The Infamous and Wondrous Seattle to Chattanooga Solo Road Trip: Part Two [photos]

Waking up to the Bozeman scenery and a hot cup of coffee gave me all the motivation I needed to hit the road on the second day. Montana is quite the land mass so it took me a good chunk of the day just to drive through it. Passing through the Cheyenne Nation in Eastern Mountain was a surreal experience. I had spent a nursing assignment in Flagstaff, AZ next to the Navajo Reservation so I know how isolated some of these communities can be. I’m not trying to conflate cultures or anything, but only to point out how notably isolated some of these tribes can be. The Cheyenne Nation seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The weather had dropped on this new day and snow had started to fall as I approached South Dakota.

I drove and I drove and I drove, seemingly forever through a desolate stretch of land, with only the occasional collection of houses scattered about a sprawling domain of icy hills. Even finding a gas station out there was a daunting task with few and far between. The obscured view made it seem all the more other-worldly. Too many of these Native American communities are so isolated and underserved. It’s a tragic reminder that our past mistreatment of these populations still has a very real lingering effect to this day.

I dipped into the Northeast corner of Wyoming in the afternoon and was relatively close to Devil’s Tower so I decided to stop and see it on the way. Devil’s Tower is a striking 1,267 ft tall butte jutting out of the Wyoming wilderness. From pictures, it’s scale and the texture of the vertical columns of igneous rock making up its body always intrigued me. It is considered a sacred spot to the peoples who roamed these lands for generations.

I could see the ominous tower from miles away on the road, even through the fog of the day. The actual park that contained it was closed due to pandemic restrictions but there was a small parking lot just outside of the park that I used to get a decent look at the rock behemoth. Even from a distance, partly shrouded by fog, the tower was daunting and ever-present. As a geological phenomenon, it’s so dramatic and striking that you can’t help but think of it as sacred or from an alien world. It captured my intrigue, so much so that I decided to make a not so great decision then and there. The road leading to it was slightly barricaded to vehicles. There was seemingly no one around. I decided I wasn’t going to be in the area for the foreseeable future and so I decided to walk past the barricade about a hundred yards to see the tower closer up and to get better pictures of it.

            Suddenly, as I was approaching a good spot to take pictures, a park ranger popped up from around the corner. Like a deer in headlights, pondering the vehicle approaching, I knew that this wasn’t going to be good. The park ranger stopped and reminded me that I was not supposed to be in the park boundaries. He got out of his vehicle, gave me a suspicious look up and down, and asked for my license. I respectfully handed it to him and waited on the curbside as he ran my license. This took longer than expected and I started to get nervous. After about fifteen minutes, he slowly crept out of his car with a concerned look on his face. “Um sir, do you know that your license is revoked from a previous DUI?”.

            My eyes grew large and I’m sure the look on my face was riddled with surprise and confusion. I knew very well I have never had a DUI in my life, nothing other than minor traffic tickets. I told him I had never been charged with a DUI before and that this was news to me. He acknowledged my answer with a conflicted head tilt and headed back into his vehicle. At this point, my palms became sweaty, even in the chilled Wyoming air. Scenarios started racing through my head of him calling the police and me being hauled off to a Wyoming jail in the middle of a pandemic, over a thousand miles away from anyone I knew. “What have you gotten yourself into this time, Matt?!”, I kept thinking. “Sure, I went a hundred yards beyond a barricade in my excited, frenzied state when I shouldn’t have, I can own up to that and take a ticket, but now it’s escalating to driving with a revoked license? Does that mean possible jailtime? Will I ever get home?”

            After ten minutes, which seemed like an hour, he finally emerged again from his vehicle. The first thing he asked was whether I had anything illegal on me. “Oh lord, where is this going…?”, I thought. I said no and he immediately instructed me to put my hands behind my back. I didn’t want to exacerbate the situation so I did what I was told. He gave me a full body pat down in the midst of a snowstorm. Frightened at how this might turn out, I tried to take some deep breaths to reassure myself.

             After he found nothing out of the ordinary on my person, he asked me if I had anyone with me. I told him my situation, that I was driving across the country by myself, trying to get home. He paused for a good minute. I was unsure whether or not he was considering calling in law enforcement. After a minute, he took a deep sigh and pulled out a ticket book and explained that he was giving me a ticket for trespassing. He then told me to get my license situation checked out immediately and be safe on the road.

            I breathed a sigh of relief as he got in his vehicle and drove off. I walked slowly back to my truck, freezing at this point from the cold, my body racked with lingering adrenaline. I had narrowly escaped being detained, or so I thought, but now questions flooded my brain about my police record. “Surely he looked up the wrong record, but what if a DUI is on there by mistake?? They have arrested innocent people before! Better not get pulled over! What if I get hauled off to jail or they won’t let me continue driving?”

This was on a Saturday so I couldn’t call the DMV to verify my license status. The rest of the trip would be permeated with a subtle, pervasive anxiety, not knowing if the next time I got pulled over would be the end of my trip. I felt anxious, discouraged, and disappointed in myself the rest of the day. The next several miles were hard and the last thing I wanted was to drive through heavy snow in this mental state. I made damn sure to follow the speed limit.

I crossed into South Dakota and decided to call it quits in a hotel off of an exit in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Rapid City and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I remember standing outside the hotel that evening just watching the cars pass on the interstate. My mind felt burnt and acrid. It was like flaming battery acid had been poured over it, soaking it with the sting of doubt and regret. I felt exhausted from my racing mind. But mostly, I remember feeling alone, like a lost, confused outlaw whose livelihood and freedom were dangling from a tightrope. Maybe I was dramatizing and exaggerating the situation with the park ranger and it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding, but in that moment, I just felt alone, like I needed to crawl into some dark place. Was I really driving under a revoked license? Would I be unlawfully detained? I was so close to home and yet it felt so far away.

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