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Easy Chair — From the April 2017 issue

You Can Run …

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I have a theory — not a very good one — that the reason Google is so hot to develop self-driving cars is that time behind the wheel is the last significant part of our waking lives in which it’s inconvenient to use the internet. But that’s exactly why I prize long road trips, especially lately, in this era of gruesome political news and ceaseless social-media conflict: ambitious drives are a good excuse for being disconnected. Though it’s funny that “disconnected” is the word we use, since paying attention to what’s in front of you in the here and now used to be thought of as enlightening.

A few weeks back it fell to me to deliver a carful of books and household items to my wife, who was teaching in Las Vegas. From our home in western Montana, it’s a journey of almost nine hundred miles, most of them on I-15, a thinly populated north–south route that passes through only one major urban area, Salt Lake City. I’ve done the drive at least a dozen times, usually with my satellite radio playing and my phone turned on, but this time I decided to banish all distractions. “Read not the Times, Read the Eternities,” wrote Thoreau. Look around, I think he meant.

I set out on a Saturday morning. Blue sky, dark pines, snow on the hills, and two lonely mules silhouetted in a hayfield. They have a peculiar posture, mules. Their hips are higher than their shoulders, their eyes stare down their long noses at the ground, and they always look embarrassed, in disgrace. Cows, on the other hand, appear merely inert, as if bred for a hopeless, soulless fugue state. Passing a vast herd, I wonder if eating beef transmits their boredom to people. How could it not? Farther on, I see some sheep. They don’t look quite so dispirited as cattle, just grumpy and annoyed; perhaps the ancient contract they struck with humans — we let you shear us, you keep away the wolves — feels one-sided to them now. The wolves are gone.

I drive into Bozeman, Montana’s new boomtown, which is flush with the wealth of transplants from congested California. Surrounding its center, hemming in the old farms, are big-box stores the size of airplane hangars and malls built to look like Platonic small-town Main Streets, with irregular rooflines and old-timey facades and sidewalks on which no one ever strolls. Nearby are subdivisions with noodle-shaped roads and the sort of new houses inhabited by people who move to the area to build new houses. I’m amazed by all the huge banks that have sprung up. Who financed them — other banks? Then comes a zone of mattress franchises, tire shops, self-storage units, and half-finished steel-frame structures on concrete slabs, which might become churches or auto dealers, it’s hard to tell. Such fly-by-night architecture gives me vertigo, and I think I know why: no basements. The buildings just float.

Back in the country, a mountain range of sail-shaped peaks seems to keep receding, maintaining its picturesque distance from me. On my left is a ranch of many thousands of acres. It belongs to the billionaire Ted Turner, who raises bison on the land. I visited his house once, invited by the novelist Amy Tan, who was celebrating her birthday there along with several guests from out of state. The two-lane highway tops a rise and runs for a stretch along the Madison River, swerving around a blind curve where, several years ago, I came upon a logging truck that had crashed and overturned, its tires still spinning. The driver was trapped in the cab, and there was blood. I freed him by prying the windshield from its frame using an iron bar lashed to the truck. He couldn’t walk, so he sat down on the asphalt while my passenger drove to a spot where cell phones worked and summoned an ambulance. I never found out what happened to the man.

In the 1970s, when I was a kid, truck drivers enjoyed a curious vogue. The last American cowboys, with rebel hearts. Their outlaw-flavored CB radio slang (“We have bears in the air, Rubber Ducky — do you copy?”) was celebrated in movies and hit songs, including the chart-topping “Convoy,” by C. W. McCall, a name that sounds like it belongs to a crusty loner but actually refers to a duo of former jingle writers, one of whom was responsible for Mannheim Steamroller, the act behind those bombastic electronic-instrumental Christmas albums. That Reagan would soon be elected president should have been obvious. Truckers kicked major ass.

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