street, Omro, aka Wisconsin 21, I followed it due west until I connected with I-90. Coming off the on-ramp, I expected to follow I-90 all the way to Seattle but, once again, it doesn’t pay to second guess Zumo. “Drive 672 miles,” she said. In plotting the quickest route, she saved me some time and miles by shortcutting I-90’s curve through western Wyoming on US 212. At least that was Zumo’s plan.
Just before the intersection of US 212 and Wyoming 59, a sign warned of construction ahead. Road work is the bane of summer road trips, and I’d already seen my share of it, so I gave the sign little notice. It immediately register that nearly every car, all with Wyoming plates, was turning north on WY 59. What got my attention was the big sign a mile past the intersection. It specifically warned motorcyclists about the construction ahead and “strongly recommended” an alternate route. Seeing no traffic heading east, and no one behind me, I took the hint. With no traffic, I made a U-turn without delay. Zumo immediately ordered another so I could rejoin her route, but I ignored her.
(On his way home, Ed followed my route, for the most part, and he sent this email from the road: “You know that sign on US 212 that advises motorcyclists to consider alternate routing? I ignored it today. I’m guessing five miles of gravelly dirt, some mud, and plenty of golf- and tennis-ball-size rocks. And teeth-jarring potholes. 15 mph max. Then there was another section, maybe 50 yards long, that was all gravel, but the stones were close to golf-ball size AND that road section sloped down from left to right. You would have loved it.”)
With no other turns back to her original route possible, Zumo recalculated my WY 59 detour. My next turn was I-94, which joined with I-90 about where I’d reconnect with it had I’d stayed on US 212. The detour added 70 miles and an hour or so to my journey, so I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Coming off the I-94 on-ramp, Zumo, whose tone of voice never changes, even when you change her route, told me to “Drive 963 miles.”
My next turn was Washington 18, which was about 10 miles from Ed’s house. When I arrived, the odometer math revealed a 2,039-mile journey that spanned four days. Without all the construction, orange cone constricted arteries through which the mostly four-wheel corpuscles had to pass single file, and the detour, I could have made it in three.
Traversing the long, ruler-straight stretches of Interstate, lightly populated with turbulent trucks and speeding cars, I had time to contemplate the landscape. The panorama was green and lush and dotted with family farmsteads on a quarter-section matrix. After crossing the furrowed brow that paralleled the Mississippi River they were spaced farther apart and the fields of corn and soy beans measured in miles. Riding into the Rocky Mountain rain shadow the crops became short-grass pastures more brown than green.
The frequency of signs advertising Wall Drug increased as the number of farmsteads decreased. Facing a chill headwind and the setting sun that painted the rolling landscape in soothing saturated colors, I set this South Dakota town as the conclusion of my first day. I’d traveled 750 miles, and going farther wasn’t an option because it was several hundred miles to the next island of civilization.
Like most Interstate off ramps, at Wall the motels were clustered together. The Super 8 was full, and so was the parking lot across the street at the Best Western, so I coasted across the parking lot to the Econo Lodge, which welcomed me warmly. The desk clerk recommended the Red Rock Restaurant for dinner, a four-block leg stretching walk, she said.
Rehydrating with a Fat Tire and awaiting the arrival of my patty melt, I eavesdropped on two blondes and a man, all apparently in their 50s, at an adjacent high-top table. Fox News was adding to the conversation. They were clearly several beers ahead of me and only half paying attention to the flat screen TV.
Then the man said, without apology, “I’m a Democrat!” The women exclaimed that they were as well, and they each shook the man’s proffered hand in turn. Clearly, they were from out of town. From Minnesota, the women were looking forward to outdoor adventures in the Badlands and Black Hills. The man was from Sioux City and never revealed his purpose in Wall. The rest of their conversation was an exchange of echo chamber clichés that ranged from Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve American dietary habits to millennial disrespect for the traditions of consumerism and hoarding.
Opportunities for human interaction are few on the Interstates, which is why it made my day when passengers in passing cars waved. Usually it was the bored backseat kids in passing cars. They looked as excited as I felt when I waved back, but I doubt they would have been eager to hear about my Interstate invention, creating fictional characters whose names came from off-ramp signs to adjoining towns like Magnolia Kanaranzi. Maybe I should start writing fiction again and craft a novel with other such characters I’d meet on this journey.
The challenge would be remembering the names until I reached the next rest stop, so I would write them down (or take a photo). Uniformed officials frown on nonemergency stops alongside the Interstate, which are also dangerous. Many were the cars that weaved in and out of their lanes because their occupants were doing something other than driving. It usually involved a phone.
To keep the Assbugger’s Syndrome at bay, I made a leg-stretching stop at every other rest area. Each respite was memorable for different reasons. At the Blue Earth West stop a sign said I was entering what was an 18-mile stretch of what once was tall grass prairie, where the itemized varieties grew 6 feet high, and sent their roots equally as deep into the rich soil that for more than a century grew nothing else but beans and corn.
Human interaction at these stops was limited to chin-bobbing greeting in the direction of fellow travelers as we all moved with purpose toward the facilities. In the older buildings, the urinals were close together, and in Minnesota I detoured to the handicapped stall because an obese gentleman surpassed the available lateral space. In Montana, the rest area facilities were newer. Instead of communal evacuation stations they featured separate bathrooms, four male, four female. I can’t speak for the female facilities, but each male refuge had a stool, urinal, and a gray plastic fold-down baby changing table. And there was another fold-down contraption that looked like a toddler restraint system.
My favorite rest stops offered a magnificent view or visitor information. The imposing sculpture of Sacajawea on the bluff overlooking the Missouri River leads my rest stop list and the Broadus, Montana, visitor information center on US 212 leads that list. Not only did the lady happily provide affable information, the center she commanded offered not only maps of Montana but those of all the states that surrounded it. Zumo’s navigational abilities are beyond reproach, but she can’t identify the geographic features along her route. The map told me that I was running parallel to the Yellowstone River.
When the Yellowstone River turned south to the national park that bears its name, the intersections with southbound thoroughfares were congested melees. Cars and RVs scurried on and off and around like roaches suddenly caught in the act by the kitchen light. It struck me here that Interstate intersections are American crossroads, the home to the essential goods and services for the surrounding communities, a place to eat, a place to stay, and a place to shop—except for groceries. I didn’t see any grocery stores. Given the number of staples they now offer, perhaps convenience stores taken their place.
The Conomart Super Store, across the street from the My Place motel in Billings, Montana, and next door to the 4B’s Café, does offer a shopping selection I wish more convenience stores would emulate: a wide selection of craft beers and a build your own four-pack for $2 a bottle. The opportunity was perfect because on Day 3 of my passage, I’d pulled up early to let Mother Nature’s rainy outrage pass over while I rested, reflected on my journey so far, and slept.
Sipping a Harvest Moon Pig Ass Porter, I realized that as the green farmland turned into brown ranch land, that the few people I’d seen working the land were hermetically sealed in big tractors or pickup trucks. The only exceptions were the Amish farmers driving teams of draft horses in Wisconsin, before I connected with the Interstate.
Popping the cap of a Madison River Black Ghost Stout, the probing replay of visual memory connected the miles traveled with images of abandoned buildings, homes and barns and sheds in the middle of vast fields. In various stages of Mother Nature’s reclamation, I wondered about the hopes of the people who’d built them, and survivability of the family farm.
In every case, each of these relics was behind a precise and perfectly maintained barbwire fence lines. Covering uncounted miles, their evenly spaced stanchions were each perfectly vertical even with climbing a steep hill, and I wondered what equation of time and effort and people were involved in their installation and maintenance. In the west, these fences contained roving bands of horses. I never saw anyone riding one. Was this because they couldn’t recall or catch them?
Just across the Washington state line I saw a lonely Trump Pence placard on the other side of the fence. Looking west, I relished the peace of being disconnected from the world and its endless partisan outrage and parochial self-centered self-interest. My only digital connection to the world was the Weather Underground app on my phone. It kept me dry all the way to Ed’s place, and reaffirmed the decision to replace my 15-year-old Motorola Razor with an iPhone. My wife agreed with every text I’d sent announcing my location, travel plans for the day, and times or departure and arrival.
Ed welcomed my arrival in his driveway. After a day’s rest, laundry, and a visit to Seattle Museum of Flight the next day, we would depart on Saturday, July 1, on the passage that would be Shunpike Canada.