It was time to escape North Dakota yet again. I’d lived for six months in the best city yet, Portland, Oregon, with my little sister, Brittany. Moved out of our apartment at the end of May which involved hiding all the furniture we were too cheap to have hauled off. Stuck a chair behind a broken exercise bike and I threw a mattress over a balcony into a parking lot at three in the morning. That excited me quite a bit.
We kissed Portland goodbye and roller-coasted east in my rattly car. Whoosh. Up and down the mountains of Washington, Idaho, Montana, to the flatland meth sector of North Dakota that answers to the name of Manvel. Spent our month there petting our smelly dogs (woof woof), eating our parents’ cereal, hanging with friends, and stealing candy from our grandma. After a week-long camping and road trip with her and a friend down to Tennessee for the Bonnaroo music festival, and an Easter in July party where I saw a bed race in a dead cow lagoon, we knew it was time to hurl ourselves back toward the west coast.
I’d been invited a few months before by my other sister, who is in her thirties, to come watch her house and dog for the summer. Her husband was to be deployed and she wanted to bring her kids back to North Dakota for a few months so they could sample some tasty blue meth; steal candy from their great grandma. She promised me that the dog would walk on my back and that I could be as lazy as I wanted. This sounded good.
My older sister is the richest person I know. I am the poorest person I know. I’m used to shitty apartments, tents, and floors. Accustomed to sleeping in the littered-with-glass trunk of my car when I drive out to the left coast. She lives in California near San Francisco, has a huge house with a pool and hot tub in the backyard, tons of big screen TVs, free food, and gave special dispensation allowing me to use all the toilet paper I could handle. I wouldn’t have to wipe my ass with stolen Aladdin napkins? I was sold.
Brittany was returning to Portland, but wanted to ride out with me before taking a bus back up there. We’d spent virtually every day together for the past seven months, and now were to be separated for possibly a long time. This was something we didn’t talk about a lot, and it was going to be really hard as we’re very close. But it was also good, as we both had begun to feel the need for a break from each other.
I wanted to make a little trip of the drive instead of going straight to California, so we did. Stuffed my shithole car, which has tons of garbage and melted crayons on the floor, with her luggage, blankets, my memory box of letters from friends, meat, and my dead dog, Sloopy, who I take everywhere with me. I could barely see out the back window once all was packed.
Eastern North Dakota is flat and empty in an infinite way. You see so much, for so far, all at once. The straw of harvested farmland divided by shelter belts of trees, towers that blink red against the black night; cheap billboards warning you of Hell, advertising LIQUOR-MEAT-BAIT. There is a certain beauty in being able to see twenty miles of horizon ahead of you, how the blue sky melts into the distant land.
In North Dakota life you often know what’s coming at you. There aren’t many surprises and there is a comfort in that. I spent the first twenty four years of my time there, and it’s only in the last year and a half that I’ve been able to get out and see more on my own. I’ve traveled a lot of places in this beautiful country since graduating college, and have learned from those journeys that I have a desire to see everything and everywhere. Sometimes I want it all at once, right now. Like Sal Paradise said, “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.” Unlimited nonstop freedom has felt great. So we were going to make stops in a few new places for both of us: Great Salt Lake, Vegas, Los Angeles, then cruise up to Vacaville, California where I was going to live in isolation with just a back-walking dog for company.
North Dakota starts getting hilly the further west you go. Farmland is still everywhere you look, but out on the left side of the state it’s dryer and more elevated. Tractors have to climb the sides of hills to plow fields, looking like they’re standing sideways on a rounded, dirt globe. First the changes are gradual, then you hit the rocky Badlands, which are beautiful, and which I need to hike again. They are the most scenic part of North Dakota, at least on first glance. I once sat on some gum there and later had to bathe in omelet water.
Our way of acknowledging that something is cool or fun is to spontaneously high five without saying anything. We’ve been doing a variation of this for years. In our teens we’d stand in our parents’ kitchen saying, “Give me some skin,” and high five. This was followed with a call to “Give me some fin,” where we’d knock arched elbows together. Every now and then as we crossed west, barreling out of our home state, talking about the places we were going to see, I held up my hand for Brit. She always confirmed the fun.
Give me some skin:
Now give me some fin!
We listened to music, talked about the shit we’d done while at home, our parents, our wonderful dogs, people we’d miss, how home felt different after living away from it, stuff like that. When we left Portland we spent an hour in the car listing the things we were going to miss about that city. The North Dakota list was quite a bit shorter, but held more important things.
We’d been reading a Beverly Cleary book at night to each other in North Dakota, Ellen Tebbits, so Brit read that to me while we still had daylight. The little girl in that book had so many kid worries, like having to wear long underwear to ballet class; squirming out of a lie to her friend about how many times she’d rode a horse. It was fun to recede into childhood while taking off for another adult adventure on our own. I probably told Brit stories about sleeping at rest stops.
I’ve slept at a lot of rest stops since I started traveling. I virtually never have a passenger with me, so there is no one else to drive. I have money that I could spent on hotels, but I’m cheap to the point of concern. It feels like a waste to spend $60 for a few hours of masturbating to old love letters on your stained motel bed in Glendive, Montana. I’d rather do that in the trunk of my car for free.
I’ve drove out to the east and west coasts many, many times in the past year or two. Each ocean skipping me to the other in a game of catch. I keep crisscrossing back and forth across America looking for adventure, new places, experiences, connections; for a new life that doesn’t resemble the stress, lethargy, and self-hate I’d sunk into during my last year of college. So I sleep at rest stops. Since I love shitty things, I can confirm that Montana has the best rest stops.
I once considered writing about the top five best Montana rest stops to masturbate in as a joke. I think. I love the décor of a rest stop. Brown shacks designed for the countless thousands to shit in. Coke machines out front. Water fountains that don’t work. Windex filled carts belonging to janitors who tell you how much of a bitch it is to scrub trucker piss off the wall. Homeless hitchers holding their packs and a cardboard sign reading MISSOULA. A liminal space for an infinite, yet always little, community of world travelers taking a moment to refresh before carrying on with their journeys.
They are so run down and smelly. The rest stops in Montana don’t have mirrors, just tin boards drilled to the walls — covered in key scratched offers of BJs and more. I like them because I can charge my laptop in their bathrooms, awkwardly moving it off the sink every time a trucker, gut spilling out of shirt, has to wash his hands. I like them because they never have soap and now your hand is fucked from touching the dispenser. I like that there are always a dozen ethnicities represented in the pubic hairs stuck to the urinal.
Most importantly, I like rest stops because I can feel somewhat safe while going to sleep in their parking lots. I lock my doors, recline my seat, crank the heat for a bit, pile on as many blankies as possible, and see what happens. I only ever sleep enough to get me to my destination, which is fine, since rest stop sleep is not the best sleep. Sleep is always king, but not when the bed has frozen crayons and your dead dog beneath it. Once in December, in the nowheres of Montana, I spent a cold night in my car listening to a trucker blare techno music from his semi until four in the morning. Thankfully I can drive twenty four hours straight if need be.
I wake up from rest stop sleep a half rested, half de-evolved Nolan. Fully fallen into subhuman mode. My greasy appearance and mindset after a night of car rest sometimes reminds me of the Super Mario Brothers live action movie from the 90s. I had this VHS tape of it that my aunt made and I watched the shit out of it. No I didn’t. I watched it three times. I always make bold statements that sound cool, but are only half true. And there is nothing cool about saying I watched the shit out of a dubbed live action Super Mario Brothers VHS, yet I said it. ANYWAY, in that film there is a de-evolution machine they use to turn people into shrunken head, fat snake-lizard beings called Goombas. Rest stops are de-evolution machines.
Soon enough we transitioned from North Dakota – faux state where hay bales are used as roadblocks – to Montana – a garbage strewn land where anti-abortion signs hang off combines and electric fences. Eastern Montana is very ugly and not that fun to drive through. I try to pretty it up by listening to David Dondero and thinking of the mountains in its western half each time I take to its roads, but there’s only so much that can be done. I was doing all the driving for Brit and I since she doesn’t know how to drive my complicated 1998 shit machine. She got to close her eyes and not see that dry wasteland. We slept at a rest stop in Montana that first night. I should have keyed her name and number into one of the mirrors.
She kept using my stomach and side as a pillow. It wasn’t so much disturbing as it was annoying. But I knew I was losing her. This was one of our last days together. I wasn’t going to be moving back to Portland. We’d be separated by thousands of miles again. So I could handle being a pillow for that night. To have my best friend around me really trumped all aches and shitty sleep.
When I woke up I looked down at my stomach to see a shrunken head attached to a lizard body. I, for once, was traveling America with a fellow Goomba. We drove through part of Yellowstone which was cool because I’d never been there. On the way we passed near Big Sky where I ski with my family most years. Thought of the time I got lost for hours trying to climb through snow drifts and ditches while wearing ski boots. Hopefully one day I’ll do a camping tour of America and Yellowstone’s an area I need to explore more. But since I couldn’t explore it, I did piss in a grocery store on its outskirts and steal some wi-fi from my car to book a camping spot on the beaches of Malibu.
We brushed our teeth next to gas pumps. Felt the sun pouring through the cracks in my windshield as we headed further west on a bumpy little road surrounded by mountains. Ate from a bag of cherries our mom bought us and hurled the pits at trees, the road, the cars behind us. Yellowstone was almost endless and always pretty, but before long we were in the mountains of Idaho. I always love them, pending they aren’t full of snowy roads that want to skip me off the mountainside — cherry pit Gabfrab — which would keep me from adventure, from finding new rest stops, from getting to see my sister again.
Late afternoon we got to the Great Salt Lake, our first real stop after just over a day of driving. My car had made it. A day of driving left my ass and legs sore, but it was fun. North Dakota to Utah went quick since Brit and I are best friends and can talk forever.
“Brit, what would you rather do: Die, or have Dad be able to see every sexual experience you ever have for the rest of your life?”
She sighed. “I guess I’d have to let Dad watch me.”
“That’s fucked up, dude. Would you rather be a human brain stuck inside a porta-potty body at Bonnaroo, or shoot grandma in the head?”
You get the idea. You can also understand why my sister had grown a bit tired of me over the months.
I really thought this lake was going to be so great. We could’ve camped in Moab or spent a day getting drunk at a hot springs, but I wanted to do this salty lake. Talked to our friend’s mom about our trip. She’d been there and told us it was a good time. Said you got all salty. This was exciting for me because I love to lick my arms. When I was younger I used to sometimes not shower for days just so I could run my tongue along the salty skin. It’s very tasty.
I found a campsite on an island in the lake and it felt good to get there. This was it, one of the big landmarks of America — 360 degrees of water and mountains was going to be so cool. Like being locked in paradise.
First bad sign: a piece of paper taped to the park entrance saying the biting gnats were buku horrid on the island. Second bad sign: our camp spot was basically a slab of cement surrounded by gravel with weeds sprouting through the rocks. There were zero trees so you had no privacy. Third bad sign: we walked down to the beach and it was covered in what I thought was mud and dead birds. The mud turned out to be swarms of millions of gnats who followed you around like hobos begging for blood. The dead birds were now just feathery husks. The gnats had eaten their eyes, flesh, guts. I wanted to cover myself in feathers. Gnat food Nolan.
I walked in the lake but it never got deeper than below my waist. Driving onto this island the whole place looked like a marsh and that’s what it turned out to be. We were fairly sure we could wade the water forever until we hit the mountains. Crawl out and up like the first creatures of evolution to go from water to land, fin to feet. North Dakota kids hungry to taste their newfound salty legs. I swam in the lake which made my eyes and throat burn. Brit said it made her pussy sting. Like real bad. There was an off-putting salty smell in the air. I licked my arms like I would the inside of an empty bag of popcorn. Yummy. Back at shore I walked through slimy mud to find that the gnats had enveloped my shoes. This place was great.
That night in the tent (which partly broke at Bonnaroo so was barely standing up already with its duct tape fixes), while reading Ellen Tebbits, the howling wind got super bad and tried to blow us away like some Dorothy in the tornado shit. I spied through mesh screens on our camping neighbors to see how they handled it but they were all locked away in campers. We had to use a cooler full of rotten meat to anchor our house down. Found ourselves inside the tent literally fighting to keep it from collapsing for forty five minutes. This involved lots of sitting in awkward positions, holding the poles while chanting to the Mormon tent gods, and adjusting the rotten meat anchor. I guess the tent just felt like dancing that night. It was kind of fun.
Woke in the morning to sounds of birds eating out of the bag of now rotten cherries we’d left on our lunch table. One bird perched atop our tent and looked in on us, perhaps looking for cherries, perhaps hoping to see some flesh.
Left the next afternoon after more swimming, pussy stings, hiking up a cliff to get a nice vista of the dead bird marsh, and shampooing in the free showers since we didn’t want to spend the dollar to use the pay ones. Brittany was very down on the place but I kind of enjoyed it.
I think with all trips and adventures lacking structure, you just have to accept the way it turns out instead of how you hoped for it to, pending it isn’t a total disaster. Just take what comes your way. Spin it into stories, fun, whatever will work for you. Optimism and a sense of adventure help create fun out of little. I have a healthy sense of fascination with a lot of small, bizarre, nearly mundane things. That helps a lot. I can be distracted by a full trash can for long periods of time. This place was really shitty, but that’s what made it so fun. Now I get to reminisce about the time I got gnawed on at an island floating in the Great Salt Swamp.
I had gnat bites all over my body, including a bunch on my head. I itched these through my thick, dirty hair for the rest of the trip. My leg totally had meth face from the bites. This island liked to eat people, like some Life of Pi shit. As we got ready to go an ultra hot Japanese tourist chick started crying at the beach over the bugs. I wonder if her pussy stung.
Right before we left I pointed an empty Big Mac Container at the Great Salt Lake.
As we drove off that biting island we got stuck behind a truck hauling a porta-potty. Even the toilets didn’t want to be there. And this one didn’t even have a human brain.
Bought ugly Utah postcards and wrote them out in my car while sipping orange juice after getting lunch. Brit wrote one to our mom saying we stole her wedding dress and were going to pawn it in Vegas for $5.
I wrote one to a friend that had a giant statue of Jesus set in front of stars like some cheap, grade school photo-day background. Dude looked like a wise alien so I made a shopping list for Space Jesus (deodorant that smelled like ice, wind and freedom; Wal-Mart gift cards, etc.). Mailing these postcards was easily the best thing we did in Utah.
It was six hours to Vegas. Certain parts of Utah’s interstate have eighty mile an hour speed limits. I excitedly texted my dad about this while pushing my deathtrap car up to ninety, hastening down the long empty road, trapped between mountains on both sides. Salt Lake City is built into the side and valley of some mountains and looked really beautiful — buku pretty shit I’d like to see again. We thought about going into the city to look for the actual massive Space Jesus statue so I could apply deodorant to him, but instead settled for watching a rainbow constructed over the mountains as we coasted out of the state.
After passing through a lightning storm that lit up the steep red canyons of Arizona, we came into Vegas’ proximity around ten at night. On the interstate you’re driving through valleys and shit. At one point come over this hill and all of a sudden have a god’s view of nighttime Vegas. It’s all lit up, but still far away — miles of lights polluting the land with their glowing, electric breath. We played this song as we descended down into the land of casinos and animal hookers:
I looked at my sister and we high-fived. It really was a perfect little moment.
Your Animal Hookers, Nolan and Brittany:
P.S. I love sleeping in the trunk of my car now. At the end of this summer I went to a music festival in San Francisco and got to sleep in it right outside of Golden Gate Park. Way fun! But I haven’t cleaned up the glass yet.