Once upon a time, I decided to leave Los Angeles and take a road trip with a friend from Tulsa, Oklahoma up to Missoula, Montana. We would go through Kansas, and Wyoming, see the middle of the country, and hopefully meet a cowboy or two.

I’ll be honest with you: what I expected was a lot of beautiful scenery and a bunch of conservative politics. Instead, what I got was a reminder not to be a judgmental asshole, and a lesson in the fact that everybody has something to teach. Here are some of the folks I met in my travels:

The Cowboy: When I said I wanted to meet a cowboy, what I meant was a man who works on a farm or a ranch, wears Wranglers and Stetsons, and has callused hands. In all my years living in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, you might be surprised to hear that I had never happened upon such a specimen.

I didn’t have to wait long — Fletch the cowboy turned up at a pool hall in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one of our first stops. I’m a little embarrassed in hindsight by the squeal of delight I gave my friend, who also happens to be named Jessica, upon seeing him, but Fletch graciously ignored me, took a seat at a booth across from us, and ordered a beer.

I tried to ignore him and simply be happy for my good fortune, but after a while Fletch ambled on over to us and joined our game. We played pool for a good 30 minutes, and I barely spoke a word because I was so nervous. By the same token, he barely spoke a word to me, and I just assumed that was because he thought I was ridiculous in my $150 jeans, red lipstick and what I was certain was self-conscious, city-like behavior. I clearly wasn’t cut out for farm life, and I figured he could sense that and didn’t want to waste either his time or mine (it’s also possible that he wasn’t looking for a wife that particular evening, but that’s not how I read it at the time).

After the game, Fletch nodded and thanked us, Jessica and I finished our beers, and shortly thereafter we scrambled out of there. But as we pulled our car out of the parking lot, ready to head back to our hotel, there was Fletch, standing outside the pool hall and watching us drive away.

Perhaps I had read him wrong.

The Self-Proclaimed Redneck: Another night, another stop-off in Wyoming, and Jessica and I found ourselves in a big, well-lit karaoke bar. We were ordering drinks and listening to a man in pajama pants sing the best rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” that I had ever heard to his wife, who was also in pajamas.

As he crooned in a deep baritone and we sipped a couple of Coors Lights, a young woman in a black tank top and another in an oversized game day t-shirt readied themselves at the microphones. When the last strains of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” faded out, they were replaced by the hard-hitting country-rock chords of a song by a woman I now know to be one Gretchen Wilson, musician.

The song begins: “Well, I ain’t never been the Barbie doll type
No, I can’t swig that sweet Champagne, I’d rather drink beer all night…”

By the chorus, the girls were screaming:
“’Cause I’m a redneck woman
I ain’t no high class broad
I’m just a product of my raising
I say, ‘hey ya’ll’ and ‘yee-haw’…
Let me get a big ‘hell yeah’ from the redneck girls like me, hell yeah”

As I listened, I felt that I was being given a direct message. After all, “redneck” isn’t exactly a term of endearment where I come from, but yet here it was, being reclaimed in the heart of Wyoming — this song, it occurred to me, was nothing short of the Slutwalk of the Midwest.

The Stripper: Let me preface this by saying that I’ve clocked my fair share of hours at strip clubs, so I put a lot of stock into how my fellow peelers across the country see the world. In fact, one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Montana was to visit Shotgun Willie’s, a nudie bar in Billings.

Just south of interstate 90, Willie’s is a neon oasis in a long stretch of lonesome highway. Trucks filled the parking lot, and an imposing wooden door seemed not to be intended to be pushed open by two giggling  girls.

But inside — in what would otherwise have been nothing more than a dingy dive bar — it was as if every single trucker, along every repressed politician, preacher and housewife had bundled up their sexual energy and unleashed it right there on the stage.

To our left, fully nude girls swung back and forth from some approximation of monkey bars going across the ceiling. Customers lay down on their backs and the dancers dropped, spread eagle, on top of them. One girl stuck small pieces of wood through her pierced nipples and lit them on fire. Jessica and I eventually agreed to get what the locals called hostage dances, in which we were handcuffed to poles and then subjected to public lap dances.

To be clear – we were in the middle of God’s country. Big Sky. Home of Jesus Camp. And we were being smacked in the face by naked breasts while bound to stripper poles. We were halfway through out trip and I would never again assume anyone that I didn’t know was boring, tame, or least of all, sexually inhibited.

The Bull Rider: By the time we reached our final destination of Missoula, it’s safe to say that my mind had already been blown. So once we finished watching the rodeo we were there to see, then happened upon some bull riders and agreed to accompany them to a bar, I wasn’t particularly moved by the strangeness of the situation.

What I was moved by was what we would find out about these two men.

One had a name I’ll admit I can’t recall, which is odd because he was the same one I talked to most of the night. It probably was overshadowed by his friend’s name, which happened to be Lim. Lim and my new bull rider buddy made the rodeo rounds together; they traveled and sat on bulls and tried not to get thrown off. My friend was 33 but looked 43. He and Lim, he said, had known each other since they were kids.

After a few beers, he opened up. He had some trouble with his wife. He was trying to forgive her.

“Forgive her for what?”

“For sleeping with Lim.”

There it was.

“He’s still your best friend?”

“Yes. I’m learning to forgive him, too.”

From there on out, the trip was kind of literally downhill, except that it was just down. We drove back through Wyoming to Colorado, where I caught a flight back to L.A. I haven’t been back since, but then again, I’m not sure that I ever completely left.