Every time I’ve considered cancelling this trip, Roxanne has talked me out of it. She reminds me about bookings with guides, commitments to friends, and the ticket our son Daniel bought to fly from San Francisco to Bozeman for a few days while I’m there. She tells me that we don’t know what will happen with Sunny—he could still be with us when I return. I know she’s right, but it just feels wrong.
As I drive south on Highway 26, I tell myself I can’t—or won’t—turn back once I cross the Wisconsin border. That’s a two-hour drive, and if I avoid stops along the way I’ll be in Minnesota two hours after that. Four hours later I’ll hit North Dakota, and if I make “good time”—the way my father-in-law always did—I’ll wake up tomorrow in a motel somewhere between Fargo and Bismarck.
To make “good time” I’ll have to avoid distractions along the way, of which there are more than you might think in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. In the 1920s and ‘30s, northern Wisconsin’s rural cities were popular destinations for Chicago gangsters on the run, or the lam as they liked to say. The border town of Hurley—home to Al Capone’s older brother Ralph—was, for example, a hotspot for bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution, and remnants of that era still stand in the Silver Street district. To my good fortune, though, and to that of the people who depend on me, I’m not the sort of gentleman who frequents a gentleman’s club, so I drive on.
Just past the Minnesota border I’m tempted to divert north and drink some water from the small town of Hibbing. Roger Maris, the first player to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and Robert Zimmerman—better known as Bob Dylan—the Nobel laureate who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of change agents, both grew up in Hibbing. And Judy Garland—Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz—lived the first four years of her life a few miles down the road in Grand Rapids. Whatever elixir enhanced the groundwater of Minnesota’s St. Louis and Itasca counties, though, is likely too weak to counteract the thousands of gallons of un-enhanced southern Illinois water I drank during my youth. So even with a couple swigs of Hibbing’s water, home-run records, Nobel prizes, and Academy Awards will likely remain out of my reach. Again, I drive on.
I tie a few flies hoping the tedious work of wrapping thread around a hook will release emotional energy the way a balsa-wood airplane’s propellor releases potential energy
I reach Fargo around 9 p.m. and, although my eyes are haggard and heavy from the strain of driving and crying, I keep going. I finally stop for the night in the town of Valley City, the thirteenth largest city in North Dakota, which—with a population of about 6,500—says more about the state than it does about the city. In my motel room, I tie a few flies hoping the tedious work of wrapping thread around a hook will release emotional energy the way a balsa-wood airplane’s propellor releases potential energy. After four flies, I pull the curtains tight, turn the air conditioner’s dial to its coldest position and set my alarm for 5 a.m., Mountain Daylight Time.
I wake up Sunday morning with confusional arousals or—as some call it—sleep drunkenness. A sliver of light from the parking lot shines through a small gap in the curtains, and I struggle to understand why the window is on the wrong side of the bed. I feel for Roxanne’s body beside mine, but she’s not there. After a brief panic, I realize—with more certainty than I have at any time since Roxanne told Bob DeMott I’d accept his invitation—I am going to Montana.
Sometimes I tell people that my home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is not usually as cold as they think. It’s simple science, really. Water in liquid form can’t get colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and Lake Superior’s water is usually in liquid form. So during the winter months—when our upper midwestern neighbors fight frostbite in Minnesota and North Dakota—we bask in the relative warmth of our great lake’s shadow. But in return for keeping our air warmer than it would otherwise be, colossal clouds of steam rise from the lake and drop hellish piles of snow on our peninsula. It’s a trade-off we welcome. But sometimes the lake freezes, and because water in solid form doesn’t warm the polar air like water in liquid form, it gets colder than a brass toilet seat in northern North Dakota. At least that’s the joke I like to tell.
Now, as I drive across North Dakota, I feel like the joke is on me. Not because it’s cold, of course, because even North Dakota isn’t cold in late July. But because the rolling and twisting two-lane highways that carried me through the gentle hills and peaceful forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have morphed into a straight stretch of interstate that promises to bore me for the full 350 miles from border to border. After about four hours of this 75 mph monotony, a sign announces the visitor center for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I look left, I look right, but all I see is a dull landscape with a few modest buttes and mesas. “I guess every state gets a national park,” I think to myself. But because I need a bathroom break, I put on my blinker and take the exit.
Abruptly, and as if I’ve been set up by the ghost of the Rough Rider himself, the relatively flat sprawl of North Dakota transforms into a seemingly endless canyon of gorgeous color. My first look at the Grand Canyon inspired more awe, my first drive across the Mackinac Bridge delivered more surprise, but nothing I’d seen before provided a more intense combination of awe and surprise. This park—the place that I casually and callously decided to stop for a pee—is the top attraction in North Dakota. A prepared traveler—one who studied a map and, perhaps, a little presidential history, rather than simply punching their destination into a GPS—would know something like this was on their route. Blissfully ignorant road trippers like me are, I suppose, the reason that “getting there is half the fun” is more than just a saying.
About 32 miles past the visitor’s center, with the painted canyon out of my sight, I enter Montana. “Evidently,” I think, “central North Dakota shares its patents on dry, flat, isolated land with eastern Montana.” According to a study by the Washington Post, though, eastern Montana owns all the rights to those patents. Using data from Oxford’s Big Data Institute, the Post’s staff examined all the places in the continental United States with more than 1,000 residents, and then computed the distance from those places to the nearest metropolitan area of more than 75,000 people. The three most isolated communities are, in order, Glasgow, Scobey, and Wolf Point, all in eastern Montana. When I enter Montana on Interstate 94, then, those three cities—each about 50 miles from another—form a tidy little triangle about one hundred crow miles to the northwest. Without exaggeration, I am as close to the middle of nowhere as I’ve ever been. Not knowing how far it will be between places to fill and empty my tanks, I make a mental note to stop at every gas station and bathroom I see.
As recent as 1999, the speed limit on most Montana highways was reasonable and prudent. Now it’s just 80 mph. Fast enough, though, to make “good time” like I’ve never made it before. The first 600 miles of my trip from Houghton to Livingston took over ten hours, the remaining 600 miles will take about eight. The hills in eastern Montana are mostly barren, but as my truck and I hurl westward, I see a few stands of ponderosa pines. Based on the little research I did do for my trip, I remember that this is the Official State Tree of Montana, and that reminds me that the Official State Fish is the cutthroat trout. That, of course, reminds me why I’m here.
I stop to send a message to Jerry Kustich. “I’ll be in Billings around 2:30 or 3,” I type on my phone. “Should I try the Bighorn in the evening, or push on?”
“At this point push on,” Jerry replies. “If you have time at the end of the trip, maybe. Logistically, it will take more time than its worth. Once you get to Livingston, check out the Yellowstone at any access point for the evening. It may be still off color, but there could be caddis activity. This will keep you in a better time frame for getting to better options.”
I buy them, of course, because buying flies is the way you say “please” when you ask a fly shop worker for advice.
I search for “fly shops in Livingston” and find one that will still be open when I get there. When I walk into the shop I see a kid—most of the people who work in fly shops look like kids to me now—helping some people buy fishing licenses and, evidently, teaching them the difference between a nymph and a dry fly. When my turn comes, I say “Hi, my name is Tim and I’d like to catch some trout, please.” I tell him I just drove from Michigan, and he recommends some flies that look like they could imitate a stonefly or hopper, assuming that stoneflies and hoppers in Montana are purple. He also recommends a smaller mayfly pattern that looks like a parachute Adams, except it too is purple. I buy them, of course, because buying flies is the way you say “please” when you ask a fly shop worker for advice. And also because I don’t want to stand in some Montana river and watch everyone except me catch fish with purple flies.
I give the kid my credit card and ask about places to fish. He recommends an access to the Yellowstone about 13 miles from the shop. “Fish until dark,” he says, “and you should get into a few fish, especially if you use those purple flies.” I thank him and drive south toward the access. To my left is Livingston Peak and the Absaroka Mountain Range. Farther to my right is the Gallatin Range. I’m driving through a vein in the heart of Paradise Valley.
I find the access, and, to my great surprise, I am alone. About the time I have my boots laced, though, a truck pulls into the area. “Damn it,” I think, “another fisherman.”
“Timothy Schulz, Timothy Schulz,” a guy yells from the truck. It’s the kid from the fly shop.
“Yeah, what’s up?” I ask.
“I have your credit card. You left the shop before I gave it back.”
“Wow, thanks for driving it out here.”
“No problem. Man, it would suck to drive from Michigan and lose your credit card on your first day.” Then the kid drives away.
Stunned, I walk toward my truck and think about what the hell just happened. This kid drives a 26 mile round trip to make sure I have my credit card, and I don’t give him a tip. He just did the right thing. I did not.
I call the fly shop hoping to get the kid’s name and arrange a way to get him a tip, but a machine answers. So I gather my gear and walk to the river, but I am overwhelmed by guilt. Guilt about the kid, of course, but now—as I stand beside my first Montana river—I think about Jerry Kustich. “The Big Hole from Melrose up is the ultimate trout river,” he told me. “My heart and soul still haunt those waters.” Through all of our correspondences, Jerry made it clear that the Big Hole was special, and, because of that, I had decided that my first Montana trout—my first date and first kiss with Big Sky—should come from that river. But here I am about to fish in a different river because I can’t wait long enough to get to the Big Hole. And, on top of that, I just stiffed a kid who pulled my ass out of a fire.
I put my gear in the truck and speed to the fly shop, hoping the kid is there. When I arrive, the place is dark and the sign on the door says “closed.” I consider leaving some money in an envelope, but I don’t remember the kid’s name and I want to thank him in person. I decide to return on my way home in three weeks and give the kid a signed copy of my book with some $20 bills for bookmarks. I get back on Interstate 90 and drive through Bozeman, Three Forks and Butte. Just past Butte I take Interstate 15 south and exit at Divide. As I drive beside the Big Hole River on my way to the Dickie Bridge Campground, there is just enough light for me to see my first Montana trout rise to a fly. Several, actually. I find an open site at the campground and a couple guys from Oregon and Washington invite me to their campfire. As they tell me some stories about fishing in Montana, I sip bourbon from a tin cup and I tell myself I’m doing the right thing.