Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past — Jack London, American Novelist
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight- Jack London, Call of The Wild
The winter, this past two months, has been cruel but fate hasn’t.
Towards the end of December 2017, I undertook a 3,600 mile road trip from St. Louis, Missouri to Kalispell Montana passing through South Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming on my way. To get an idea of the distance travelled, the width of continental North America (from the east coast to the west coast) is 2,680 miles one way. It is no surprise then that I felt a bit like the author Jack Kerouac and a bit like Hugh Glass in Michael Punke’s book ‘ The Revenant’.
A bit like Jack Kerouac because I was writing about my trip along the way much like Jack, with his small notebook, writing his way to an epic called “On The Road” (1957). It is said that Kerouac later typed the book on a continuous roll of tracing paper 120 feet long that he cut to size and stitched together. On The Road is considered an icon of the post-world war II Beat and counterculture generation.
My expedition to the northern most tip of North America (i.e. Montana aka Big Sky Country’) wasn’t an untamed exploration of the free spirit or a symbol of rebellion. It was a combination of introspection and exploration. A celebration of the human spirit symbolized by braving blizzards, drifting snow, ridiculously low subzero temperatures, whiteouts and the rare sighting of a grizzly bear. I must confess I was fortunate to come across a few deer crossing the road but no grizzlies. Two hundred years ago, frontiersman Hugh Glass would have experienced the same wilderness in 1823 Missouri territory.
This story documents three brief encounters, with people at three different gas stations, on my way to Montana. Although gas stations are nondescript, my conversations with three remarkable people Miriam, Anna and Justin reminded me that monuments such as Mount Rushmore and human history itself would be nondescript without folklore that people pass along from one generation to the next until those stories become defined and redefined as history. People at gas stations provide more than the warm cup of coffee and sugar coated candy to weary travellers.
Monuments that tourists journey long distances to see are the leaves and branches of a tree that are outwardly visible. The efforts of countless humans building such monuments and the folklore that people working at places such as gas stations near those monuments represent the roots of that tree. Roots that hold humanity together. Without those memories, there is no human consciousness. In fact, there would be no evidence that life existed.
The Meaning of Family
The idea behind taking a trip from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest was born out of a need to relive the Lewis and Clark Trail. In 1804, under the direction of president Jefferson, a Corps of Discovery expedition was undertaken by a group of US army volunteers under the command of captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark. The expedition had two objectives. First, to map the territory from St Louis to the Pacific west coast immediately after the Louisiana purchase of 1803. Second, to scientifically study the land on the way and develop trade with Native Americans.
As logic would dictate, I started my journey from the very same starting point as the Lewis and Clark expedition i.e. St Louis and halted at Kansas City, MO. Thereafter I proceeded to Rapid City, South Dakota. On the third leg of my journey from South Dakota to Bozeman, Montana, I stopped at a gas station in Moorcroft town, Crook County, Wyoming. As per the 2010 census, the town had a recorded population of 1,100.
The weather was incredibly cold at 30 degrees Fahrenheit. I was almost on the brink of exhaustion and my brain craved caffeine. As I stepped into the gas station, I was greeted very warmly by an attendant at the cash register. As I made my way inside, I met Miriam — a woman with the smile of an angel packing presents for her grandchildren. Presents that Santa would place under a beautiful Christmas tree before midnight on Christmas Eve.
I was born on Christmas Eve and Christmas has a very special place in my heart. As I sipped on my $2 cup of coffee, I asked Miriam what she thought of Christmas and the tradition of gifting.
She smiled and replied: Children can often forget the greatest gift-the gift of life that parents have given them. However, the tradition of gifting on Christmas reminds them that parents represent a one way river of unconditional love. For a parent, a small, cheap trinket purchased at a grocery store with the words “world’s greatest dad” or “world’s greatest mom” etched on it is worth more than their entire life’s earnings.
She went on to explain that in her household, elders would never hesitate to take advice from their young children or apologize to them in case they make a mistake. Miriam then proceeded to ask me: “what if elders across the world would forget the vertical hierarchy of age and took advice from children by thinking them as being different?” and “what if we think of children as people on the same horizontal plane albeit at a different vantage point?”
I replied that this practice of taking relevant advice from people older, younger or of the same age group by simply thinking of them as sitting at a different point on a the same horizontal plane instead of the vertical barriers of age would demolish the human ego. In doing so, children would become our friends and confide in us more. She smiled and said that I was driving in the right direction.
She also explained the history of Mount Rushmore through her travels to South Dakota as a child. As I was leaving the gas station and stopped to buy candy on the way, Miriam waved at me and said: “remember, you cannot place god above family and family above nation because you cannot be good to your family without being devout and obeying the laws of the land”. With one wave and a shout, Miriam had demolished my inner demon of an ego.
Legend of Chief Crazy Horse
In between Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse memorial in South Dakota, I stopped at the second gas station where I met Anna. Anna was a very welcoming lady with a sparkle in her eyes and wisdom etched on her face. Something about her told me that she was a wealth of knowledge which she was very happy to share with a curios and chatty human like me.
It was getting very dark and I had no hope of getting a picture of chief Crazy Horse under the sunlight. The museum at the foot of the memorial was so steeped in history that it would have taken me nothing short of three hours to discover the legend of Chief Crazy Horse (actual name: Tȟašúŋke Witkó). The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument under construction on privately held land in the Black Hills, in Custer County, South Dakota, United States.
Luckily, for me, Anna came to the rescue. With a naïveté typical of tourists, I asked Anna if chief Crazy Horse belonged to the Teton Sioux. She laughed and explained that Chief Crazy Horse would not have liked that description. It is true that the Oglala Lakota (one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota people) along with the Dakota made up the Great Sioux Nation but Chief Crazy Horse would have liked it if I addressed him as a great warrior belonging to the Oglala Lakota. The word Oglala meant “to scatter one’s own” in Lakota language.
Anna then went on to recount the stories told to her parents as a child. She described in vivid detail how Chief Crazy Horse would set up ambush for the armies belonging to the federal government. In particular, Anna mentioned that Chief Crazy Horse was great at throwing the army trackers off his trail. Waving her hands, she described the Battle of the Little Bighorn (25 — 26 June 1876).
With a sigh, Anna explained (somewhat crestfallen) how Crazy Horse surrendered to U.S. troops under General Crook in May 1877 and died of a fatal wound by a military guard.
Anna’s stories eliminated any need to read the legend of Chief Crazy Horse on the walls of the museum at Crazy Horse Memorial. Instead, I was able to take this beautiful picture in the night and continue further on my journey to Butte, Montana.
Messing With Mother Nature
On my third stop at a gas station in Butte, MT, I met Jason. Jason began the conversation by saying that Butte, Montana has a very unique history. Butte was a once prosperous copper mining town in southwest Montana. In the year 1888 alone, the copper mined in Butte was worth $23 million. Unsurprisingly, the town attracted many mining millionaires and immigrant workers from Cornwall (United Kingdom), Ireland, Wales, Lebanon, Canada, Finland, Austria, Serbia, Italy, China, Syria, Croatia, Montenegro, Mexico, and all areas of the United States.
Butte was the third city to have electricity in the United States. However, a once prosperous town is now characterized as an environmental issue. Years of mining had left Arsenic and lead in some of the town’s water supply.
Towards the end, Jason highlighted the indomitable spirit of the inhabitants of Butte. He ended his story by warning against messing with Mother Nature. He did so by recounting another story of a mama grizzly bear attacking a human who strayed very close to her cubs. The adult male Grizzly (also called the North American Brown Bear) can weigh between 180 — 360 kg (400 — 790 lb). Average total length in this subspecies is 198 cm (6.50 ft). The female aka mama grizzly can weigh 130 — 180 kg (290 — 400 lb).
Jason described an incident where two humans strayed into grizzly bear territory in Swan Lake forest, Montana one summer. He mentioned how one of the hunters confronted a mama grizzly who was trying to protect her cubs by crying out loud ‘hey bear’. Within five seconds, the mama grizzly who hadn’t even noticed a human presence closed what seemed to be a very long distance and tore apart his limb. “That’s what you get for messing with Mother Nature”, Jason explained.
Today, Jason’s words reminded me of Jeff Orlowski, the founder of Exposure Labs — a production house geared toward socially relevant filmmaking. Recently, Orlowski produced and directed a documentary tilted ‘Chasing Corals’ which highlights the parasitic human behavior of depleting natural resources faster than they can be replaced. Chasing Corals documents how Corals are dying on a massive scale beneath the oceans.
As I witness a brutal winter, I cannot imagine the power with which mother nature can retaliate against our encroachment and forced plunder of her resources. Jason, unknowingly, gave me back my conscience.
The Gift of A Different View
To this date, I regret not having taken my picture taken with the three people at the three most memorable gas stations in my life. As a vagabond who lives out of a suitcase, everywhere I go, I don’t miss a place as much as I do the people.
In the legend of Savitri, an Indian (Asian) princess saves his husband Satyavan from Yama-the death god (the Indian version of Charon) by walking seven steps with him. The legend of Satyavan and Savitri goes as follows:
The Death Lord reached into Satyavan’s breast, on the left side somewhere near the heart, and drew forth his soul, a person no larger than a thumb and bound the soul in his noose. Yama withdrew into the forest but the woman Savitri followed him. He stopped and said: “Go back; you cannot follow any further.”
“All who are born must one day follow you,” she replied. “Let me only go a little further as your friend.”
Yama stopped and slowly turned and looked at Savitri. “It is true you have no fear of me. I take you for my friend and do you take in return whatever I can give. But I cannot give his life again to Satyavan.”
“Friendship may come after only seven steps taken together,” said Savitri. “Let Dyumatsena’s blindness fall away from him.” Dyumatsena was her blind father-in-law.
As legend would have it, Savitri wrestles the life of her husband right out of the clutches of Yama after walking seven steps with the god of death.
If intense friendship can arise after walking only seven steps and your friend is then bound to grant you any wish, I had walked more than seven steps with my new acquaintances at the gas station. So, at the very least, I could offer them a fitting tribute.
The three teachers at the gas stations reminded me that education is very interesting if you have the right teachers. As I was driving home to St. Louis and as I finish writing my gas station chronicles, the following words from my favorite song of all time — Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ are stuck in my head incessantly:
Trust I seek and I find in you,
Every day for us something new
Open mind for a different view
And nothing else matters…