I traveled cross country to Montana with two friends recently. It was the longest roadtrip I’ve ever taken–roughly five days there and back. Despite a few setbacks and unexpected challenges along the way, we somehow managed to enjoy eachother’s company for hours at a time. We survived sleeping on twin beds squished together, spiders in the basement of our Bed and Breakfast, a creepy hotel receptionist who “totally goes to Portland all the time”, and numerous other misadventures. We even almost adopted a cat.

The highlight of the trip, aside from seeing touristy spots like Mount Rushmore and the Lewis and Clark caverns, was the landscape. I’ve seen mountains in Colorado before but this was…it’s difficult to describe. Beautiful, overwhelming, spiritually…spiritual? There was an ancient and powerful feeling to them, with the craggy peaks and tall trees.

There were also the plains. Now that, I’ve never seen before. I was more or less prepared for mountains but driving through endless golden, mostly flat and sometimes low rolling hills, watching antelope graze and seemingly endless clouds paint the blue sky. Wow. Just…wow. We stopped in a small town so my friend could visit her grandparents’ graves and let me tell you, walking into a bar in a place where everyone knows each other and you’re the stranger is a pretty surreal experience. But seeing all that empty land and the tiny towns and isolated farms, I got the full understanding of just how big our country is and how ultimately irrelevant city-life is to people who live in nowhere.

I’ve lived in the suburbs, in the big city, and now I live in a small borough with barely over 1,000 people. I’m moderately well traveled, though I’d love to travel more, and like to think I’ve seen quite a bit of the diversity our country offers. But over two weeks I drove from the east coast, to busy Chicago, the badlands of South Dakota, mountains of Montana and Wisconsin, and beneath the immense skies of North Dakota. I’m not sure I’d do it again, if only because the driving took up so much time that could have been spent exploring. But I’m so glad I had the experience.

I’ve met many people who’ve barely been out of their state, let alone visited the opposite corners of their country. There’s no shame in loving where you live and sticking to what you know, but during the course of my trip I realized just how different we would feel, how much insight can be gained from seeing how other communities live. It’s easy to condense states and towns and populations down to stereotypes on the internet, when all we see is a badly curated version of the U.S. I knew North Dakota was less populated, but I had no idea what that meant. I knew that Montana had mountains, but seeing them–and seeing the effects of the wild fires in the northwest–gave me a perspective and context I never would’ve had otherwise. Pictures and words don’t capture the lived experience of being in those places.

Some people have the ability to travel regularly, and some don’t. I’ve always had aspirations of being a travel writer and this trip definitely reawakened that dream. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make another journey like this one again–but either way, my understanding of my country is a little broader, a little richer than it was before.

I’m supposed to tell you not to visit Montana, because they want to keep their beautiful places unbothered by commercialism and rapid growth. So all I’ll say is that if you DO find yourself in the northwest someday, keep an eye out for Big Foot, beware deer crossing the road, and try the huckleberry–it’s delicious.

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