Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from a book project about various travels during my life. (so far) The working title is “Road Trips.”

We found a hotel in Billings after a disappointing day on the road. The Best Western Plus Clock Tower Inn was downtown, close to food, and cheap. After the long trip filled with missed opportunities we just wanted a relaxing meal and a night’s sleep. The young lady handling desk duties recommended the Crystal Lounge and Casino, which was considerably nicer and more inviting than the name implied.

In addition to the cozy atmosphere in late May Montana, exceptional food and locally brewed beer, we identified a Millennial across the bar; the first one I had seen in actual captivity, maneuvering through his natural habitat. He wore a skin tight vest, skinny, creased jeans, and a perfect handlebar mustache complimenting his neatly trimmed beard. Very ironic.

Early the next morning Shane headed for Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, our first eastward destination since leaving Pennsylvania. We sang along with Guy Clark and watched the semis fall by the wayside. The sun was just beginning to rise. Today would be long; maybe our last really long drive of the trip around America.

Pompey's Pillar National Monument by Brett Whaley
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

Following good directions to Pompey’s Pillar, our excitement increased as we neared our destination. Then we saw the most frequent sight of our trip so far. A locked gate. We were an hour early but I was determined to see the place.

Not only was it important to begin a string of positive experiences, this next landmark was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: the connecting theme of this trip, at least in my eyes. The only place with actual evidence of their presence. We headed back to the interstate in search of breakfast and to kill an hour.

Exit to Custer, Montana  by Tim Evanson
Exit to Custer, Montana

Downtown Custer, Montana resembled what I imagined every Old West town would look like today. A scattering of nondescript businesses competed for space with gas stations, state assistance agencies, abandoned buildings, and casinos. Half the streets remained unpaved. A few hitching rails still remained.

We drove aimlessly, looking for anything resembling a restaurant or even a Seven Eleven. Finally a two story building that appeared to have used the same architect as the Flora-Bama appeared. On the roof was a two-tiered neon sign in bad need of repair; otel on top and afe beneath it.

Red Lodge Cafe by Mark Kaletka
Red Lodge Cafe in downtown Custer

A scattering of beat up pickups out front seemed welcoming so we parked. The place was dimly lit and half empty. There were a few cowboys and a few Indians and a few others. Several nodded as my two sons and I walked inside. We found a table to the right and relaxed.

A counter in the center of the room and the smell of brewing coffee overpowered everything else. We decided to stay if only for that. A small man wearing an apron appeared from behind the counter with a couple of plates that he delivered across the room from us. He was tethered to an oxygen mask. The attached hose wound through the tables and back behind the counter as he disappeared again.

A large cowboy in faded Wranglers and worn boots appeared from behind the counter and began walking from table to table offering coffee. He served each of us, dropped off some containers of creamer and said, ”Pop’ll be over in a minute.”

I headed for the restroom, trying, and almost failing, to maneuver around the hose that wound around like a creek through the western prairie. In a minute or so Pop did just that and asked for our order. We agreed on gravy and biscuits. Biscuits above the Mason Dixon Line are always suspect but the gravy had to be good, we figured.

A nervous tourist family walked in, looking for restrooms. Their concern for killers, bank robbers, or wild savages caused them to turn immediately and leave; reestablishing the vibe of the place before their appearance.

Everyone in Pop’s appeared to be involved in physical labor, except for us. There was no evidence of prosperity, and I wondered how tough life was for these people; white, brown, and red. But no one was complaining, at least not this morning. In a few minutes I understood why.

The biscuits were homemade and delicious and perfect. The gravy was expertly cooked with small chunks of sausage swimming throughout. We made short work of our breakfast; already behind schedule and the sun had barely cleared the horizon line.

As we headed to Pompey’s, Guy Clark serenaded us with a song about an old gunfighter living in modern times.


Image Credits: Pompey's Pillar National Monument by Brett Whaley; Exit to Custer, Montana by Tim Evanson; the Red Lodge Cafe by Mark Kaletka; – each of these images are from flickr/Creative Commons.

Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.