My daughter is a graduate student at a British university forced home to North Dakota by the global pandemic. For the last four months she has been living in my basement trying to keep up with her doctoral work using such digital resources as are available at the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford. She will be returning to Britain in early September (maybe). Meanwhile, she is about to fly off to Kansas to spend some time with her mother before the British give the green light for her return. We decided to take my pickup camper, named "Rocinante" after John Steinbeck’s rig from the famous 1960 Travels with Charley adventure, on a journey through Montana. We agree: if there were only one state, it would have to be Montana.
We spent our first night at Makoshika State Park near Glendive. It’s a spectacular state park, filled with dramatic badlands, in the uncool part of Montana. We grilled cheeseburgers and corn on the cob, sipped white wine, talked about life, her future, my future, our adult friendship, the crisis of the American experiment, the size of the universe — you know, the things you talk about when you go camping with the right person. We also kept binoculars handy to try to see the comet. The light lasts so long after sunset in this northern latitude that it was late before we glimpsed it. It grew better and better as true darkness descended on the plains. “Don’t these comets usually portend something terrible?” she asked, knowing the answer from her studies of Elizabethan history and literature. “What will come next?” I asked only partly rhetorically.
We needed to get to Bozeman by mid-afternoon Thursday, so we poached some Internet at a coffee shop in Miles City, studied the U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the Bozeman-Livingston area, and chose one (more or less at random) north of Big Timber. We ambled on, with a lunch stop in Billings. Although the governor of Montana has ordered the people to wear masks in public, our informal survey indicated strict compliance in national chains and box stores, in grocery stores, and government offices like the post office, and little or no compliance in locally owned stores and quick shops.
In mid-afternoon we drove north on a state road from Big Timber to a turnoff 10 miles north of town. We reckoned that a campground well off pavement in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains was likely to be less full than one right off the main thoroughfares. We turned up the gravel road towards Half Moon Camp. Four or five miles up that road I sensed that something was wrong with one of the tires. I got out to check and sure enough, the right rear tire was nearly flat. We were in the middle of nowhere. I’ve changed plenty of tires in the course of my life, but never in a pickup with a heavy camper unit over the bed. We studied the owner’s manual for a while. I figured out how to lower the spare from below the bed, and we hauled everything out of the back seats to get the jack and tire iron. That took some time.
The manual said to place the jack on the rear axle. That seemed wrong to me, so I read the passage in the manual three or four times. The last thing I wanted to do was compound the problem of a flat tire by the infinitely graver problem of a bent or broken axle. Operator’s manuals are notoriously hard to follow. They are about technical things and a person without that understanding is naturally at a disadvantage. And the people who write them are technicians who may not have majored in English. But we decided to trust the experts.
I had just about jacked the rig up. I knew enough to loosen the lug nuts a bit before the tire lifted off the gravel. I was feeling pretty good about myself and my daughter, who thinks of me as a scholar and a — well — English major — was looking at me with some new respect. I was feeling like a “man for all seasons.” We would be on our way within 20 minutes.
Just then the jack that came with the truck broke, like a sprung clock. It was clear that there was no way to lower it and re-align it and start again. It was a dead jack and of course it was the only one I had.
So now we were doomed, marooned on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, 10 miles from a tiny town, 60 or so from Livingston, Mont. What to do? My daughter who is wiser and more cautious than I am had renewed my AAA membership about a month ago. Fortunately, we had cell service, which says something good about rural connectivity. She called it in. It was not easy to explain where we were since we really didn’t know where we were, and AAA has not yet developed a system of tracking your position from your cellphone. She and the AAA handler talked back and forth for a while until it became clear at AAA central that we were people who had no business wandering around rural Montana. My daughter hung up. What did you find out, I asked. “They will call us back.”
And someone did, 20 minutes later. It was 98 degrees, no clouds, a typical hot late July day in west central Montana. He owned a towing company in Livingston. He would start out for us soon. He asked more questions about our location and soon figured out where we must be. But he said, “Keep your cellphone handy.” He told us it would take him about an hour and 15 minutes to get to us, assuming we were where he thought we were. Meanwhile, just relax.
I went back to retrieve the broken jack and clean up the site a little, the way you do when the furnace man comes, and you pick up the house to be presentable.
What amazed me was that neither my daughter, whose first flat tire this was, nor I was upset. We had nowhere we absolutely had to be. Help was on its way. We spent some time debating whether our AAA coverage would cover all of this (long mileage, lots of the mechanic’s time) or whether it merely facilitated the rescue and I would be shelling out hundreds before we were underway again. She made me acknowledge that she had been wise to insist on renewing my AAA. “Let’s wait to see how this comes out before we rush to that conclusion,” I said.
Just then, as we sat in the air-conditioned cab breathing in the magnificence of the Crazy Mountains and the Montana plains, an ATV rolled up from half a mile south. He stopped in the borrow ditch. He was wearing a green checked shirt, jeans, rounded cowboy boots. He was maybe 35 years old. Dark hair, a short beard, well-groomed. I explained the situation, including the broken jack and that we had just called AAA. “Heck, I’ll change your tire. Back in a few minutes.” And off he rolled in the ATV. My daughter called the towing guy who was still in Livingston and said we were being rescued by a rancher and no longer needed his services. He might have been angry, but he wasn’t. He reckoned we were in good shape.
(Photo: Clay Jenkinson)
The rancher, whose name turned out to be Joe L., reappeared with a pneumatic jack and a DeWalt drill equipped with a flange that interfaced with a set of lug nut wrenches. “Yeah, the jacks that come with these trucks are not very strong. You’d be smart to buy a pneumatic.” He changed the tire out in less than 15 minutes. I asked him questions as he worked. Did he grow up out here? No, Pennsylvania, but he had been here seven or eight years. How did he like it here? Well, it’s a good place to live, sometimes a little far from everything else, but good. Was he a rancher? Yes, a small ranch, but he was starting up a guiding service. Elk and bighorn sheep. Yes, there were a few wolves in the Crazies. The mountains got their name probably from the Crow Indians, who said they were possessed.
While he was under the truck, I whispered to my daughter to get my wallet where I had a lone hundred-dollar bill, tucked in a hidden pocket for emergencies. I was more than happy to give it to him — our good Samaritan. In fact, I worried that it might be insufficient to pay for the rescue. He inched out from behind the truck and said, “well, good luck, I’ll be on my way.” I said, “wait, please take this with our deep gratitude.” “No, nope, that won’t be necessary.” My daughter appealed to him to take the money in thanks for his help. “Thank you, ma’am, but I didn’t do it for money.” And off he went.
So, we were blessed by this act of pure generosity by our own St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
Once he disappeared over the horizon and from our lives — forever — we talked about the rest of the day and evening. We decided not to drive the remaining 14 miles to Half Moon Camp on a spare tire and no jack. My daughter, who studied classical languages in college, said, “You know hubris is followed by nemesis, dad,” which I translated into, “how about we check in at Holiday Inn Express in Bozeman, get a real shower, and order Thai from Grubhub?” So we inched our way back to pavement, checked the tire, drove to Big Timber, checked the tire, got on I-90 and drove to Livingston, checked the tire, and then on to west Bozeman, where a beautiful, clean room with two queen beds was waiting for us, thanks to a cellphone call she made riding shotgun.
As we drove off into the evening, we discussed what gift we are going to send to Joe L., RR X, Big Timber, Mon. We ran through a dozen options, from the complete works of Chaucer on down! Eventually she said, “How about a gift certificate from Cabela’s?” Perfect. So, I will attend to that when I get back to civilization and write a handwritten letter of real gratitude. My daughter said, “this so restores my faith in humanity,” but she couldn’t finish. She broke into tears. I was choked up, too.
Why did this man bother to help a couple of clowns from another state when he could have just stayed in his house and let the auto-breakdown professionals do the job? Why was he willing to get down on his back on a really uncomfortable gravel road (I have wounds to show you!) to jack up a stranger’s rig? Why had he refused our money? He came out of nowhere, suddenly, gave us a gift of real value, and disappeared just as suddenly. It was as if he were an angel of goodness. In the Middle Ages (or among Native Americans) he would certainly have been regarded as a gift of God. Because what are the probabilities of that moment on a Wednesday afternoon in July in Montana? Truly?
We talked carefully about it for a couple of hours. I live in North Dakota. Her mother lives in western Kansas. They are both red states. Montana is a red state, too, with an extra dollop of libertarianism thrown in, except where the Hollywood types have built their gated enclaves, and except in “the people’s republic of Missoula,” where the University of Montana is located. For the last two days we had seen Trump signs and regalia everywhere, including bumper stickers saying, “Trump Nation.” My daughter and I pride ourselves on being politically independent, but this year we are going to vote for ABT, anybody but Donald Trump, because we both believe that, irrespective of his politics, he has violated the basic norms we should expect of the chief representative of the American nation.
My daughter is a Hillary-ite. She has been working this summer for a rural state’s COVID-19 response task force, compiling data from nursing homes, hospitals, industrial sites, and from around the country, and attending briefings about public health protocols. We both believe that masks are one of the essential, no-brainer tools for overcoming the pandemic, along with social distancing, and partial closure of public activities. We have both been amused and occasionally appalled by the wanton disregard for common sense public health measures in our red state homeland (the Great Plains), and we have both been glared at and mask shamed (for wearing masks) as we go about our public business. We’ve done a lot of shaking our heads and deploring the “weaponization of public health” in the last five months. Some of our private conversation has been righteous. We have reverted to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas thesis, which argues that rural Americans steadfastly vote for conservative Republicans against their actual interests because they are so easily seduced by culture war issues like gay ordination and prayer in schools — issues that are important to them, but which don’t help them pay their bills, get access to health care, or rebuild the crumbling rural infrastructure. In our scores of hours of private conversation over the past months, we have regarded ourselves as “enlightened,” and we have condemned many of the people around us as “Trumpites.”
We got a little comeuppance yesterday in the middle of nowhere. Because we learned that America is so very much more than our broken national political rhetoric.
If demographic probability studies are accurate, this young man — Joe “Montana” — is probably a Trump supporter. He probably would politely disagree with most of what we might have to say about the state of American politics. He probably believes that it is hard work, a solid work ethic, perseverance, patriotism, and grit that makes a good American, and that the welfare state is a mistake beyond a certain low safety net. If we asked him about mask protocols, he would probably have smiled a big sheepish smile and spread his arms, because from where our stricken camper rig was parked we could see at least 20 miles in every direction in a vast and open landscape populated by no more than a few isolated ranch steads. And this, he would assure us, is what most of Montana looks like.
My dream is to drive my Steinbeckian rig "Rocinante" all over the American outback, from the Great Smokey Mountains of east Tennessee to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, out near the end of the Lewis and Clark trail; from Haven, Maine, where one of my heroes John Wesley Powell died in 1902 to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, one of the most sacred places in the Western Hemisphere. When I turn off Fox and MSNBC, Rush and Sean and Michael Savage, and get out into the heart of the heart of the country, two things invariably happen.
First, I cheer up, because what you hear on those media platforms is a patina that crusts what America really — and still — is: a gigantic country of mostly modest people going about their lives trying at least to make ends meet and if possible get a sliver of the American Dream, a place where character and community are more important than political discourse. Second, I discover — again — that what binds us as Americans is much greater, deeper, and wider than what divides us and that while there are very serious issues and unresolved problems that we must attend to with real urgency and national good will, it would help us all if we ratcheted things down once in a while rather than always up.
This young man didn’t ask us about our “political outlook” and we didn’t ask him about his. Heck, for all we know he is a liberal democrat who espouses the Green New Deal. Probably not. But he was clearly a man of good will, integrity, honesty, and generosity of spirit, irrespective of his politics. Although my daughter and I both grew up on the Great Plains — and we carry a lot of the Great Plains ethos with us no matter what we have become in our “enlightenment” — we sometimes forget what is so quintessentially good about the people who helped to form us in 4H, the Methodist and Congregational churches, the mediocre but earnest public schools, the moments when the farmer has a heart attack when the wheat needs to come in, and two dozen of his neighbors turn up over the hills with combines and grain trucks to harvest the crop before it is too late, before the hail bites it. We regard the people we grew up with as the salt of the earth, if a bit nutty from too much time on the tractor with the ditto heads of America, but they regard us a good-enough people who got over educated in the liberal arts (as opposed to the practical skills) and therefore a bit nutty.
We cherished our comeuppance. We agreed to try to wring some of the righteousness out of our responses to life, to be more charitable to views that are not our own, to embrace more regularly the shared values of the American people, particularly rural people, the ones Donald Trump awakened in 2015-2016 because he — so imperfect a populist tribune — was the first national politician who took them seriously for a change.
The morning after the breakdown, I hobbled my rig into a locally owned tire shop in Bozeman and wound up getting two splendid new ten-ply all road all weather tires. The tire store manager was like a Zen master — so easily offended by the merest rookie question, so quick to put the rube in his place — but I was steadfastly meek and polite because he and his boys had that same work ethic that is so much the heart of rural America.
Two new tires and a pneumatic jack. I’m ready to go find all that’s right with America.
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book, Bring Out Your Dead: The Literature and History of Pandemics is available at Amazon.com.