It was 10:30 in the morning Mountain Time when I landed in Missoula, Montana, and was standing half-awake in a rental car agency parking lot. A train snaked past, and its loud whistle perked me up some. It had been a whirlwind morning: I had left my house in suburban New Jersey at 2:45 a.m. and stood in lines at Newark Liberty International Airport at an hour when there shouldn’t be any lines anywhere, but there were lines because it’s New Jersey—there’s always traffic. Two drowsy flights later—one over Montana’s many mountains in this small Embraer jet that I’m convinced was powered by prayer and hungry gerbils—and by the time New Jersey was sitting down to lunch, I was in Big Sky country. And to be fair, that Embraer jet ride ended up being one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever enjoyed. Trust the gerbils.
Despite on-time, smooth flights across three-quarters of the United States, I was under-caffeinated, over-tired, and famished when I explained to the car rental agency representative that I had booked an economy car online. I wasn’t in the mood for paperwork or chit-chat, but between paperwork and chit-chat, he walked me further out into the parking lot towards the train tracks and said, “Well, we don’t have much in the lot at the moment, but we’ve got Little Blue here.”
I looked up. Little Blue was an eight-cylinder, relatively new Dodge Ram 2500, with the words “Heavy Duty” next to the 2500. Not sure what 2500 meant, but I certainly knew what “Heavy Duty” meant. In fact, the Dodge Ram tagline on its website is “Tow With Confidence.” I had nothing to tow but a large purple floral Vera Bradley bag that contained three outfits, red Tony Lama cowgirl boots, and a donut floatie.
My “economy” car, I soon discovered, required either a small private helicopter to hoist me up into the front seat or the strong arms of Sasquatch himself. The helicopter was too expensive and Sasquatch was likely on a commercial shoot somewhere, so thank God for those body sculpting classes I’ve been taking to mitigate middle-aged metabolism because my biceps were put to the test. Every time I got behind the wheel involved me grabbing a handle built into the door and pulling all of my body weight into the front seat in one quick, hopefully graceful move. My left bicep is now visibly bulkier than my right—at least for now.
I turned the key, and I won’t lie: when I heard that V8 growl for the first time and the truck quake with enthusiasm, I got excited. I felt at home. Everything about where I was and what I was doing felt spot-on. I grabbed my lip gloss and dabbed a touch of red shimmer on to my lips even though I was unshowered and looked like some English lit professor coming off a bender. I was driving a giant truck and wanted to look pretty. Don’t ask why.
GoogleMaps told me where to go, and within 15 minutes, I was at the DoubleTree Hilton on the beautiful and narrow Clark Fork River, and because it was brunch time by anyone’s standards, my room wasn’t ready yet. I greeted this news with unbridled excitement, and said to the woman behind the counter (who was showered and wearing her lipstick much better than I) “That’s ok. I’ll go sleep in my truck!”
I saw opportunity.
She appeared unfazed and quite accustomed to people announcing they’d be grabbing a snooze in their trucks. “No problem,” she said with that smile that people behind counters always have. “We’ll text you when your room is ready.”
The Dodge Ram 2500 comfortably seats six, so I crawled into the backseat, and made a nest of my Yankee white privilege items: my Vera Bradley bag, my Turkish bath towel, my Italian suede shawl. I grabbed my Qantas airline eye mask out of my bag because the sunshine was bright, and I got comfy, wishing that travel could always be like this—long hours of go-go-go capped with feeling cozy and safe inside a truck the size of my first studio apartment.
I was mildly irked when the hotel texted only an hour later to say my room was ready (damn efficient cleaning staff!). I gathered my belongings, trudged to room 332 thinking nothing could be as comfortable as the backseat of Little Blue, and then promptly dropped my attitude when I saw the balcony overlooking the river and a fly fisherman working the line. The sounds of the rushing river gave me a Norman Maclean moment, and I realized it was best to leave New Jersey behind for the long weekend ahead and chill the hell out. Just let Montana do what Montana knows how to do, and that’s to wow you with its purple mountains majesty. What was right outside my hotel door was exactly what Francis Scott Key had been talking about.
Over the next four days, Little Blue and I went everywhere together: Jack’s Saloon in nearby Lolo where I compared truck sizes with the dudes who parked next to me; the downtown Missoula Shakespeare & Co. bookstore where Maxim Loskutoff’s new book was temporarily out of stock; Clyde’s Coffee not too far from the bookstore, which serves a fantastic gluten-free breakfast; Polson at the base of Flathead Lake where our paddleboarding reservation was cancelled due to chop on the water; Bigfork, near the top of Flathead Lake, where a breeze blew my donut into the water, resulting in me taking off my sweater and my jewelry and easing myself into a freezing lake to swim in my workout clothes after a flotation device that has accompanied me to four continents, five countries (Cuba, twice!), and six states. Little Blue was parked outside while I ate a bowl of butter pooled around my risotto. He was parked nearby while I accidentally walked into a food truck rally and live concert that ended up being a ton of fun. He was there when my friend and I sat on a ridge at the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in lovely Arlee. I loved seeing mud streaked on its sides. I loved how after the rain it became a brighter blue (and Montana needs rain). I loved how people got out of my way on the freeway.
Like some loyal steed, Little Blue stood in pouring rain or glistening sunshine waiting to see where we’d go next. In four days, I put approximately 400 miles on that truck. I imagine the only other better ways to see and experience Montana is to ride an actual loyal steed or paddleboard across Flathead Lake—when it’s not choppy.
Before that first visit to Montana, I always viewed myself as a Prius-kind-of-girl, driving something thoughtful, leaving behind minimal carbon footprint, patting myself on the back for being a good citizen—all the classic urban blue state virtues.
Yet there was something immensely visceral and satisfying about driving Little Blue through the mountains, curving along the road that hugs Flathead Lake, my hands on the wheel, the road unspooling before us. Mountains. Cherry tree orchards. Rivers. A giant lake. I realized then that perhaps no matter where I go in this world, no matter how liberal I may claim to be, how much recycling I do or tweeting trash against the NRA, I am simply an American woman who loves driving a big-ass truck while wearing lipstick.