Through the windows of the Greyhound, rosy light fractured upon the mountains. Wildfires raged through the Rockies, and the falling sun was swallowed by a massive column of smoke that poured into the hazy red-orange sky. Next to me was a girl who had almost missed the bus. She lost her tickets, tried in vain to cram her bag into the overhead space, and fell asleep with her head nestled into the soft spot between my chest and my shoulder. Smoke fell into the darkening sky endlessly, and I leaned back against the rattling glass. A yellow shard of moon peeked out above the chimney of the mountains. When we arrived in Buffalo, Wyoming at three in the morning, I gently woke her up so that I could remove myself and transfer buses. We pulled into Rapid City as dawn came to the world. I curled up on a bench outside the station for a couple hours, then walked across town to the church for Grace and Bobby’s wedding: a dreadlocked traveler sporting dress shoes and a blue tie and a huge yellow pack. In the evening we gathered at Graces house for food and drink and sunset skies with beautiful people in a beautiful garden. I crashed in the basement and in the morning the Nixon family sent me on my way with hugs and a care package of snacks. Leah dropped me off downtown, where I found a guy I’d met on the bus, and he drove me into the hills to Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse and then let me out on the side of the road in a little town called Custer. And once again, it was just me and the road: a wanderer bound for Colorado, a place to reflect and prepare for the summer’s journey.
I caught a ride out of Custer down through the pine forests and rock outcroppings of the Black Hills of South Dakota. At the junction of 89 and 385, I sat on my pack and read as I casually threw my thumb towards cars heading deeper into the mountains. After a couple hours, a loaded Nissan with a roof rack and New York plates pulled into the shoulder ahead, and I hopped in with “The Three Sisters.” Kim, Eileen, and Ruth were on their way to Yellowstone, just beginning a three week national park tour road trip. Kim used to hitchhike, and conversation tumbled out about travel, beautiful places, life on the road. The emptiness of South Dakota and Eastern Wyoming stretched into distant dark clouds from which shocks of lightning flashed toward the desert, and bursts of cold rain made bug soup of the windshield. The swirling clouds looked sinister, and we discussed our emergency tornado plan (we didn’t have one). They told me they’d been craving pizza all day, but they were beginning to seriously doubt the likelihood of finding a restaurant amidst these crumpled valleys of dust and sage. “Don’t lose hope,” I urged. “I have a feeling you guys will find something. There’s gonna be a place called The Three Sisters’ Pizzeria, or something like that.” We all laughed. We continued down the empty road, a silver ribbon of concrete laid out beneath the gathering storm. Distant rains fell in gray-blue smears. Beneath charcoal clouds, a band of hazy orange blotted the horizon. Suddenly, a huge sign appeared in the middle of nowhere, thrust into the billowing gray sky. As we got closer, we could read the words: “3SISTERS TRUCK.” We slammed on the brakes and freaked out. Inside, the dingy smoky restaurant/bar was packed, but we were miles from anywhere and there were few cars parked outside. We feasted on microwave pizza and Eileen and I drank red box wine, all of us wondering whether this place was a figment of our imagination. After the meal we went outside so I could snap a picture of them beneath the sign.
We got back on the road, the darkness lit up by occasional flashes of lightning. Soon we reached I-25, and they pulled off in a small town with a truck stop. I was sad the ride was over. Having taken me 160 miles through South Dakota and Wyoming, bought me pizza and wine, taken me to exactly where I wanted to go, and left me with $40 they wouldn’t let me refuse, they all got out and hugged me and drove away and left me outside a rundown gas station in the warm Wyoming night watching their taillights disappear over a hill and feeling on top of the world.
I made camp in a little clearing on the hillside across the street from the gas station, tucked away in the tall grasses. I stretched out on my sleeping bag and sighed. The air was warm and the grasses rustled around me in the breeze and the sky was chock full, the stars were like lightning bugs trapped in melting candles.