World’s largest big sky

Last week I drove across the country: Massachusetts to Utah. When my friend and co-adventurer Ben dropped me off at the airport in Salt Lake City, the trip odometer read 2999.5 miles. We had passed through twelve states over six days.

The scale of things grew as we went along. Trees gave way to farms, and farms gave way to plains and prairies and flat fields stretching out forever. Wisconsin, perhaps jealous of its more expansive neighbors, boasted a collection of some of the world’s largest things (“world’s largest man on bicycle”), and some that were just large (“giant mouse with cheese”). The World’s Largest Flamingo, Wisconsin Dells, turned out to be the sign for a motel.

In Luverne, Minnesota, we drove three miles off the highway to a wayside chapel with six seats. A man with a white Ford mowed the lawn and smiled at us. Two other families came and went and they smiled too. No one asked us anything.

In South Dakota we passed signs for bars named Tin Lizzie’s and The Knuckle; in Wyoming, the town of Smoot, the town of Story, the Broken Boot Campground. In Rapid City, the man at the motel counter told us a funny story while he fiddled with three cases of rifle cartridges the size of cigarette packs. His shirt said, “I love coffee and guns,” and showed the Starbucks mermaid brandishing pistols in place of her fins. In Mitchell, the windowless Valtiroty-Shiloh’s Tabernacle (next to the Corn Palace) was organized into themed shelves: Jezebel’s Vanities offered hair dye, The Manna Shop had grape juice and gummy worms. At night I barely slept, half-dreaming of rolling through other towns and stopping constantly to photograph the latest vista.

We gained an hour in the western half of South Dakota and spent it driving through fat raindrops whose gray clouds we had watched rolling in for miles. We climbed up into and onto the Badlands, wet clay rubbing off on our hands. We jumped when we heard a frog rustling in the grass. Minutes after the rain stopped, the ground cracked open again. All the while I felt full, almost unable to take in more. I understood what people mean when they say “big sky.”

At a ranch outside Cody, Wyoming, we met someone who had come to Yellowstone with his sister. She had cancer and had come through a trip sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She got tired and didn’t get to see much of the park, but the ranch owner offered Jake a job and he stayed. He’d been there three weeks and loved it. He liked horses, he said, and disliked technology. Recently the ranch phone lines had gone down in a storm, and the temporary line they’d run from the road had also stopped working after one of the horses stepped on it.

Inside Yellowstone, we saw marmots, bison, coyote, and a black bear and her two cubs. We swam at Firehole Falls, where the water was warm and alive from the combination of run-off from glaciers and thermal geysers. We pulled up to Old Faithful just as it was erupting. In the Tetons it rained more and huge lightning cracked over the mountains still covered in snow. In Jackson Hole, Subway employee Peter made the slowest sandwich I’ve ever seen. Just after the World’s Largest Elk Horn Bridge, where we did not stop to take a photo, we got pulled over and were let off with a warning. Then we asked the cop for directions.

Morning, day 7. For the first time on the trip, the GPS sent us to the wrong exit as we tried to reach the airport. We turned it off, circled around, found our way after a few minutes. 2999.5 miles. I could have kept going. There’s always something magic in the next half mile.


Leave Reply