Archive for July, 2011


July 26, 2011

Elevation: 3022 ft

Welcome to Idaho! Behind the state sign, stunning mountains covered with blue and green fir trees criss-cross the sky. Our stopping place for the night, Coeur d’Alene, turns out to be a resort town punctuated by a large lake.

Pulling into Discount Hotel, two girls block our way, bicycling in one of the few available parking spots. What a place to bring up kids! I think. The elder girl grudgingly gives in to our car and declares, “My mom owns this place.” Indeed. Their front door on the first floor stands ajar, and the run-down contents spill into view.

The father of the family, ear-pierced and tattooed, operates the front desk. $86 for a room, high by Muncie standards, plus a $50 deposit that might not be refundable. I object. The man asserts that people drive all over town, but cannot find a better price.

An hour later, we amble back—head tucked between our tails. Every recognizable hotel chain in town has booked up early for the weekend. We lumber up the stairs, where a bunch of rough looking guys hang out on the balcony to smoke. Later, to dislodge the discomfort I feel, I speak to them. Turns out they are part of a bachelor party. To provoke kinship, I tell them we too are on our way to a wedding. Apparently, their groom is well on the way to being inebriated. Great! I think, We’ll be up all night.  Emily’s thoughtful fiancé, James,  would never endeavor to become stinking drunk before his wedding; it seems to be about regret in this case.

To my surprise, a large, clean room greets us cheerfully, boasting large beds and fresh scented sheets, a microwave, refrigerator and extra sink. We sleep extraordinarily well. Don’t hear a peep of bachelor party shenanigans. In the morning, a modest, but tasty breakfast bar awaits us in the lobby: bagels, English muffins, cream cheese, cereal and fresh coffee. Our hefty hostess, who reminds me of the many persons I have worked with in poverty situations, possesses a pleasant demeanor. I express my appreciation for the room and later also speak with the husband and tell him how wrong I had been. The place offered a superior experience to Motel 6 or Super 8 and supports a family.

Our trip underscores a few lessons for me. Among them, my own prejudice. My ability to continue to grow and take risks. A discovery of deep anxiety and phobias—claustrophobia in the tent, my fear of heights that completely defeat one ride up a mountain. My ability to depend on Molly. My ability to depend on myself. My ability to take a great tumble and walk away with minor abrasions. My ability to invent quick fixes or make substitutions: a towel sun shade, shampoo for laundry detergent, bean dip for sandwich spread. In other words, besides the scenery and the chance to be Northern-bound one last time in a rattling car over great swathes of the country with my dear daughter, the road trip affords me the chance to pay attention. Great job!

The last five or so hours roll away quickly. Clouds, blue sky and mountains adorn our way, and we eagerly anticipated the treasure at the end of the road–Emily and James. And a good shower.


Little Big Horn

July 23, 2011

ivingston, Montana Mileage: 1597.68 miles Altitude: 4656 ft

Yesterday, we surveyed the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Nothing but rolling grasslands, wildflowers, hills empty of buffalo, and a couple of cemeteries. Tourists walk soberly without being instructed to do so. Sorrow and waste define the endless horizon. I  hear the pulsating hoof beats. The Seventh Cavalry riding to their doom. A hundred arrows twang; gunfire pops. A deluge of Indians flood Custer’s troops.  The soldiers, given the order, shoot their horses. Pile them deep for a last ditch attempt to create a defensive barrier.  The nomadic way of life ends for the Arapahoe, Lakota, Cheyenne and Sioux. Eloquent and true–Sitting Bull describes the finish of his world:

When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?

Today, the quiet runs deep. Waste and wonder fill the basin.

Later in the day, we visit the pictograph caves in Butte Montana. Warnings for rattlesnakes all around. Light scribbles, barely discernable, scratch the surface of the interior cave-rock. When conditions are right, the ranger tells us,  90% of the pictographs can be seen—the stain runs deep.

Things not written about:

From the road–a bull, swabbed white with brown, grapples to erect his great girth to a standing position amid a pool of black cows on green grass. My one-room cabin opens to a pancake pavilion. Tables cheerful with flowered tablecloths. Yellow-shirted staff, coffee urns, and batter wait expectantly for morning campers. Molly beams over a monument of maple-syruped pancakes, big as her plate. A frame and grand wood beams—twinkling, strung with white lights.

Seeing fathers, younger than I ever imagined, carry sleeping children, loft them to squealing heights in swimming pools, listen to the Hey-dads! of children delight in their fathers’ presence. My panic attack over the heights of a drive up to a fall. Molly awestruck over bison, one with a black tongue and pink center, licking his lips. Soggy carrots, mildewed hummus, The stars through the eye of trees at 3 am. Arsenic water. An iron bull twenty feet over the plains, in the middle of nowhere. Such non-monumental moments punctuate our road trip

Two Aces & Two Eights

July 21, 2011

Crazy Horse Mileage:1,403.67

The day before yesterday, we viewed Crazy Horse carved out of a mountain initially by a crazy man, Korczak Ziółkowski, who worked alone and refused federal funds. The mountain resembled very little until ten years after his death. Most of his ten children and his second wife carry on the legacy, most of the work accomplished in the last twenty years. Finally, a stone face, colossal enough to carry the four faces of Rushmore, glares out glumly from the mountain side and draws in over a million visitors a year and their money. The original model, designed by Ziolkowski, owns a slightly different visage, which communicates an unconquered spirit. His chin tilts more upward, and his mouth is a firmer line.

I cannot help but think this change occurred because the original designer wasn’t around to oversee the project. The perfectionist designer of Rushmore blew off an entire face of his mountainside and started over—although he possessed funding and crews of workers. Still, Crazy Horse dazzles the imagination. Apposite stone glitters amber–quite different from the white-granite hue of Rushmore. I would like to revisit the work in ten years and see if the face of Crazy Horse’s stallion flares his nostrils.

We pushed on to Deadwood. Knocked out by the heat, we spent the greater portion of the day in our hotel room, the historic Bullock Hotel. We enjoyed a fine guitar player sing songs and tell stories about the history of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, the next day we’d visit their graves, where there was an elegant bust of Bill.

The guitarist brought Molly up to the front for no apparent reason other than the fact that she is a pretty college girl. After five we ambled through the streets of the scenic mountain town, where Wild Bill Hickok got shot in back while playing poker, holding a hand of two aces and two eights, “Dead Man’s Hand.”

That night I prepared to lose twenty-five dollars in the casinos. If I won twenty-five dollars I thought I would walk away. Trouble began when I was winning. Instead of walking away with eighty dollars and playing again the next morning, I got greedy. Imagined winning two hundred dollars. Instead, I lost thirty. Walked away then, but the lost money clouded over my winnings. I recognized this train of thinking engenders the roots of gambling fever. The next morning, I played at the Gold Dust. I planned only to gamble with five dollars so I could clear with $50, but I purchased twenty-five chips. I walked away this time with a two day winnings of $101. That’s the hard part, walking away. Last night when we pulled into our KOA camp and it cost $60 for the night, I wished I would walk down the block of Deadwood in the morning to Black Jack. Good thing I am a state away from South Dakota, otherwise I might be going the path of Wild Bill.

Mount Rushmore Mileage: 1,182.62 Miles Altitude: 4,340 ft.

July 20, 2011

Mount Rushmore Mileage: 1,1 82.62 Miles Altitude: 4,340 ft.

I woke up to the sound of rattlesnakes. Several signs had warned us about poisonous snakes in the area and admonished tourists to stay on the paths. The first rattle slipped peacefully through my dreams like the morning hawk overhead. The second rattle shook me wide awake. I jostled Molly. She said, “Yes, but they’re out there [outside of the tent].” A definite turning point in life, when the daughter comforts the mother and turns over to go to sleep. Later, I realized the rattles really emanated from some rodents high in the trees, probably chipmunks, unzipping morning salutation to the sun.

The day took the right turn with all-you-can-eat pancakes. Then, we headed up to presidents, early enough to avoid the crowds. Check mark off my dreams-to-do list. Initially, the idea man, Doane Robinson, had wanted Lewis & Clark, Red Cloud and Wild Bill Hickcock. That surprised me. Also, the carver had a much grander vision than was completed, he wanted more of the presidents’ bodies and suits, a flat inscribed panel in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase down the mountain with significant events, and a cavern inside the mountain with a description for generations to read, like hieroglyphics, into the eons. Dissatisfied with the first Jefferson head, he blew it off the mountain, and that left no room for the panel. However, some panels were placed into the cavern, the entrance of which he had carved.

The heat ripped through the mountains, so we returned to our camp. Molly napped. I caught up with All My Children, swam and afterward capped the afternoon with a dark ale.

In the evening we hiked near Rushmore. The rocky, horse trail was not good for pedestrians. I fell hard, and cut my hands and elbows and scraped my knees like a six year old. Quite a jolt, a snake in the grass after all.

We viewed the evening Rushmore show, a somewhat saccharine spectacle, allowing Americans to bathe in patriotism, which seems like the right place to do so. However, I thought the issues of slavery and extermination of the Indians were whitewashed. For example, the words “dramatic reduction of the native population” seems to be a rather generic phrase for genocide. Funny that the little show was the only rather garish display.

The monument itself is dignified and beautiful, including the memorial walkway leading up to it with the flag of every state attached to a pillar marking it year of statehood. Lovely to watch the clouds overhead, the shadow of a hawk crossing George Washington’s forehead, and a tear of sunlight reflecting off the check of the president in the afternoon or the glowing four faces in the evening.

Mount Rushmore Mileage: 1,1 82. 62 Miles Altitude: 4,340 ft.

July 18, 2011

Bad Lands 100-105 degrees. Beautiful mounds of pink, yellow and beige silt for as far as the eye can see. Even a short walk proved enervating to say the least. I hiked down between some of the wedges, just to stand in the brief ledges of shade. Quiet and humbling. Molly’s awe and joy in her first experience with this kind of landscape made my day. May I walk in beauty each and every day.

Then, we wandered up to Wall Drug, the opposite of the Badlands, but wonderful in its bad way and kitsch. While the corn palace under whelmed us, Wall Drug surpassed our expectations—just like million miles of billboard signs announcing its impending arrival. Rooms of cheesy souvenirs greeted us: plastic cap guns, gemstones, baby clothes, plastic dinosaurs, as well as restaurants, tourism information, galleries of art, a bookstore, donut factory, ice cream store, and an actual pharmacy. In one hallway a giant tyrannosaurus rex raises up on its hind legs every 20 minutes “to feed” and give the small children a thrill. Outside a water garden revives kids and give parents a break; there was even a giant piano playing gorilla, and more stores. However the best room, between two packed stores–empty of the hustle and bustle, is a narrow chapel. Only one person sat in the pews, an atheist singing, “The Lord’s Prayer.” Clean, cool, brightly paneled with a simple stain glass window above the altar, the chapel houses good acoustics and peace. Three cleansing breaths for an infidel-visitor who appreciates irony and mythology.

We sped south from Rapid City to find a campsite just past Rushmore. George Washington’s profile rising up out of the mountains, complicated our ability to pay attention to the road. “The heads! The heads!” Molly exclaimed trying to keep one eye on the road and another on the four faces. Smiles were exchanged. This morning we head up to the site—pun intended.

Road Trip USA

July 17, 2011

Belvedere, South Dakota Mileage: 1053. 36

Yesterday turned out to be as arduous as trying to pry a three-day, baked aardvark off of asphalt.

We did get to view the splendiferous and crazy corn palace, initially constructed in 1892.
Conceived by two men to revive Mitchell, South Dakota. Who knew it would still be the center of industry for the town over two hundred years later? Every year themed panels are redesigned and constructed to grace the outside walls. Think Rose Parade, but with corn—thirteen different shades. The theme this year: “American Pride.” Inside, panels deck the auditorium from previous years. Of course, several varieties of popcorn are for sale. My favorite designs were from Native American artist, Oscar Howe, who designed the palace for decades. I enjoyed his simple designs of Native Americans, pioneers nature and rural life. Geese. I especially liked the year of Myths and Legends. All of the walls and spires used to be covered with rye, corn or husks, now they’ve reduced the display to just the panels, but still a creative plum in an otherwise arid area.

We left. Drove west on Highway 90 for hundreds of miles with a heat index of over 100 degrees. Drove and drove. Stopped in at a rest area in Chamberlain, to view a Lewis and Clark display. I liked the replica of the Lewis and Clark’s “Expedition,” the long boat or keel. The boat comprises the mezzanine level of the rest area and extends outside where one can view a beautifully designed lodge, or teepee, polls and the panorama of the river.
After that, the only view—the Great Plains and hundreds of billboards, mostly for Waldrug. The road a straight line, the trees few. Our tempers and the dashboard steamed. I rigged a towel in the window on the driver’s side to provide some shelter from the white heat of the sun. We spent the night in a KOA cabin in the middle of nowhere. I dreamed of Louis and Clark and their impossible and crazy two and a half year trek over North America without air conditioning.

Jackson, Minnesota Mileage: 720.17 Miles

Yesterday, we started out in the Amana German Colonies. Molly asked me if I liked the place. I understood the question. We went into the Old Time General Store and walked right out. It was one of those heavily-scented stores that carry worthless minutiae: bears with glistening stars and stripes bows, lavender-chip potpourri, and items that tout gardening, cats and home. Stuff. Many of the silver-haired tourists were stout white ladies wearing capris and matching t-shirts. I fit right in. Which made me uncomfortable.

I thought, perhaps I had been unkind. Perhaps, there poets and intellectuals among the crowd. Perhaps, those with colorful or checkered pasts. My experience tells me probably not. Most people are rather common. Particularly, the white-bread Midwest. Later I heard several people gush over the grandness of the general store and the family style restaurants. However, compared to all the broken, potted out towns of the Midwest, Amana is crisp and clean. Employing some and doing well. We both enjoyed the store with the handmade quilts. I particularly enjoyed the modern one, with its cascading iridescent patterns on a black background. I purchased a ticket for a quilt raffle, a beautiful example that had taken a prize in the county fair. Holding on to Muncie, our yearly bizarre and quilt raffle.

Then we drove north to the SPAM museum and had just an hour. Molly graciously gave in to my sojourn; being a vegetarian, she had no interest herself. Some of my memories from my impoverished childhood include fried SPAM with mustard and the turnkey that opened the tin. Put together very well, the museum included films about the Spamettes and the Hormel girls, a personal letter from President Eisenhower acknowledging Hormel’s contribution to the war effort, and acknowledging the jokes about SPAM asking if so much had to be sent. There was also a Christmas letter from the founder to a group of 1,600 service men apologizing for not writing a personal letter to each and every one, which he had done for the previous two years. He also enclosed a five-dollar note each year for every man.
Varieties of SPAM in the gift store included an extra spicy hot variety sold in Guam, a Tabasco SPAM, SPAM with cheese chunks, pepper, smoked, glazed, Lite or turkey SPAM. The restaurants in town offer SPAM entrees on the menu. However, we opted for hummus and olive sandwiches and Caesar salad in the parking lot during an ensuing downpour. We drove down the road to a KOA camp, went swimming and fell into bed entirely beat. Although, for me that doesn’t necessary equate to sleep. Some slim motorcyclists woke me up this morning. Beautiful, blonde, Swede twins. One had a wife and a child. They suited up in their leathers including the young girl and zoomed away. Not the common man.

To Storey Lake, IL Mileage: 291.1
(Spelled correctly)

Last night my family privately said goodbye to IN. We stopped on the road home just at that crepuscular time of day when the sky meets the hem of earth in blankets. A thousand fireflies flicked between the cornrows as far as the eye could see back to the forest. When we got home we built a bonfire and sang songs like “Spirit of Life,” “Impossible,” “Shaving Cream” and “Moon River,” any lyrics we could remember—
especially tributes to Julie Andrews or pirates.

Today, Molly, my twenty-one year old daughter, and I drove to Galesburg, IL, on the first leg of our trip to Seattle. We had our first crisis and solved it. When we stopped in Peoria for dinner, she locked her keys in the car. Fortunately, we had my copy. Our so we thought, my keys had fallen under the seat just before leaving the car. Although Molly retrieved them, we didn’t know the actual car key had come off of its ring and was still under the front seat. Timing is everything, like when we were driving down the road and I turned to the right. A blonde boy in a straw cowboy hat was seated in his father’s lap behind the wheel of a tractor. Nice Rockwellean view. Timing. We are so delighted that AAA rocks. In an hour and a half we were back on the road, and I earned back half of what I paid for membership.

We set up camp at Storey Lake (correct spelling). Both a beautiful and symbolic place. When our kids were young and we took trips back home from Texas to Colorado, we camped at a site with the same name. We fell into bed exhausted. However, Molly says my sleeplessness, tossing and turning, tends to create epic journeys at night as well. Indeed.

To Amana, Iowa Mileage: 457.65

This morning we breakfasted on Greek yogurt and fruit, Kashi bars. Took a brief stroll around Story Lake, but found the path rather woody as we would the Black Hawk park later on down the road. Evidence of our bad economy punishing our parks and monuments. Ironically, the Black Hawk Museum is a still-gorgeous building built by over two hundred WWII vets enrolled in Theodore Roosevelt’s CCC program during the depression. Most of the original building materials like limestone are local. There was one fabulous hall with two monolithic fireplaces. The museum houses a nice bust of Blackhawk, a couple of cheesy dioramas and reading material about BH as well as CCC program. Black Hawk’s story entered American history at one of its most tragic periods. After siding with the British in the American Revolution, thousands of Black Hawk’s people were slaughtered. Some of the mounds still exist, oddly in the residential areas of the town. Just beyond the park’s hedge is a view of a huge strip mining operation. What a contrast. Symbolic. After that we visited a Confederate P.O.W. gravesite. Really just a postage stamp of a cemetery. A few hundred graves with white headstones line up for inspection. No death dates, only numbers and names. Very quiet.

From there we headed to Amana German Colonies, IL. We had dinner in one of the recommended German restaurants; however, we found it to be the quality of a German-style Bob Evans. Disappointing to say the least. It was hot, hot, hot. No shade. I stopped in the only establishment open after five, a winery. The proprietor is a loquacious man of serious dimensions. He gave me some bottled water (I was too hot even for beer) and talked amicably about the place and clued us in on some places to stay. I shelled out some cash for a bed and breakfast, also somewhat disappointing, but a bed, air-conditioning and a shower, which I need after last night’s escapades. Tomorrow we will tour the town, sample some local beer and then we’re off to the Spam Museum and Corn Palace.

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