When sisters road trip, all sorts of fun will be had.

Nephew with Clifford

Nephew with Clifford

So there I was…driving a red, 1986 Chevy S10 pickup truck around Red Lodge, Montana. Without much luck. It was a great little truck when I lived in Southern California, the fair weather agreeing with both of us. When my niece bought the truck twenty years ago, she nicknamed it Clifford. The cheapest vehicle I’ve ever purchased, Clifford is still puttering around with my brother-in-law behind the wheel, topping 170,000 miles on the odometer.

Autumn is dazzling in the eastern states. Okay, fall can be lovely everywhere, but there’s something about the cacophony of colors in the east that makes October an especially great month to be here. How lucky was I that my brother found a 1995 Explorer and restored it for an autumn pickup? It was perfect timing. So was the rig (western for SUV).

Almost, as Seester aka Jackie and I learned somewhere in Iowa.

In one of my famous moves, I said to her: “I’ll buy the plane tickets and pay the trip home if you’ll come with me.” Aside: “Home” causes confusion when you’re transplanted. Born in Pennsylvania, family still there, it’s home. Living in Montana for ten and thirty years for these sisters, it’s home. Do you have that issue?

I may have offered to pay for food and wine only because Jackie doesn’t eat or drink much. Her husband, pre-Italy adventure 2007, was not a fan of my plan and continued naysaying until I think Jackie made a famous statement like: You’re not the boss of me.

We were very mature in our thirties.

From Cramer, Pennsylvania to Red Lodge, Montana is eighteen hundred miles. Our route took us through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, up the middle of Iowa, across the interminable South Dakota, through a tip and bit of Wyoming and…

Our dad thought the whole idea was grand fun and, secretly, I think he wanted to come along. Had we only done that! Mom, the worrier in the family, was, to use my niece’s favorite word, a freak about the whole thing.

Pragmatic dad handed us several car keys: “Each of you put one in your pants pocket and one in your purse.” To humor him, we stood there practicing:

Driver gets out of rig: “Key.”

Passenger gets out of rig: “Locked.”

Switch sides of the rig. Repeat.

Dad rolled his eyes and calls us good to go.

Gilbert truck somewhere in OH, Jackie road trip 1996

Gilbert truck somewhere in OH, Jackie road trip 1996

Caring only about the moment we were in and traveling for the first time as best friends, we shared a great experience.

We crossed the wide Mississippi and the long Missouri Rivers. They felt like milestones and I guess they were-on multiple levels. We were both glad not to be in a covered wagon or pushing a herd of cattle along. Somewhere we followed a truck with, “Gilbert – Get It There on Time,” blazed on the back. We figured it was a good omen since that was dear dad’s name.

Hours out of Iowa, singing along to the radio at the top of our lungs, the music grew steadily louder, reaching rock concert decibel. None of the buttons worked to turn it down or shut it off. Jackie reached into the backseat to get her coat to stuff over the speakers. She turned around in a hurry, eyes large as can be: no coat. We thought through our stops and knew where it was: on a chair in the lobby of the Cedar Rapids hotel. We prayed for no snow until we could get her something new.

The radio was permanently stuck on high the rest of the trip. Being optimists, we’d give it a try every so often. Usually with the windows down so that we weren’t trapped with the sound. Turning the key would shut it off, we’d sigh and sing anyhow.

Stopping in the small, very western town of Wall, South Dakota, we found Jackie a new Carhartt jacket, size 44. She wouldn’t need a new coat once hers met up with us at home, but her husband was in the market. Did Jackie look cute or ridiculous with it covering a lot of her 5’1” frame? Mostly she looked warm.

We reached the Badlands, tucked into the southwest corner of the state, and gasped more than once. Who knew that what looks like simple orange-brown rocks could be so captivating? Our hiker-hearts wanted to spend hours roaming through the mounds and crevices, dreaming of outlaws hiding from the sheriff’s posse. Although snow in Pennsylvania this time of year would be a fluke, in Montana and surrounding states it can hit any moment after September. Heck, we’d seen snow in June and August. We knew we’d better stop dawdling and move on.
Badlands, South Dakota
Badlands, Jackie road trip 1996

Then we hit a small town in Wyoming that shall remain nameless. We don’t want them finding us after all these years.

Imagine, Psycho meets Deliverance. If you don’t know those two movies, I’d say you’ve got some watching to do. It was our last night on the road, but already full dark and too far from Red Lodge to continue on. We saw a motel sign and made a right.

Keep in mind that this is before the Internet was held in our hands. Before Google, travelers relied on billboards for information, not TripAdvisor reviews. We had a big, bulky cell phone with us (thanks, Skip!), but used it frugally because of the expense.

So in we pulled to the gravel and dirt parking lot, noticing but not really seeing the abundance of pickup trucks. We both lived in Montana several years by this time, a Mercedes in the lot might have attracted our attention, but a truck or two or a dozen? Normal.

We went into the office and that’s when it got weird. I swore I heard a banjo start and Jackie heard the creaking of an old, old rocking chair (again, watch those movies!). The grizzled, thin man shuffled to the desk with his beat up ball cap pulled low and his bathrobe pulled tight while eight pairs of hunter-eyes turned our way in unison. He lifted his face, one pale blue eye coated with a cataract, skin covered in dark whiskers way beyond a five p.m. shadow, gnarly voice asking did we want a room or what? He licked his thin lips and that was enough.

We exchanged looks and each pushed the other out the door. We couldn’t get to the rig fast enough and zoomed out of the lot, testing my tires in the ruts and holes. We had visions of sleeping in the rig when up ahead was a beacon: A Holiday Inn. With a pool.

You’re invincible in your thirties, aren’t you?

Odd things happen and you roll with it. You don’t pull the plug on the excitement when a quirky thing occurs. You keep on going forward. Jackie’s kids making the same trip together would have us imitating mom and wondering if they had a lick of common sense. But there we were—having a grand time despite the oddities.

Heck, when my brother and I made the same journey in October 2009 (What is it with me heading west in October and I still have time this month to make it, right?), I’m betting his wife and our sister wondered about us.

He and I wondered about us. But the brother cross country trip is another story. Some things that happen on the road, stay on the road.

Maybe being thirty-something is practice for getting older and not making the same mistakes, but instead creating a whole slew of new and more entertaining ones.

What do you think? Time for a road trip in your life?