Reflections on the road less traveled


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Yes, the sign says “speed lumps.” Apparently the people who make street signs in Sacramento can invent new names any time they choose.

I spent Labor Day weekend in Sacramento, Calif., helping my oldest daughter and her family move there from Minnesota.

My daughter went to college in Minnesota after graduating from Billings Senior High in 1998, then ended up staying there to work and to earn post-graduate degress. And now she’s in Sacramento.

During all her years in Minnesota, the rest of our family made the drive there way more times than we’d care to think about. And many times over the years, in the Gazette and on Last Best News, I made disparaging remarks about the drive across North Dakota. Once, my remarks motivated a resident of that state, Cynthia Auen, to write a letter to the editor of the Gazette, in which she said:

“Perhaps the prairie’s pearls have been wasted on the proverbial pig and he should have been ticketed … for traveling through a vast and abundantly gifted land while packing a vacuous character. He would do well to take time and use it, instead of slaughtering it in an effort to take the circuitous journey around his self.”

It remains the lovliest criticism ever directed at me, and I suppose it’s also true. I’m sure that if I ever took the time to really explore North Dakota I would find all sorts of wonderful things to marvel at and enjoy.

But the fact remains: In this modern world we are all too often impelled to dash madly toward our destinations, with hardly a moment to spare for anything but putting more gas in those instruments of torture carrying us across places like North Dakota.

In May, after returning from what we hoped would be our last drive to Minnesota in a long while, I wrote one final column about the bleakness that is North Dakota.

And now? Well, now I know that perhaps I shouldn’t have been such a damned whiner. Because now I have driven from Billings to Sacramento and back, and I have learned that southern Idaho and northern Nevada, in the bleakness department, don’t have much on North Dakota.

I mean, there are mountains and such, mostly barren, wind-scoured heaps of rock, and a few genuinely beautiful stretches like the miles of exposed lava flows in Idaho, but I realized that this drive, if I were to start making it regularly, would be as unwelcome as the drive across North Dakota.

I had been in southern Idaho and Nevada before, twice, but both voyages were nearly 40 years ago and I was hitchhiking, so the adventures attendant on any hitchhiking trip enabled me to more or less ignore the prevailing bleakness. I am going to have to heed the words of my North Dakota critic and figure out some way to enjoy my drives in the future.

Maybe the problem really is my vacuous character, my willingness take the circuitous journey around myself. What should I do? Books on tape? Meditation? Close-quarters yoga? Clarinet? Maybe try to set a world record for sunflower-seed consumption?

I’ll have to give it some thought. Meanwhile, Sacramento. I know it can get hot there, but during our few days in that city the skies were clear and it was warm but not quite hot, more like fabled Southern California than the Sacramento one hears about.

I think what caught our eye more than anything—and we experienced the same thing on past visits to Key West and San Diego—was the amazing variety of the foliage. Here is one of my favorite scenes, taking in both the trees and the beautiful villa:


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Many times a day I couldn’t help saying, “Now that’s something you don’t see in Montana.”

Unfortunately, speed bumps are nearly as abundant as the exotic foliage. A city traffic engineer once told me that speed bumps cannot be used in Billings except on private roads, like those inside mobile home parks. Come to think of it, though, there are speed bumps in front of Meadowlark Elementary School. That must have been a special dispensation.

But even if we did allow wide use of speed bumps, I’m sure we would call them speed bumps. The first time I ever saw them called “speed humps” was in Chicago, and at first I thought it was a typo. But “speed lumps,” as in the photo at the top of this story? Now, that’s just crazy, though it probably isn’t as crazy as this:


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

So help me God.

And don’t assume that there are differences in the traffic-slowing obstacles, variations that would justify the use of different names. I looked into it pretty closely and I think it is safe to say that speed humps, speed lumps and undulations are all exactly the same. And I never did see them referred to as speed bumps.

Whatever else you might say about the people of North Dakota, I don’t think they’d ever be so frivolous with their public works signage.

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