Turning Nineteen in Montana and Canada

June 30th, 2011


Chocolate cake, fried in a saucer, and stabbed with fast melting candles. 🙂 A perfect road birthday.


There are many ways to celebrate a birthday. When you were a child, your parents agonized over, planned, and threw you a party with all your friends and a clown, or so the sitcoms claim. When I was young, I converted my birthday (June 30th) to a Halloween Party (October) for a reason I can’t quite remember.


A little older, and you and your friends are planning cruel lists of who gets the invite and who gets the cold shoulder until your parents find out and invite everyone in your class.


As you got older and entered those years when everything is embarrassing, you made a decision: to party, or not to party? Perhaps you turned your back on birthdays of your own, either ignored or refused to celebrate them, and only barely tolerated your parents asking you what you wanted.


The Montana Rockies, at an "Interperative Overlook." Still not quite sure what that means.


Or, you embraced the party. You used your birthday as an excuse to throw the biggest party of the year, steal your parent’s beer and wine, and have a grand old time. More likely you fell somewhere in the middle, or did not think quite too much about it at all.


Then you reached your later teens, and instead of making cruel lists of invitees and rejects, your parties generally either became small gatherings of friends or family, or required police intervention and a trip to the hospital. This, I imagine, continues through college.


Then, once in a while, you have a birthday so absurd it merits a blog post. Sometimes, it is the night before your birthday and you’re sitting on a picnic bench in a tiny park in Eureka, Montana with your ex-girlfriend and her little brother. He is cooking fried chocolate cake, she is telling you that the whole town is coming to celebrate. You have ferried them through Amish Indiana, through the Pennsylvania hills, across the Dakota Plains, and up through the Montana Rockies in just a week. Your little tents sit on the banks of an abnormally fast river in a four block mountain town that is, just now, discovering fiber optics.


My tent is the big one.


Tomorrow morning, you are driving to the Canadian border to drop them off for a 2400 mile mountain bike trip. Then, they are biking away. You are left next to the border crossing. The American side has cameras everywhere, spikes to tear your tires, and more yellow poles than seem remotely necessary. The Canadian side looks like a routine E-Z Pass highway toll. You wonder what will happen if you walk to Canada…



When I left New York on June 23rd, I had gone 5,800 miles on my road trip so far. I had budgeted for 6,000. Now, I have traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wyoming and Montana. My car has been stuck in a ditch and pulled out by a friendly farmer. My nineteen year old ex and her sixteen year old brother arrived safely to begin their unsafe bike trip of the Great Divide, the longest, toughest mountain bike route in North America. They’ll go up and down the Rockies, and scale the equivalent of Mount Everest 7 times in terms of miles uphill. I am a little jealous, but not too jealous.


The beautiful Dakota sky.


Now resting at 7,700 miles in a camping chair next to Lake Frank in the far northern tip of Montana, I am nineteen. In the week before my birthday, I drove 1900 miles. “I’ll have a taste.” I said of the aforementioned fried cake mix in the foldable saucer.


I’ll have a taste. Without realizing it, I had defined both my road trip and what I imagine my nineteenth year to be like. This summer, I’m getting a taste of different cultures, styles of life, places to live, and things to do. I’ve experienced music in a way I never had before, felt the still beating pulse of the civil rights movement, spent hours listening to a voodoo practitioner tell me his story in New Orleans, tiptoed around the burden of southern history, and somehow made it to the other edge of the country, about as far from my first adventure in Titusville, Florida as is possible.


Storms followed us the whole trip West, so I decided to make the best of it and try to catch a lightning strike on film. Ta-Da!


In the past week I’ve seen how a mountain man lives in Sheridan, Wyoming—a two room cabin if you are wondering—learned how to protect myself from bears, and learned plenty more than I thought was there to learn about self sufficient camping and healthy eating. Alone again after spending a week with friends for the long drive out here, I find myself on the side of a shallow blue lake with a muddy bottom that, until stepped in, looks like sand. Tall pines ring the lake in the Eureka Hills, and I spy an opportunity.


One of the things I wanted to work on during this trip was becoming self reliant, so why not try? Instead of driving right away, I think I’ll spend a few days here cooking for myself, amusing myself, and sleeping out under the stars (and watching for grizzlies, since this is their territory.) A great idea? Only time will tell, but as my friends on bikes are headed south, I think I’ll stay right here in Eureka.


The Canadian border! Hope those guys don't come after me, eh?


…Nothing happens when you go to Canada. In honor of myself and my birthday, I cross into Canada on foot to a little Canadian duty free store. I treat myself to maple sugar candies, a little moose, and wait…


“Employees are happy to serve anyone over nineteen” reads a sign next to the duty free alcohol aisle. Nervous, I scan the aisles until I find something small. Yes, a bottle of Canadian royal scotch will fit in my back pocket. I take my scotch, my moose, my candies, and my license up to the counter. The Canadian Citizen checks me out, without looking at my ID.


The birthday gifts I gave myself, complements of Canada.


My first legal bottle of alcohol and she does not even look at my ID?


I thank her, leave the store, stuff my presents to myself in my pockets and walk back across the border. Safely back in America, I get in my car and drive away. It occurs to me that I did not pass through customs either direction. I realize later that before noon on my nineteenth birthday I have become a wanted man in two countries. I think I’ll keep that bottle of scotch unopened forever, a memory rather than a beverage.


The US side of the crossing. Am I allowed to photograph this?


An unusual birthday certainly, though not yet over by any means. Good though, in its novelty and its quiet.


Anyhow, thanks to everyone who has sent me birthday wishes today! I cannot read them because I have no service (but internet?). If you crave more Road Trip of Passage, The Map of My Travels has been updated to include my route westward.


A teaser for some of the incredible sights I saw on the way out west. This one is called the Devil's Tower.


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3 responses to “Turning Nineteen in Montana and Canada

  1. I left you a voicemail yesterday but maybe you haven’t gotten it yet. So, Happy Birthday a day late!!! Sounds like you had a fun day. The pictures are beautiful. Miss you!

  2. Yeah. we all left voicemails but alas no service! What amazes me about the always interesting photos is the clarity of the air. Everything is so sharp. Must be wonderful to breathe such air. As I head to Hanoi I am very jealous.

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