From the memoir in progress:
... I broke free from Carol and our friends before sunrise. Driving in the soft, pink-yellow light of early dawn, I finally descended the last of the boringly spectacular glaciers and spilled out onto the endless plain.
I drove. And drove. And drove. And drove. The further east I got the more the traffic thinned out, and after about six hours I was passing one car every five to ten minutes. The landscape was Lake Superior-flat and so devoid of humanity that at one point I felt compelled to pull over and get out to experience the extreme, lonely silence, hearing nothing but the ticking of my engine as it cooled and the wind as it rustled through fields of crispy ripe wheat. No birds. You need trees to have birds.
Somewhere near the Montana-North Dakota border, just after passing a farm whose owner had created a huge Raggedy Ann doll out of hay bales and spray paint, I was pleased to encounter a distraction: a sunburned man with a goatee and reflective orange vest flagged me down. His white utility truck (an F250 4-by-4 with aluminum tool box. Mud flaps, too, which are unusual on a truck that size) was parked in the middle of the highway, broadside, acting as a barricade.
I rolled down my window, and he walked up to me.
"Road's closed for awhile," he said.
"How long?" I asked.
"Not sure about that. It's a government project."
"Are they working on the road?"
"Can't say. It's a government project."
I'd seen no road-work signs for 200 miles. I thought of the old Cold War missile silos that I'd heard about in the Dakotas, each filled with multiple warheads aimed at the former Soviet Union, and I couldn't help but wonder if Homeland Security was up to something on the prairie once again. If I were a hawkish president, and I wanted to develop some controversial weaponry without public scrutiny (Bush was in office at this time), I could think of no better place to do it than right here.
"A secret government project?" I asked.
"Oh, just a government project. You know. Government."
"Should I turn around and find another route?”
The man shrugged his shoulders and walked back to his truck, where he sat, leafing through but not reading a magazine. To pass the time, I opened my atlas on the hood of my car and began perusing this fine, rectangular state. Had I made a mistake in choosing Grand Forks over Fargo, home of the Roger Maris Museum in the West Acres Shopping Mall? … Should I swing south and hit the Teddy Roosevelt National Forest? … Would I regret overlooking Bismark while I was here? Carol had told me that visiting North Dakota was like visiting Australia; it's so remote and out-of-the-way that you'll most likely never return in this lifetime, so you'd best see as much as you can if you ever make it there.
About ten minutes later, a second car finally came down the highway, this one with Rhode Island plates and two young women. It took the driver of this car about five minutes before she, too, got out and asked the man what was going on.
"Government project," he said, now leaning on a rake that appeared to have no purpose other than providing comfort.
Fifteen minutes later, a third car joined us. Out stepped a skinny man, jittery in that over-caffeinated way, with a mullet haircut and cut-off jeans shorts and black boots.
"Government project," the highway worker said. "Road's closed for awhile."
The man gave the highway worker a pained, mystified look, as if he couldn't understand a word he'd said. He then turned, looked at the girls in their car, shook his head, spit on the ground, got back into his car, completed a hasty three-point turn, and headed back in the direction from which he came, his tires spinning and kicking back gravel.
"Crystal meth," the highway worker explained. "'You see how all his teeth were bad?"
Thirty-five minutes later, the man received a call on his two-way radio. Without saying a word to us, he tossed the rake into the back of his truck, got into the cab and drove away, eastward.
I looked at the Rhode Island women and shrugged my shoulders. We waited a good five minutes more, and, with no sign of our guide returning, I got back into my Malibu and continued eastward. I scanned the horizon over the next fifty miles for any sign of road construction but found no crews, no barricades, no new striping on the highway or freshly filled potholes – and no sign of our highway-department friend.