The Great Beyond 

Out the window and into the world.

The 9:30 meeting with Tom was supposed to be about the claims-service brochure. Should it say "24-hour response" or "same-day response"? Is the Boise office just an office or is it a Claims Service Center? What's the central theme in this piece?

Tom's office is way up on the 17th floor, with a big view of the city: freeways, river, trees, cars buzzing around. He says you get used to it after a while -- just the same city, over and over -- unless something big happens like bad weather or a wreck or a big boat coming through. He says sometimes it's so sunny he has to close the blinds so he can see his monitor.

The meeting starts as they all do: I ask, "How are things?" He says, "Busy, as always." I follow up with, "Good busy?" On cue, he says, "Suppose so, yes, better than having nothing to do." Me: "Nice view you got up here." Him: "You get used to it."

But before we can get into the agreed-upon subject matter, discussed in the agreed-upon way, just another guy from communications mining a vice president for key phrases and up-to-date claims statistics, Tom strays from the script. He looks out the window, sighs, and says, "I guess I'm not really back from vacation yet."

"Where'd you go?"

This is the part where he starts talking about taking the kids to the beach or visiting one set of grandparents or another. Instead, he says this: "My brother and I went on a road trip to Montana."

What happened to the kids? The wife? Their pictures are right there on the desk.

"Nope, just me and my brother. It's something we always wanted to do. We both have families and jobs, and we haven't been together, just the two of us, since we were kids, probably."

"So, where did you go?"

He smiled. "All over!"

All over a trip without plans, a roaming committee of two without an agenda other than going "all over" compared to, for example, a family working up a plan beforehand or two guys in a corner office talking about a claims-service brochure.

Tom was leaning forward in his chair now, smiling, waving his hands as he talked, the sound of wonder in his voice. "We would be driving down the road and see a sign that had something interesting on it, and we'd just go check it out! We didn't know where we'd spend the night or what we'd see or anything!"

He was using phrases like "beautiful country," "see forever," and "wide-open road," and we shared some of those roads. I know the east side of the Flathead Valley along the base of the Swan Range and the little burger stand whose signature sandwich is called the "Flathead Monster." I know what Bitterroot Valley looks like from Missoula, and I know that little hill north of town where all of a sudden the Mission Range pops into view.

Technically, our hometown has things we've never seen before, but we bury them under layers of assumptions and stereotypes. This part of town is scary, that one is lame, that state park is boring. But listening to Tom and gazing out his window, the forests across the freeway seem somehow connected to the forests of the Bitterroot. The river wasn't just something under the bridge but a great drainage, drawing water from mighty mountains to a distant sea, connecting those of us on its banks to all the places in between. The people in the cars weren't drones going to a job they didn't like: They were travelers.

Tom was saying how he and his brother had always meant to do this trip, that it was one of those things on the List. His joy in having done it now was obvious. Even if the trip hadn't gone well, they could at least chalk it up to trying. But it did go well. They wandered the land together and came back filled with wonder. Sometimes the simplest acts turn out the best: Pick a partner and a direction and hit the road.

Ah, but then there are claims-service brochures. The things we do for money. Tom and I had to return from the roads of the Rockies to the crush of the cubicle. We had, after all, work to do. There was a moment -- at least I felt it -- in which we were still on the remembered road yet faced with the brochure. In that moment, the brochure stood exposed for what it was: the price of trading in our time. I'd love to be in Montana right now, but there's this brochure, these bills, the e-mails ...

We took a breath, let Montana go, and got to work. Even now, just a few days later, I'd have to check my notes to see whether we picked "24-hour" or "same-day." But if I close my eyes or look out the window with just the right frame of mind, I can definitely see Montana. •

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