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LIVINGSTON, Montana

We’re driving north on U.S. 89. On the left is the Bridger Range, and on the right are the Crazy Mountains. Being Montana, the sky is big.

This morning, we’re in the final day of a modest jaunt that will carry us from the Mexican border at Nogales, Arizona to the Canadian border at Babb, Montana, a distance of more than 1,700 miles.

We came to see what there was to see, and if you think choosing to drive all this way makes us a little nuts, well, you won’t be the first to think so.

What we found was a diversity of landscape and people that will make you proud of your country — and then worry about its capacity to bridge its differences.

A few blocks from the border wall at Nogales, a restaurant owner complained to us that the U. S. spends too much on “security” and too little on education.

A couple of days later in northern Arizona, a security guard explained that he loves living in Arizona because he can carry a gun. When we told him we were visiting from California, he said, “Welcome to America.”

Here were two people separated by more than a few hundred miles.

From Arizona to Montana, these are red states — as we were reminded when we saw the bumper stickers that declared “Hillary for Prison, 2018” and “Get Us Out of the United Nations.”

As best we could, we followed the historic route of U.S. 89, sometimes called the National Parks Highway. The highway passes near or through Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks — all magnificent examples of this country’s determination to preserve its most stunning natural resources. (Judging by the mob of people in Zion, we could use a few more national parks.)

You see authentic places when you drive these secondary highways. Forced to navigate the sprawl of Phoenix or Salt Lake City, you notice these urban and suburban locales all look alike — the same freeways, the same businesses, the same signs, the same architecture.

In contrast, the towns along the way rely on hometown businesses with signs bearing the names of real people. These hamlets look like they haven’t changed in 100 years.

These are not the best of times in rural America. There are fewer jobs and higher rates of poverty. But people persevere.

For the curious, each new location becomes its own reward. Why do people live here? How do they make a living? What is the name of that mountain and how high is it? Will the next generation find a reason to stay?

Forced to backtrack because the National Park Service hadn’t gotten around to re-opening the southern entrance to Yellowstone, we saw the stunning view from atop Teton Pass, and we learned more about the catastrophic 1976 failure of the Teton Dam, near Rexburg, Idaho. We saw miles of cultivated fields and learned the major crops in Fremont County, Idaho are barley, wheat, spring wheat, vegetables and potatoes.

In modern travel, Google (and adequate cell service) can be your friend.

We saw many things that aren’t like anything else, leaving us to wonder how many can there be. There can’t be any more spectacular vistas, we thought, and then we turned a corner and there was another. The word kept coming back — Wow!

In Arizona, we saw a double rainbow framed against the red rocks of Sedona.

In Wyoming, we drove out of Jackson and got our first view of the Grand Tetons. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before. It remains an astonishing testament to the grandeur of the Rockies.

The Grand Canyon at Navajo Bridge, the fortress of rock at the east entrance to Zion, the spires of red rock (hoodoos) that dominate the landscape in and around Bryce Canyon, the blocks of snow-covered mountains that define Glacier — all affirm the majesty of these places.

But there are other less celebrated landscapes that are no less glorious. We passed the sweep of desert and rock cliffs north of the Grand Canyon. We hiked the Kodachrome Basin of Utah. We drove up Logan Canyon to Bear Lake on the border of Utah and Idaho. We crossed the prairie that dominates the landscape east of Great Falls, Montana.

As you go on, you notice the most hardscrabble places too often are where Native Americans live. This was their country first, but they don’t seem to share in its bounty.

Sometimes the eccentric and the obscure add to the fun of travel. In a remote part of the Arizona desert, we came upon a memorial to the silent film star Tom Mix. (This is the spot where the first cowboy star died in a car crash.)

In Florence, Arizona, we discovered an all-purpose restaurant that offers — in big letters — “Donuts and Salad Bar.”

In Kanab, Utah, we slept in the Broderick Crawford Suite at a hotel that once hosted the casts and crews for movies filmed nearby. (John Wayne slept here, too.)

About this trip, some friends thought it was a cool thing to do. Others thought we were crazy.

There were times we weren’t too sure ourselves. At one point, my wife scanned the map and laughed, “There must be something wrong with us.”

But there were so many moments in which we were excited to see marvelous scenery and so many moments in which we saw and learned about how other people to live.

A trip like this takes you to too many generic hotels. Stay in one of these places, and you could be anywhere. But it also takes you to the Parry Lodge in Kanab, Utah, the Murray Hotel in Livingston, Montana, and McMenamins Old St. Frances School Hotel in Bend Oregon — hotels that are unique to themselves and reveal something about the history of their towns. These are hotels that come with their own stories.

I should mention that we took along our Labrador retriever, Charlie, who is — to my great regret — unremittingly adorable.

On a restaurant patio in Logan, Utah, I complained to the waitress, “Why should people like Charlie more than me?”

She looked me up and down, cocked her head and explained, “Well, he’s a dog.”

So we learned that travel can be humbling as well as educational.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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