When I laid out the route and dates for our journey, I originally planned for us to skip from Yellowstone straight through to Seattle. What a mistake. Yesterday afternoon the two of us arrived in Bozeman to pick up my brother Vince who had flown in from the Midwest, and to visit Justin’s friend Ryan. After not-so-patiently spending a handful of hours glued to the Bozeman Library’s free internet (in order to maintain radio contact), Vince finally met up with us across the street from the Montana Ale Works where we were hoping to set up our laptops, grab a burger and a quick pint, and then generate a bunch of content.
Feeling hungry yet energized, we ordered some massive bison burgers (except Vince, who somehow expects to survive as a vegetarian traveling with two voracious carnivores), pulled out our laptops and got to work. Our server, Tim, was extremely genial and was making some solid recommendations, and in what was likely a combination of excitement and dehydration we eagerly sampled a rich variety of the local offerings. This hampered production significantly, but gave us a chance to spend more time with Tim, who it seemed was something of a kindred spirit.
He was stoked about the bus and the journey and shared with us bits of his own adventures. He knew what it was like to be on the road, and how welcome some of the comforts of home can be. He knew we would be looking for a place to leave the bus overnight and told us that we should park in front of his house. Vince, who was the designated driver moved it to Tim’s place a few blocks over and came back to finish off the night with us.
During the course of the evening we also befriended another wayward westbound traveler, Jillian. Justin and I had been staring at each others ugly mugs for the last five days straight, and a feminine presence was more than simply welcome. She had flown from her home in Philadelphia to LA, rented a car and embarked on a solo road-trip that already passed through Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, and was continuing west on a similar route to ours. She was smart, funny, and attractive, and made a wonderful addition to the characters already in our crew.
We spent the remainder of that evening sampling the local wares, shooting pool, sharing travel pictures, playing vulgar card games and enjoying the company of new friends. That night was a celebration, the first of our journey. It was the kind of celebration that had no specific cause, or if there had been one, it had been lost in the deep end of a pint. A night I would never forget, could I remember it in the first place.
The next morning, we were greeted on the sidewalk outside the bus by Tim and his glowing children, Fergus and Liam. Tim had to run a few errands with the kids, but let us know we were more than welcome to shower, have a cup of coffee, and recharge our batteries literally and figuratively. We were humbled and gratefully accepted his hospitality. When he returned with the kids, we were ready to pack up to avoid overstaying our welcome. Instead, he invited us to stay for lunch and hand-picked us a salad from his garden, and as we ate in his back yard under the shade of an umbrella I began to reflect on my surroundings.
Tim’s house is incredible. On the corner of the block in a neighborhood lined with small, re-invented pre-war homes, shaded by long rows of mature trees is Tim’s piecemeal masterpiece. Sided with corrugated steel and barn-boards he reclaimed himself, surrounded by small well-maintained gardens of veggies and berries, with a basement full of bikes and snowboards, Tim’s 900sqft home provides everything he and his wife need to raise their beautiful family of four. His home has a character that could not be anticipated. It could not have been “designed”. It had to emerge. Each element was constructed out of necessity, with available resources, bearing the mark of the craftsman, without obscuring the rich history of reclaimed materials.
I’m telling of the story of the bus to let people know that it’s possible. You can live in 200sqft. You really can. But it’s a bit ridiculous. It’s extreme. Conversely, the size of a modern suburban home is also extreme. Like Goldilocks final bowl of porridge, Tim’s house is just right. I’m sure there are moments where 900sqft can seem a little cozy, but it truly has all of the elements that make a house a home.
We would have loved for Tim to join us on our journey, and as we sat on the bus watching his kids play, we let him know as much explicitly. For just a moment you could see his mind wander, pausing briefly to fantasize about an adventure. But then he looked over at his kids bouncing on the bed and smirked. This is where he needed to be, this was home.
After saying our goodbyes to Tim and his kids, we headed west from Bozeman, traveling in parallel with Jillian, to meet up at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park.
Now, I’ve been on a few cave tours in my time. The formations are always amazing, but every cave I’ve toured has had a similar breadth of formations: Stalactites (hanging tight from the ceiling), their counterpart Stalagmites (who might someday reach the ceiling), and the ones I like to call Stalag-I-made-it’s (when the stalagmite finally completes its multi-millennial trek to the ceiling.)
This tour, however, caught me completely off-guard. The cave was largely what I expected it to be, but what made this tour a truly unique experience was our guide, Jimmy.
It was, and I cannot overstate this: The Best. Tour. Ever.
Jimmy’s guidance, although informative, was not terribly rehearsed. It was a completely un-sanitized experience. Jimmy seemed to care little for scripted spiels, instead speaking off the cuff, nonchalantly offering geological information interspersed with off-topic personal anecdotes. His demeanor was casual, and his delivery was conversational, much to the chagrin of the tour-goers still descending the stairs, well out of earshot. In a sense, Jimmy was not really giving the tour, he was on the tour with us.
At one point, after already having descended hundreds of stairs down into the mountain, Jimmy offered us the opportunity to turn back if we were reluctant to continue. There was a moment of silence as everyone considered, what the hell is that supposed to mean? Someone calls out, “Is the second half worse than the first half?” He pauses for a second to consider it, then casually decides, “Nah. Not really.” Then Jimmy mentioned that we would have to lay down and literally slide through a small hole, walk like a duck, shimmy through a crack, and crawl on all fours to finish this tour. I’m sure there were warnings about this kind of activity before the tour began, but I did not hear them. I’m not sure the senior citizens or the man with the cast up to his knee heard them either.
The lack of structure on the tour was endlessly entertaining. We never knew what was going to happen next. More than once, Jimmy flipped a switch, momentarily casting the cave into darkness, neglecting to first turn on the lights ahead. As the lights reappeared, complete strangers would share a wordless glance, as if to say, “Is this really happening?” Although I believe the tone of the implied question varied dramatically somewhere between delighted and concerned depending on the tour-goer.
Jimmy knew the tour was unorthodox. He could tell that at least some of us were thoroughly enjoying it, and he began to open up and embrace it. Arriving at one particular cavern, after having already enjoyed a number of ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ moments, Jimmy reveals the cause of the chaos. He has in fact, only been employed at the caves for a month, and had been taken through the caves only four times for his training. According to Jimmy, each of his training tours were different, so he assembled (and I use the word ‘assembled’ lightly) his own version of the tour. As a result of Justin’s fantastic sixth sense for capturing essential moments, we happened to catch this conversation on tape. It is our pleasure to share it with you:
From the caves we continued west, planning to meet again with Jillian, this time in Missoula. As I drove, Vince was able to enjoy the fruits of his labors for the first time. Over the past three months Vince has spent four solid weeks of 8 to 12 hour days working on the bus, entirely unpaid, taking direction from his detail-oriented-yet-chaotically-disorganized older brother with no complaint. The scenery along the route was fantastic. I was grinning from ear to ear as Vince and Justin played in the back of the bus taking in the sights, and enjoying the space he had helped build.
Missoula that night was a continuation of the previous evening’s causeless celebration. Less than 24 hours after meeting her, Jillian had become the fourth amigo. (We tried multiple times to convince her to ditch the rental car and travel with us for a few days out to the coast, but she politely declined. I told you she’s smart). After ordering an especially large sampling of the local brew, we realized the vehicles should be moved to a final location before the beverage was consumed. Vince and Jillian took the vehicles to a lot where they could stay overnight, and Justin and I set off to make a dent in the 20 full glasses in front of us. That night we drank, we told stories, we eagerly told everyone we met about the bus. It was an aimless and shameless evening, filled with new friends and impulsive decisions, which probably explains why we ended up passing out in a Walmart parking lot.
Our time in Missoula capped off a wonderful stay in Montana, and our adventures with Jillian. Montana caught me completely off guard. As someone who comes from flyover country, I should have known better than to assume Montana was a barren void. Without a doubt, the most unexpected highlight of the trip.