Eastern Montana: a gigantic plate of congealed gravy. Chicken gravy. A shimmering, menacing, pale silver-yellow, begrudgingly patched with some better-off-nameless light green culture. We’re talking stubble here in this drought year, not chest-high grain. The gravy platter stretches east and west for 500 miles, from just inside the North Dakota border to Shelby, Montana (dare you to try and find it).

Friends warned us about the drive, the weeping monotony of it. I thought they were exaggerating. They weren’t. I thought eastern Montana would be simply an extension of beautiful, colorful western North Dakota. It isn’t. Past Beach or Bainville, abandon all hope.

An hour out of Bismarck, we all start watching the horizon, even though at least two of us know it’s pointless until tomorrow afternoon. It hasn’t rained for six weeks; the high western clouds tease us in more ways than one.

US Highway 2 winds thin as a knife through this curdled wasteland. Shoulderless, with steep, gaping roadside ditches. Over every tenth long, flat hill lies a despairing shack, up close to the highway. And every mile or so presents a little white roadside cross or a group of them. The largest marker we see is composed of 15 crosses. We pass a car every 20 miles (the driver invariably lifting a hand from the wheel in greeting), and the crosses—some decorated with fresh miniature plastic wreaths—beckon along the wretched landscape of the straightaway like a trail we’re doomed to follow into the ditch. These people died from boredom, pure and simple.

Slender lines of large dark hills appear and disappear in the heat like bears in a fog: once to our left, later to our right, eight and ten hours out of Bismarck, respectively. Are these the mountains? the kids ask. No, these are babies compared to the real mountains. In the rearview mirror I see my disbelieving flatland children elbow each other and roll their eyes: sure, mom, sure.

One extremely clever Montana joke enjoyed by North Dakotans, signifying the sharp angst of human isolation and, specifically, of man’s unwholeness without woman, is: “Montana: where men are men and sheep are fearful.” This witticism, a crucial ingredient of North Dakota office banter or an afterhours sports-bar dart game, is also a shameful lie: the few sheep I see on our drive west look as though they’d be grateful for any attention.

And then on the horizon, six hours past Glasgow: the feral gray teeth of the Rockies.

The affable manager of the hotel in Glasgow, where we spend our first night, tells my husband the next morning that we’ve taken the wrong route to Glacier National Park. Well, what’s the right route? Anywhere but through Glasgow, he says, not smiling. There’s a Pizza Hut and a Dairy Queen, but no Hardee’s or McDonald’s in town where we can get a quick sausage muffin breakfast to eat on the road. My husband asks where we should eat, and is recommended a truck stop in Malta, 70 miles west. (“He’d better hope the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce never finds out about him,” my husband laughs later, but I’m quite sure the gentleman is the Chamber of Commerce.) Famished, we pull into a supermarket to buy sweet rolls and cold fruit juice. Our daughter chooses some awful strawberry-papaya concoction stickier than her caramel roll, but never let it be said that my kids don’t have some fruit at breakfast.

We drive. And drive. And drive. In a fit of desperate gaiety, we sing. “It ain’t gonna rain no more, no more.” (“How in the heck can I wash my neck / if it ain’t gonna rain no more?”) We sing it faster and faster, raising the pitch a half-step each time, all of us joining in the frenzy. When we can’t go any faster or higher, we fizzle, embarrassed at our corniness; the kids look out the window, and nothing has changed: we’ve passed three mile markers. The space-time continuum is a cruel hoax; no time passes and we get nowhere. There aren’t even any license plates with which to play that stupid game. Where are the mountains? the kids ask. You said today we’d see mountains.

I offer a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie to the first mountain-spotter. That excites them for exactly four minutes; then they return to their pastimes: sleeping (13-year-old girl) and wet mouth noises (8-year-old boy: car chase, chicken, nuclear bomb). We run out of cold pop, having drunk a six-pack so fast we could all use a bathroom. The nearest one is a lifetime away. Our son is willing to use the ditch, but Jenny gives us a scorching look at that suggestion. We cross the 108th meridian and climb imperceptibly into our agoraphobic nightmare, the seventh circle of hell, where we drown as we die of thirst.

Driving home, we take the Glasgow man’s advice and follow US 200 from Great Falls to Circle. Frankly, it’s a horse apiece. This time we do the entire 750 miles in one day, leaving at 7 a.m. (our time) and getting home at 9:30 that night. During the afternoon, the landscape is so surreally tan and the towns so scarce that I exceed the legal speed limit by nearly half my age. (The fine for even such speeding in Montana is a measly $5, paid on the spot. And worth every penny. There’s another Montana joke about a little old lady who gives the nice officer a $10 bill and says, “Half of this is for the return trip.”) The kids are open-eyed but catatonic in the backseat, and nothing—neither food nor drink nor the latest Starship tape—elicits a human response. They are too bored for sleep or mouth noises or even pinching each other.

But all this week we remembered the mountains in our bedtime prayers, and two of us have been taught, I hope (and two reminded), that if God can do that. He can do anything. The most wonderful thing of all is that the Rockies are, technically, a mistake. A flaw in the earth’s crust. If life were perfect (or God less wise), we’d be standing sadly in a different kind of place.