Montana is all majesty and lonliness. I wave at buffalo. I have imaginary conversations with John Denver. I finish off a roll of film at a red barn silhouetted against the prairie in the dwindling light. Only the side of the barn is covered by a gigantic silkscreen photo of a girl who looks like Reese Witherspoon. Sweetheart mouth curved in smile, determined chin resting on her hands. Is it a senior photo? A Glamour shot? I'm hypnotized. The truckers honk, spray dirty water in their wake.
I'm going a little batty I think. I sing John Denver songs so loud my back starts to hurt. “You fill up my sennnn-ses / Like a light in a forrr-est / Like the mountains in spriiiiiing-time / Like a walk in the rain.” I tell John Denver, during the instrumental break, “You are singing to Annie, your first love, but I am singing to Montana, my man, Montana!” The prairie grass leans in the breeze, the mountains shiver in the lakes. John Denver and I are still tweaking a few harmony bits, but we kill when we pull back and squeeze the end of the line just right: “Like a sleepy bluuuuue ocean.” The crowd goes wild. “Some people say you committed suicide, John Denver, crashing your plane like that. But you wouldn't do that, would you? Not in the mountains you loved like a mother, the sky where you felt most free?” John just tears it up on the fiddle and sings, “Give him the wild winds for a brother, and the wiiiiiiiild Montana skies.”
I pass gun shops. I pass restaurants selling buffalo burgers. I pass Fishing Access signs at least every 20 miles. I pass an ice cream shop that lists its flavors, including my favorite, “Chocolate Runs Through It.” When the sun disappears and the woods start to howl, I read Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (who also wrote the ice cream's namesake, A River Runs Through It), about the Missoula Smokejumpers who died when a fire they thought they could control exploded. Maclean writes in grandfatherly detail about how that can happen — like maybe a fire devours all the oxygen in one area and then a breeze blows in and BLAM! — but I don't realize that as I read all of this, the biggest fire in Colorado's history ravages trees like the ones I make my bed beside, animals like the ones who visit me at night, if I accidentally leave out my Graham Crackers.
I compose a song in my head called “Montana Won't You Take Me Out Tonight?” It's unprintable, I swear, but it's about swimming naked with Montana in wintergreen waters, about running my hands over Montana's prairies. I'm thinking maybe Montana could teach me to change my oil, too, and how maybe we should become vegetarians, because I, for one, am starting to feel pretty attached to the buffalo. I assure Montana that even though I fashion myself a pretty independent girl, I'll let Montana pay this time, because Montana comes from the kind of folk where that means something. (And also, I'm broke Montana. Please pay. Puh-leeze.)
On my last Montana morning, I wake up, and the tent is buried in snow. It hangs in the fir trees and it covers the ground and it sleeps by the trickling streams, a white perfect powder. It's funny, but I've only been in snow like that once or twice before in my life. That's how Texan I am. “Can you believe this?” I ask John Denver as we drive through snow flurries into Yellowstone. “Life ain't nothin' but a funny, funny riddle,” he says. “Thank God I'm a country boy.”