Surviving another near-freezing night in Wyoming, this time on a concrete slab in the courtyard of an empty school, I woke early and, as had become custom, rushed to the first open cafe I could find, passing several hours with a pen and a cup of tea before the sun shouted loud enough to draw me back outside.
I spent a little more time exploring the shops of Jackson, touristy but with a few unique finds here and there, and then took off north by northwest, toward Idaho and the Rainbow Gathering.
Idaho, indeed, had never been on my list of travel destinations. Months earlier, my sister Jude had informed me that that year's Gathering would be on the Idaho-Montana border in early July, and figuring I'd be in that general area around that general time, I decided I'd certainly stop through if all lined up well. But details on the Gathering's precise location, which changes every year, came only a week or so prior, and so it wasn't until I'd made it nearly to Yellowstone that I learned the Rainbows would be meeting in just a week some 250 miles northwest of me, and that my sister would be arriving the following Tuesday to join them.
It was Saturday when I wrapped up in Wyoming, and I knew making it to the Bitterroot National Forest, the Gathering's location on the Montana-Idaho border, would take the better part of a day, so I decided to head there a bit early, meet up with Jude a few days later, and then complete my sizeable loop and return east, where I'd fly by Yellowstone once more, then race across Wyoming and South Dakota and Nebraska, all the way to Minnesota, later that week.
I suppose I should pause to explain what the Rainbow Gathering is, and why I'd drive five hundred miles out of the way to go there. To begin, it is a rare opportunity to see my sister, me all the way out in DC and her some seventeen hours west, residing in an intentional community in a not-too-accessible patch of southern Missouri, and so us being within a 500-mile radius of each other at any point was a situation worth taking advantage of. I had also never been to a Rainbow Gathering, and Jude had always spoken highly of them, so I knew I'd regret it if I continued home without experiencing it for myself so as to save a few extra days of driving.
The Gathering itself is really nothing more than a bunch of people, thousands of them, converging in a national forest for a few weeks in early July to celebrate life and humanity through song and dance and fires and food and conversation and company. It is, in short, a large gathering of hippies doing hippie things, and I saw no better way to wait for my sister than joining them.
The drive through Idaho to the Gathering was beautiful, a beautiful day with beautiful calm scenery for hundreds of miles. I first worked my way west, then north, and then west again, arriving at the National Forest turnoff by late afternoon.
I had been warned that the route concluded with nine miles of unpaved road, and was prepared for a bumpy ride, but grew quickly agitated by just how rough that last stretch of travel was. Within minutes, I had slowed my speed from eighty miles per hour on the highway to about eight, each bump of the ribbed trail beating my spine into submission. Rousseau bounced along, slowly but surely, and all seemed okay: inconvenient, slow, and painful, but altogether manageable.
Then I turned a corner and found myself driving right through a swath of mud, wet dirt from an overflowing creek that paralleled the road, and my back wheel instantly began to fishtail, slipping and sliding back and forth until I wrestled Rousseau to a full halt. Once composed, I resumed driving, at a snail's pace, feet nearly touching the ground, dragging through muddy puddles in search of something stable. Even at a speed of six or seven or eight miles per hour, Rousseau still struggled to remain upright and pushing forward, sinking instead into the mud every few feet.
The road eventually dried out, but only for a bit; a quarter-mile later, again it would be flooded, and again and again and again. The situation finally improved about a mile from the gates of the forest, and I picked up some speed, all the way to a staggering fifteen miles per hour, before coming upon a bull in the middle of the road. I stopped suddenly, twenty feet from the animal, surprised to see that he wasn't fenced in, but then realizing that this stretch of road had no fences, a free range in the most literal sense, dozens of cattle, fortunately sans horns, simply grazing about on whichever side of the street they pleased.
I waited a few moments for the bull to move, but he did not, and so I gently pushed forward, another few feet, aiming to communicate that I was trying to get by, and would he please excuse me. To this, he did not clear the way, but actually moved further into the road, as if to communicate "thou shalt not pass" in stern reply.
I found myself surprised yet again, this time by the boldness of the beast, and tried once more to peacefully inch forward. Once more he moved in to block my path, this time huffing and clapping a hoof to the ground and making it all-around quite clear that I was not to challenge him. As I looked around, hoping to find an alternate route magically appear before me, I instead discovered that every single cattle, all fifty or sixty of them, were now standing, and each and every one's gaze was locked on me, this trespasser on their lands. A few of them had actually begun to near me, and one trudged onto the road some twenty feet to my rear.
Surrounded by angry bulls, retreat was no longer an option, I knew; I must keep calm and carry on. And so, just like in the final scene of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the three of us, me, the bull toward my front and the one toward my back, stared at each other, daring the others to make the first move. I narrowed my eyes, Bull 1 stomped his hoof, Bull 2 huffed. Tension rose. I looked at them both. They looked back. Minutes ebbed by. I revved my engine, they held their ground, and then, at just the right moment, I took off, bumping and bouncing forward, hugging the road's non-existent shoulder, flying by Bull 1, who anticlimactically did not charge at me when I passed, but just held his own, and out toward safety I went, adrenaline coursing through my veins.
Still ungored and untoppled around 6PM, I finally pulled into the forest, and nature being no slave to arbitrary demarcation, matters were no better inside. I rolled past a small squad of police officers and forest rangers, who suspiciously eyed each entrant to the grounds, the Rainbow Gathering's quasi-legal status held together through a shaky detente, and drove onward into the wet woods, roads completely muddied from snowmelt, with heaps of remaining snow, packed and icy, lining the sides of the road and nearly everywhere else. I climbed the forest's hills with absurd caution, parking at the first permissible spot about a mile or so later. Then I dismounted, packed everything I would need for a few days away from Rousseau, and headed down the mountain.
Along the way, I passed a number of hippies, with whom I shared some of my food, and in exchange was given directions to the main meadow, where I assumed I'd find some critical mass of Rainbows with whom to pass the evening. The main meadow, which I arrived at ten minutes later, was truly gorgeous: open and green and undisturbed, but also, well, undisturbed, with very few people in sight. This, I reasoned, was to be expected, for while Jude had told me that several hundred were already gathering, the festival didn't truly start for another week, and thus many, like my sister, were still en route.
No matter, I thought, and I pitched my tent up on a hill near a few others and returned to a lone firepit in the meadow where, finding a spot on the grass twenty feet away, I resumed reading of Rousseau's Social Contract, largely set aside since the Southwest but nowhere more applicable than in a gathering of individuals seeking a more natural, liberated way of life.
A few Rainbows sat down at the firepit some time later, and we said hello to each other, and others joined, me still on the outskirts reading, and they all began to chat. One of them had a dog, and he rushed over to me for some attention, and so I pet him, and shortly thereafter someone asked where the dog was, to which a girl responded, "Oh, I think he's over by that nerd."
I looked up. The girl who had made the offending statement, a grungy teenager, smiled, and to be fair, she had said it loudly and playfully, a comment I had been intended to hear. I smiled back, not particularly annoyed and certainly not offended, but rather somewhat amused, though for different reasons, I'm sure, than my new friend.
Heading to the Gathering, I knew I'd be a bit out of place. Though I would consider myself something of a hippie at heart, I certainly don't look the part: short hair and close shave and skinny blue jeans and form-fitting sweatshirt and North Face coat and black Chuck Taylors all contrasting strongly with their dreads and beards and tattered pants and baggy sweaters and surplus jackets and laced boots. I also knew that my lifestyle itself would clash against that of the stereotypical Rainbow: I had money and a stable job and a house and a vehicle and a pair of degrees. Now, of course none of this mattered to me, not in the least, but I suppose my fear was that I would come off as stuck-up, or entitled, or inauthentic, and I didn't want that; I wanted to be able to say "hey, I'm just like you," and I hoped that, having driven all day to arrive at a Gathering built on a foundation of love and acceptance, that would not be an issue.
But there it was, however innocent, a hint that the difference wasn't just in my head, that they saw it too. That I was the other. And, well, I found this amusing, that though I had become America's highway child over the past two months, though I had so easily earned the interest and kindness and acceptance of average people in every corner of our big, diverse, often intolerant country, that here, in a meadow of alleged peace and love, I should find myself, for the very first time, feeling shunned, unwelcome.
She asked me what I was reading, and I said Rousseau, and she said she'd never heard of him, and asked what it was about, and I began to explain, but realized it was a lost cause, every word I said making me sound more pretentious, more intellectual, less and less like them. Eventually, I tucked away my book and joined the circle, attempting to be a little more social and at least give things another try. A few of the Rainbows, to be fair, were friendly, introducing themselves and asking where I was from, even if they grimaced slightly when I responded that I lived in DC and, later, that I worked for the government.
"Fuck the government, man!" a greybeard yelled to an epilogue of head nods and silence.
As dusk descended, we were joined by three more travelers, all white kids wearing feathered headdresses. Their apparent leader, Tom, introduced himself to the circle at large, and then more individually, shaking hands with each seated Rainbow, starting at his left. Around the circle his eyes went, from Davey Jones to Specter to Tomahawk to Lotus to Tiger Lily, and then, just as I was about to introduce myself, his neck snapped to his right, eyes following, resuming the round of introductions in the opposite direction. Sienna and Nick-at-Nite and Sasquatch all bid him hello, and when the turn again came to me, his eyes met the ground, and he sat himself down, making it abundantly clear that my introduction was not worth his time.
Again, I didn't have the heart to be offended by this rudeness; I instead drank in its humor. These weren't hippies, I realized; they were hobos. They were kids who ran away from home and dropped out of school and slept under bridges and stole rides on boxcars and hadn't any other option, and thus rationalized their supertramp lifestyle as though they were William H. Davies himself, as though it was one of deliberate and unrelenting choice.
Somewhere between their conversation about the best way to pickpocket a yuppie and a vicious diatribe against hipsters, which was a broad term they threw around for anyone who had attended a liberal arts university, my amusement turned to pity; I felt sorry for those kids, all living with so much hate inside, so much intolerance toward anyone who didn't look and talk and dress and act like them, anyone who had the means to do something else.
I want to be clear here in saying that I find absolutely no fault with the vagabond lifestyle; indeed, I often fear that I''m simply too cowardly to adopt it fully myself. But as much as I respect it, I recognize that it has to be wanted, it has to be desired, and a post-hoc adoption of it for lack of other options, I knew, would only breed resentment. And those kids, each with their own post-hoc rationalizations, had so very much of it. My presence offended them.
I excused myself from the circle and took a walk and tried to figure out how I could stand to be around such people for another sixty hours until my sister's arrival, and decided that I just couldn't, that I'd have to leave the very next morning. No, no, I thought, that might be too rash; perhaps I could just waste away the next two days reading in a quiet corner of the woods instead, nerdcalls be damned.
Feeling trapped in the forest, which was growing colder every minute and which was wet simply everywhere, the meadow really more of a swamp, sneakers sinking deep into its puddles and soaking through to my socks, I headed back to my tent, where I took off my shoes and put down my things and tried to read a little more, but the sun had set and it had grown too cold to focus, so I instead wandered out again, barefoot in the snow, following light and noise to a raging fire in the middle of my camp.
A large group, older than the last, had just gotten the fire going, and I waved hello and took a seat and warmed myself against its flames. A dog rushed over to me, and I pet it, and it climbed into my lap and I rubbed its neck and then another one sat at my feet, and another on the edge of my knee, and soon I was smothered by canine, and the dogs' guardians all came by to chat, and I found them to be far more accepting, friendly, likeable people than the lost boys down in the meadow. This isn't so bad, I thought, I can definitely survive here until Tuesday.
After another half-hour by the fire, and a few songs from a musical quartet, and a few hits from a communal bowl, I was feeling quite good, quite settled, all my worries from earlier melted away like the snow around the pit's glowing embers. I was growing tired, but it was so warm there, and so cold back at my tent, and so I stuck around until I couldn't any longer, until my yawns were nearly incessant, mind exhausted after so many days of such poor slumber, and I then returned to my tent, bundled into my sleeping bag, and begged sleep to come find me.
It did not. Not for a single minute the whole night. Instead I passed the hours in a fit of delirious stupor, reality slipping away and nothing remaining but cold, bitter biting cold. I lost all feeling in my toes, then my feet altogether, and my body trembled against the hard forest floor. I withdrew my phone and watched the minutes tick by, eventually forgetting what those numbers meant, what time was, thinking 1:48 was either the amount of time in which I had been trying to sleep or the number of minutes until dawn. By 3AM, I threw in the towel, turning on my headlight and reading, at least trying to read, until five.
When day broke, I knew I had to go. I felt awful about leaving before seeing my sister, about missing her by such a narrow window, but I felt just as awful physically and mentally; I felt ill, not well, dangerously delirious. I was mildly hallucinating and extraordinarily tired and my spirit was entirely drained, and after four straight nights of miserable camping, I knew I couldn't make it through another two, realistically three or four, in the Bitterroot Forest.
And so, guilt-stricken and overcome by second-guessing all the way to my bike, literally frozen sneakers on my feet, I said a silent goodbye to the Rainbow Gathering, happy to have experienced it nonetheless and sad to be leaving so soon. I left my sister a note in the meadow, I fought to get Rousseau up and started and moving in the freezing temperatures, and then I returned to the bumpy road, thankfully free of cattle at that early morning hour, crawling slowly back toward civilization.
Nine miles later, my wheels touched asphalt, real even asphalt, and I sped east with the feeling that I was driving on a cloud, actually having to slow down at one point for fear of floating away. Meanwhile, the cold was no less inviting at such high speeds; my purple fingers felt ready to explode. Nonetheless I continued forward, another forty minutes, arriving finally back in Dillon, my original turnoff to Bitterroot, where I raced into a grocery store cafe and gulped down a soy chai latte, free from all judgment and shame, and passed a few hours writing before returning to the road.
Before ending discussion of the Rainbow Gathering, I feel it necessary to caveat that my experience, which was soured only by a small group of false Rainbows and poor weather, is not a fair assessment of the Gathering itself, which again, wasn't even due to start for a week. I am certain that, had I toughed it out and stayed, I would have had a wonderful time with Jude and come to appreciate all the Gathering truly had to offer. But alas, I had resolved instead to march onwards.
And march onwards I did, hovering just north of Wyoming and crossing Montana for as long as I could bear. I was still tremendously sleep-deprived, of course, and thus found myself traveling very slowly, stopping often for stretches and snacks and overall having a very tough time staying awake. While on the road, I sang along to John Mellencamp as loud as I, and that did a fair job of keeping me moving for a while, though I'm sure I must have appeared crazy to passing drivers. By mid-afternoon, though, I was through with it all, actually falling asleep at the handlebars while hurtling down the highway at eighty miles per hour, and, head jerking back up, decided the only responsible thing to do would be to stop, and so shortly after dipping back down into Wyoming, I got myself a room in Sheridan, ate some food, showered, and slept early.
I slept so soundly that I woke up paralyzed the next morning, really having to work to wake my various limbs and joints. Before leaving Sheridan, I changed Rousseau's oil, which I had gone far too long without replacing. A few days earlier, I had noticed that her mileage was beginning to drop, flagging disconcertingly from seventy to sixty to fifty miles per gallon, and though she was otherwise driving well, I hoped a well-deserved oil change would return her to her old fuel-efficient self.
She definitely did run more smoothly with fresh oil, I'll admit, but I was dismayed to find that her fuel economy was still low, worrying as to whether it was symptomatic of a greater problem. With no scooter shops in the area, though, there was little I could do, so I got back on the road and made for the eastern edge of Wyoming.
I had hoped my good rest would restore my positive attitude, my will to drive, but the drive that day was a tough one, perhaps the worst to date, despite excellent weather and utterly pleasant scenery. I just felt done, tired of it all, no longer up for a drive. I felt angry, bitter, hopeless. I was still at least two thousand miles from home, and I had lost the stamina to go on.
Once, in San Francisco, I had embarked on a run from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge with no water and no money and no shoes, and making it to the bridge, I just kept running, making it eleven miles across San Francisco, barefoot, before turning around and realizing that I was far too dehydrated and far too tired to make it back all that way. My present situation felt a lot like that, like my enthusiasm on the way out had gotten me far further than I should have been, only the consequence here wasn't being stranded on the north side of the Golden Gate with a long walk home; it was being stuck with my scooter days away from home, weeks even.
I fantasized about selling Rousseau right then and there and using her profits to buy myself a first-class ticket back to DC. I blamed her for my soreness and my bad attitude and faulted her sharply for being so wasteful with the gasoline as of late. I looked at passing cars longingly, asking her why she couldn't be more like them. I had bought her brand new oil and the best gasoline money could buy, I reasoned; what more did she want?
We bickered all the way to Devil's Tower National Monument, the country's first national monument, a strange formation rising hundreds of feet from the ground with fascinating cracks on all sides, essentially a giant stone thimble resting upon the earth. I pulled into the parking lot, took a look at it, nodded, and left, annoyed that I had driven forty minutes out of the way for a stupid rock.
In retrospect, most of this negativity was colored by my present mood; Devil's Tower is at most rather interesting and at worst still quite unique. There isn't a lot to do there, as the Tower is really just a one-man show around a nice patch of Wyoming, but in any case, I was agitated, and felt it necessary to throw my angst at the next subject I could find, having already mentally berated Rousseau to boredom.
My next stop on the journey was a cluster of sites in western South Dakota, buried in the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and Wind Cave and Custer State Park. I had always been conflicted about visiting Mount Rushmore: I felt like it was essential on any true trip through America, but showing support for the faces of four white imperialist presidents carved into a stolen and sacred Lakota mountain troubled my conscience. The story of Crazy Horse was even more disturbing: some time ago, a rogue Lakota, who wanted to show whites that his people had heroes too, commissioned a white man to carve the body and steed of one of the Lakota heroes, Crazy Horse, into another of their mountains. "No, no," the Lakota at large had said, "Please don't do that. Our culture doesn't idolize our heroes through shrines like that, and we certainly don't believe in carving our own images into nature, especially not our sacred mountains."
The Crazy Horse Memorial, I should add, wasn't simply to be carved into a mountain like Mount Rushmore; it was to actually become the mountain, so that when it is complete, which may be some time this century, there will be no mountain left, just a towering horse and a towering man above it, a modern-day Colossus of Rhodes, tallest standing sculpture in the world.
The Lakota objected, Crazy Horse's family objected, but the white man's generosity and his lone Lakota compatriot couldn't be stopped. He insisted. And some time later, they began to dynamite the sacred mountain, commencing a project that has, to this day, delivered the face of Crazy Horse and the eyehole of his namesake companion.
In a poor mood, and already self-righteously indignant about the faces carved into the Black Hills, and honestly just too tired of driving to subject myself to another hundred-mile detour, I chopped the whole set from my itinerary, instead staying on the highway and making for the Badlands. On the way, the sky darkened to match my mood, threatening me with its incoming rain clouds. I didn't care. I glared at the sky and I dared it to rain on me; no, I wanted it to rain on me, to soak me through and at least give me some incident to pass the time, anything to save me from the mind-numbing boredom of open road. Do it, I seethed.
Realizing rain would not bother me, the weather instead threw at me violent gusts of wind, tossing me back and forth along the highway, only worsening my mental state of affairs. It was all wrong, I thought, with the wind slowing me to a crawl and Rousseau's fuel gauge prematurely blinking and my mind just feeling so lost, so far away from home. I was tired, I was lost, I was over it.
I want to go home.