CAR CULTURE : Your Assignment: Drive Like a Bat Outta Hell and Back : A Quick Trip Across Montana in the Age of No (Speed) Limits.

Richard Manning's last piece for the magazine was about an epidemic of trout disease in the West. His latest book, "Grasslands" was published in September by Viking

Repetition never dulls the thrill of a drive I know. It winds east through mountain valleys to top the Continental Divide, then down a tense, treacherous highway tunneled in fir forest. There’s usually ice here at western Montana’s Rogers Pass, the coldest place ever in the Lower 48. These curves can kill. A few miles down Highway 200, though, out near Bowman’s Corner, the world opens, and the way straightens. The canyons feather into plains, and the fir and pine thin to the buff grass coat of prairie. Now comes the thrill, especially now in these faster days.

At the first burst of plains, I usually punch it to 75 or so, speed limit be damned, but on my last trip, a day in December, the mountain snow squalls had swept into the plains and reined me in to a monotonous 65 for the half-hour run into Great Falls. Now comes a crawl down a four-lane strip of car dealers and C-stores, a band of dreck that rings every small American city, the same red strings of brake lights and traffic lights, exhaust fumes curling into the subzero air.

Just east of town, though, the clot thins and I see first proof that the rules have changed. The speed limit sign says 55 night, 60 for trucks. It is day. I am driving a car, but on matters relevant to my situation, the sign is silent. This borrowed car I am driving, the hottest ever to come under my licentious right foot, swoops through the belly of a long prairie draw, then crests the top of a hill where the fierce winds have pried the snow off the pavement. Ahead to the horizon shoots a straight stretch of clean asphalt and air. In seconds, the speedometer needle finds 85, where it will rest for much of 500 miles of lonesome road. Welcome to Montana.


December saw the whole nation dance on the grave of the double nickel when a federal law resurrected the speed limits of 1974. Montana, however, was alone in having a loophole big enough to accommodate a Porsche at full throttle. We had no daytime highway speed limit in 1974, so we have none now. Our Legislature meets every other year. Barring a special session (unlikely), there will be no chance to tamper with this for at least a year.

All this is as it should be.

Our roads are vacant and long. They argue for speed, and my assignment this day is to drive them to hear that logic firsthand. I do, but this is not about speed; it is about seduction.

My normal life is freighted in a Honda Civic that gets 60 miles per gallon. After this fling, I will go back to it, but today the road begs a faster date, a borrowed Saab Aero. The car is turbocharged and rapid. It is also Swedish, appropriate on the high plains in that the other side, the dour side of the national family tree, branches all around. These spawn of Scandinavian immigrants and their neighbors, the Germans, Slavs and Russians, they do not know impulse; they know wheat. They must, to survive, and they are survivors of the immigrants conned by railroad hucksters into settling here.

The land broke most of them and they left. This landscape has lost about 70% of its population of 1924. Down the line a ways, I’ll run through Garfield and Petroleum counties. Together, they are almost as large as New Jersey. They hold a total of 2,200 people.

Just outside of Lewistown I slow behind a ranch truck loaded with hay. But not by much. It is doing 80. There’s no surprise in this, nor is it an outgrowth of the new law. People here routinely run a hundred miles to shop for groceries or for a beer and conversation on a Saturday night. This landscape has shrugged off most people. Those left drive as they please.

At Grassrange, ranching country now, no longer wheat fields, the snow falls harder and begins to slick the road. Each stock truck pulls a billowing rooster tail that whites out a half-mile stretch of highway. It is 3 degrees. There is no other car in sight, but I slice 10 miles off my cruising speed of 85. Technically, the basic speed law still applies. That is, one can be ticketed for driving too fast for conditions. In the technical legal sense, Montana does have a limit, but at this moment, a ticket is far from my mind. The real limits are set by the land.


The Saab tracks through an iced-up curve at 75; I realize a mistake could cause this big heartless place to swallow me. With luck, the wreckage would be found in one of the next decade’s fall roundups.

Bob Dylan said that to live outside the law, one must be honest.

Miles pass; the road clears, and I’m back at 85 when I finally meet the law. There comes the chronic speeder’s subliminal recognition of an approaching police cruiser. My heart takes a seat a foot higher in my chest. Involuntarily, I lift my right foot. Authority. But wait. This is a new day. By the time I meet the cop car, I’m back at an honest 85, and so is he. Neither of us gives the other a glance.

Plains people distill their honesty to bluntness, and I get a straight shot of it checking into a motel in Glendive, the at the eastern end of the state and turnaround point of my assignment. A matronly type squints at the part on the registration form under “company” that says “L.A. Times.”

“You didn’t come all the way out here just to drive 100 miles an hour?”

I confess.

“You know, it’s been all over the news and everything like all we do out here is drive around and crash into each other. Well, I’ll tell you. Nothing’s changed. Nobody ever drove the speed limit anyway.”

I hate Glendive. Not generally, just on this trip. My assignment holds a particularly perverse subclause that says I will drive east across the state Montana style and drive back respecting the old law, 65 on the interstate, 55 on the two-lanes.

On the interstate back west toward Billings, I record my sentence on the cruise control. Every car passes. A Taurus from North Dakota. An old, pink-jowled guy in an Elmer Fudd hat and a Mercury. Every single truck passes, every one illegally.


Driving 95 on a two-lane pushes the mind to a hyper consciousness, like inhabiting a video game. Cruising a vacant interstate at 65 creates the Zen-trance opposite, like floating. The storm stops and the sun lights the snow that is ruffed with tawny grass. Loreena McKennitt sends an ethereal Celtic ballad from the tape deck. This driving is not fast, but it is fine.

Now there is time to explore the dash. Just below the speedometer is a bar gauge with a real-time readout of miles per gallon. My romp at 90 had sucked fuel at about 25 miles to the gallon, but floating at 65, I averaged better than 30. Wasn’t conservation the impetus for the 1974 speed limit? Since I’m an environmentalist, shouldn’t this issue trump my love of speed? Yes, but if I have forgotten this, I am not alone. Besides, conservation is less about how I drive and more about what I drive.

All of the gasoline saved with a lower speed limit has been more than consumed by a curious development. Our fleet mileage--the collective mpgs of the nation’s drivers--has dropped dramatically recently because of the popularity of light trucks. The nation’s cars average 28 miles per gallon, but cars aren’t at issue. Accountants from Santa Monica and programmers from San Jose commute in Land Rovers and Explorers on palm-lined freeways that have never seen snow. Their rigs average 20 miles per gallon, all so drivers can adopt the image of a Montana rancher. Should I slow so that some all-hat-no-horse guy in a muscle truck can cast a longer shadow in the parking lot of a line-dance bar?

Almost in sight, just north of the interstate and the Yellowstone River, is a place pivotal to the history of confronting scarcity. In 1886, William Hornaday got off the train in Miles City and organized a hunting party. He was the chief taxidermist for the U.S. National Museum and had heard that only a handful of bison remained, so before they were all gone, he wanted to shoot a few for himself. I dedicate the next tank of gas to Hornaday.

At Billings I leave the interstate for more two-lanes, and as directed, slow to an absurd 55. Ranch moms in minivans fly past and glare. A man in a 240 Z looks at the Saab, pained. Driving this car at 55 is like using a thermonuclear reactor to microwave a pizza. There is no precedent for my behavior and the entire highway is thrown into a lurch. I am the most dangerous driver on the road, and I want to post a sign in the back window with my editor’s phone number. “If you don’t like my driving, call . . . “

But I get over it and look to the horizon, often eight and ten miles distant, strung to my front bumper by an unbroken, unbent line of highway. That horizon whispers, “faster.”


It is said that we must drive rapidly through this landscape because it is boring, but this is exactly wrong. It is only boring to those without knowledge. The plains is a place in motion, and it torments those who stand still. Always, it pulls one toward the next hill. It beckons in a voice seductive and spectral. If you move fast enough, you may know her secret places by night.

The poet of this place was Richard Hugo, and that horizon reminds me of one of his lines: “The day is a woman who loves you. Open.” I forgot the poem’s title until I looked it up. It is called “Driving Montana.”

Open. And you love her back with speed.

Near Harlowton on 12, the two-lane runs dry and bright into the sun. Off to the west, snow-shouldered mountains rise. Beyond, the passes twist toward my snug valley home and toward the Civic that will drive me into a diminished future. I wish it weren’t so, but people have overrun the planet and burned up all the gas. It doesn’t matter what Montana’s signs say. It doesn’t matter what we Montanans do, because we are so few and you are so many. All of our futures are posted with limits.

Now, though, the temptation of this car and this road tug against the restraints of my assignment. True, my editor sits states away and would never know just how I spent these last few miles, but an assignment is an assignment. Right. I mean, what would you do?