I didn't set out on a mission of benevolence when I agreed to go on the trip to rescue the 2 tigers and the bobcat. I guess there's a degree of satisfaction as you help animals in distress but this also seemed to be about the camaraderie and coming together of friends to accomplish a task. We set out with 6 people, 2 vans and 2,000 miles ahead of us--4 were unpaid volunteers. What started out to be a straightforward trip turned out to be about so much more.
It was about midnight and my driving shift was coming to an end. Along my 11 hour drive I kept thinking about my current personal situation. After 18 years of working for the same company it was over. My leaving seemed rather uneventful after such a long time of mutual loyalty. It didn't end the way I had though it would but over all I was really thankful for the opportunities they had given me. My focus shifted to what lay ahead both literally and figuratively. We were just south if Casper, Wyoming and the winds were gusting around 40 mph. It doesn't seem like much, but in a van that sits high and doesn't have a low center of gravity, I could feel sudden jerks on the steering wheel every few seconds. At times it seemed as though the van would simply tip over. If I killed my friends they would be really pissed off at me. By the time I had arrived in Casper, my knuckles were as white as my legs during the winter, and my wrists were as tight as a size 10 foot in a size 8 shoe. It's was starting to rain and sleet. The forecast was calling for a 40% chance of snow the rest of the way. Snow? It was like 80 degrees last week in Dallas. Boy, I was so thankful my shift was over. As we pulled into the gas station the snow started coming down even faster. We made our respective trips into the store for a midnight snack and a potty break. We gassed up and headed out again. At this point I was riding shotgun. The snow was coming down harder and we were treated to a strange visual light show. As we were driving straight into the oncoming snow, our headlights lit up the flakes. They looked like thousands of strands of silly string being hurled right at us. Once they hit the windshield they melted or were swept up by the fast moving wipers.
Eventually the snow stopped. That gave way to a brilliant full moon that lit up the rolling hills. The ground was covered with snow and the sky was mostly clear. You could see thousands of twinkling stars despite the bright moonlight. I was a bit worried about attempting a rescue in bad weather, but for now things were calm. We'd driven all day and most of the night and we still had a ways to go.
I fell asleep for a while and woke up to a stunning sunrise. The hills were covered in snow as we were leaving Wyoming and entering Montana. I wish we could stop for a moment and take it all in. But we were in a time crunch. We had been driving for 24 hours and we still had 6 more.
As we came over a hill, in the distant morning light, we saw a snow covered mountain range through the haze. Hovering just above the mountains was the dimly lit remnants of the full moon. As we all noticed this breathtaking sight, Stephen radioed the van ahead to pull over as soon as possible. He knew this was a moment to capture. They let me get out to snap a couple of pictures. I thanked him as I crawled back into the van.
We drove ahead another hour and stopped in Billings, Montana, and had a proper sit-down breakfast. The energy drinks and coffee were wearing off. Everyone was showing signs of fatigue but we were still in high spirits. On we went. We drove though Bozeman, Butte and Mussoula. Just north of Mizzoula we went onto highway 93 and then to highway 200.
We were now in God's country! Now I know God doesn't play favorites but surely he comes to this little part of paradise when he wants to relax and take in the beauty of nature. We were 100 miles away from Noxon, Montana, our final destination. The highway ran parallel to a river and a set of railroad tracks. They occasionally cross-crossed each other as they adapted to the mountainous terrain. The scenery was breathtaking from here on in.
Along the way we had to reduce speed as we passed through sleepy little towns. After traveling a constant 75 mph, it was a huge ordeal to slow way way down. Unfortunately we didn't slow down enough when we were going through Plains. The Montana Highway Patrol pulled us over for going, get this, 33 in a 25 mph zone. The trooper stated as much as he was looking at Mak's drivers license. He noticed the sign on the door and asked what we were doing. We explained our mission to rescue cats. His demeanor suddenly changed. We took the opportunity to blame our excessive speed on Ken, the driver of the other van. We told the officer we were only trying to keep up. The lead van stopped a ways ahead since we had been pulled over. The officer looked at the van ahead then said he would go talk to the other driver. As he got out of earshot we all busted out laughing. After a few minutes the trooper walked back to his cruiser and returned with a printed warming. He said to watch out for the upcoming towns that had similar posted speed limits. He thanked us for what we were doing. We thanked him for giving us a warning and went on our way.
We followed the winding road another 70 miles. The mountains seemed higher and the trees taller. I was taking pictures but it was hard to decide where to point my camera. At this point we knew we were close. A nervous silence swept the van. We followed the lead van closely as it finally turned onto a driveway just off of the highway. After 1,950 miles we had finally arrived. Stepping out of the van was a huge relief. The drone and rattle of the van was suddenly replaced by a peaceful silence. In the distance you could hear a woodpecker pecking on a tree and the occasional bird chirping as they flew by. The calmness was only broken by the occasional truck that would come rolling by on the highway.
We were greeted by a woman who introduced herself to us. She walked us down the gravel driveway to another older woman who was sitting in a wheelchair. She said "This is my mom. She doesn't have a voice box so she can't speak loudly." We took turns introducing ourselves. The older woman had short silver hair and a gentle face. She greeted each of us. She seemed a little bit nervous but generally relieved that we were there. She was trying to say something as several trucks were passing by on the highway. I bent over and listened closely. She whispered to me, "Thank God you made it. Thank you for doing this". I looked around at the beauty of the surroundings a felt like I should be thanking her.