Day two. (95aug27)MINNESOTA: "The State Unworthy of Sarcasm"
95aug27 2:30am CST
We stop at a lonely Texaco station for gas. The windshield has racked up an impressive array of bug juices and smears. If only there was some more humane way, but...no.
"I'm just sitten here wacken - some call it jacken"Next to the gas station is the "Happy Chef" restaurant. There is a large statue of Happy Chef guarding the building.
He's about 18 feet high, and is holding a large wooden spoon in his raised right hand. His demonic grin signals his secret desire to smash the tiny heads of his restaurant clientele. As we leave after taking some comical photographs, I watch him out of the corner of my eye in cold fear. I bed down for awhile, leaving Scott to drive. We've discussed this arrangement; Scott likes to drive, I like to drive, but I like to write and sleep even more, and Scott hates being a passenger. As he's driving through the heart of Minnesota, he suddenly starts shouting.
"Here's the home of Spam!"Secretly I was pleased; unfortunately, there was no Hormel Spam-smell wafting through the dead Minnesota air. While I fade back into doze mode, Scott spots a big "Jesus is Lord" neon sign attached to a radio tower. At 3am, we arrive at a Minnesota rest area. For some reason, this rest area has been named: "Blue Earth." It looks like a cross between Frank Lloyd Wright and M.C. Escher after you've thrown out the good bits. It also has Muzak(R) pumped into the bathroom and a useless observation deck. From the deck, you can see a lone non-denominational radio tower.
We pull into another rest 25 miles from South Dakota. No Muzak. There's a nice standard playground for the kiddies. Sure, it won't win any rest area awards like Blue Earth, but function over form, I say, unless form is "cheesy" and function is "none." Because we've decided to blow our Big Late-20's Physical Endurance Wad early in our program, we do a quick driver switch, putting me at the wheels of steel. The tremendous bug slaughter continues unabated.
SOUTH DAKOTA: "Try Our Thick, Creamy Billboards"
There's the routine Texaco gas-up in Mitchell (MITCHELL!). We've been driving for twelve hours straight now. A few hours later, we both cop a nap at a tiny rest area. Accidentally, actually; I don't think we had any intention of sleeping an hour at a rest area.
The sunrise brings with it a spectacular view of rolling hills and Very Old Billboards. Some of these billboards are actually tractor trailers; roll it up to the side of the freeway, paint it, let sit for thirty years, and watch the text date poorly.
kids! watch the blasting of Mt. Rushmore "Multi-image" -- side of tractor trailerThe billboard population is growing. I personally enjoy these hand-painted pieces of art. There's something about seeing type that isn't generated by computer that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Hey, you've got your own weirdo ways, too. A friend of mine recently saw a television special featuring the dying breed of artisans who have mastered this craft, according to their testimonials, by getting completely boozed up. Warm and fuzzy.
Rushmore-Borglum storyThe billboards for the "Rushmore-Borglum Story" have portraits of Gutzon Borglum in a cocky Fedora-like chapeau with clean lines, wearing a jolly "man-of-the-world/spy" suit; a pamphlet for the attraction shows the photograph that inspired the portraits. Borglum is in work clothes, and for crying out loud, Gutzon, get that shabby excuse for a hat BLOCKED! Gutzon started working on Mount Rushmore when he was sixty years old. Maybe I'll see it before I turn sixty, but for now, we're passing on Gutzon's masterpiece.
The Badlands are 119 miles away. Baddie baddie baddie! Strange billboards for some tourist attraction called "WALL DRUG" press quotation marks into improper service.
"HAVE YOU DUG" WALL DRUGA few miles later, we spot our first first "Think" road sign; these pepper the South Dakota land, in remote, inaccessible, and random spots along the side of the freeway.
THINK! Drive SafelyDuring the course of the day, Scott became completely obsessed with them, and with each passing one, his curiosity was fueled into something more than proper. Are they markers of unfortunate automobile accidents? In Michigan, we have a variant of this in which people place flower wreaths/crosses (not road signs) at the site of a car accident. Some of these markers are freshened for years with frightening regularity. It's a nice pick-me-up as you're coming home from work. I've thought about making a more positive combination of the two, like a bunch of flowers arranged into a smiley face. "Two more miles of road construction..."
Triptik: I-90 traverses broken, rolling rangelands, with livestock ranches and farms interspersed throughout the route. I guess you can only say "boring" so many ways.As we bear down on the West end of South Dakota, we run into more billboards. That's all there is to the state, actually. The East side of South Dakota advertises the West side.
SIX FOOT RABBIT - WALL DRUGThere is also an obsession with the phrase "told by." I can't figure it out. Was this a phrase in the 1940's? Instead of "As told by" or "As read in" or "Them's good readin' in"? Actually, I recall one of the billboards reading "TOLD BY USA TODAY," so there goes that whole 1940's theory. Scratch it. Beyond one of these billboards is a huge field of kick-ass naturiffic sunflowers.
A rest area has a large plaque describing Vivian, a railroad town three miles West, which was named after the wife of a Milwaukee railroad representative. This was standard procedure back in the heyday of explosive railroad expansion. Towns didn't grow along railroad lines; the company built cookie-cutter towns a predetermined distance from each other, named them, and seeded them with volunteer settlers. Most railroad towns' prosperity was and is tied to the railroad's success; those towns lucky enough to have two competing lines running through sometimes grew into cities. Vivian wasn't so lucky.
Following side roads in, we used the four-story grain silo to guide us to the ailing heart of Vivian. The silo hasn't been used in ages. There were other small buildings, shacks, and modest dwellings scattered around a half-mile square area; the residents follow that most hallowed of rural living habits, leaving the appliances/mechanical things outside for the Rain Gods when they quit working. The whole thing really was quite depressing.
Another South Dakota rest area, with a bunch of them new-fangled infra-red toilets. Using space-age technology, these toilets provide the ultimate in user convenience by flushing immediately after you sit down. Or, just before, during, and after. Or continuously. Or not at all. So many choices, tailor-made for your own unique bathroom experience. Collect them all! And what's with all these comically-named toilet supplies? Surpass toilet paper? Rest Assured toilet guards? One more "ass" product, and I can build a brick wall behind me and get my own HBO special.
We push our SUV clock back an hour to 9am; this is Mountain Time Country. There is the occasional restaurant dotting the side of the freeway. Some of them have a buffalo pen, and a large billboard looming over the beasts: "BUFFALO BURGERS!" Travelling over a hill, we're surrounded by scarce farmland, then suddenly, billboards! It's a good crop this year.
KIDS LOVE WALL DRUGI've grown weary of prairie dogs. I let my guard slip and utter my disdain. [Special warning to animal lovers: the next sentence contains a graphically explicit scene of fictional animal abuse. I've had numerous high-level discussions with the ASPCA concerning this very sentence, and I've been given the green light. I remind those viewers with weak stomachs to turn away from your monitor now.]
"I think we should get a prairie dog, krazy-glue its feet to the roof and see how long it lasts."
The Ranch Store is at the edge of the Badlands, and has an open/free prairie dog range. MMmmmm, free-range prairie dog... We approach a prairie dog with splayed limbs (the dog, idiot, the dog!). When Scott pulls out the camera, it hops up, as if to pose. Snap shot. The prairie dog now resumes limb splay. For this, the simple, backwater prairie dog is my new hero. Maybe we should get one (and krazy-glue its feet to the roof! AHAHAHAHAHAAAA! Sorry).
The Wall Drug billboards are coming fast and furious now. At one time, Wall Drug billboards were in every state of the union, thanks to the relentless efforts of Wall Drug founder Ted Hustead; then in the 1960's, Lady Bird Johnson began the Highway Beautification Act. Down came the billboards, except in South Dakota. Why? The Chairman of the South Dakota Transportation Commission is Bill Hustead, Ted's son.
FAST FOOD WALL DRUGWall. Drug. Wall Drug. You can see how one would be washed over with waves of desire. "Hmmm, I've been thinking...Wall Drug." The most interesting of all these signs, however, is the one that reads "a touch of class WALL DRUG"; behind these words is a HUGE pink triangle. Heh, heh heh. I betcha the sign painter never told them coots at Wall Drug what that really meant. At this point, we became stuck behind a slow-moving SCHWING 1200/42 concrete pumper. You really have to appreciate something that big and lumbering with the word "SCHWING" plastered on the side of it in foot-high type.
SCHWING - WALL DRUGWall Drug is, appropriately enough, a drug store in Wall, South Dakota. Wall Drug is also one of the most twisted displays of niche marketing in the United States. A failing mom-and-pop establishment in 1936, Wall Drug exploded into present-day tourist sainthood by offering thristy travellers free ice water via Burma-Shave style signs. Ice water? Now Wall Drug serves 5,000 glasses of free ice water a day. The cafe seats 520. There's a museum inside. A chapel. An art gallery. A six-foot rabbit (SIX FOOT RABBIT). A 60-foot dinosaur. And so on. And so forth. The panoramic cowboy orchestra will haunt my nights. Cowboy art (art by cowboys? art featuring cowboys? art featuring/by/liked by cowboys?). Free donuts (DO-NUT) for almost everyone except you; hunters, skiers, honeymooners, missile crewmen, Korean War veterans, and eighteen-wheeler truck drivers. Scott and I were going to pose as honeymooning truckers (four DO-NUTs), but lost our momentum as we approached the cafe counter. Wall Drug is cowboy overdose, and it makes me all itchy. Saving grace: cattle brands. I like brands. They've documented hundreds of brands, all over the walls of the cafe. If I hadn't been nauseous, I would have studied these more intently. We got our ice water and some DO-NUTS, hit the ATM, and got the hell out.
[begin confusing past-present-past tense section]I had Scott take a picture of me at Wall Drug, hiding behind an awning and a post, sort of like when you get your picture taken with relatives you hate.
We leave Wall Drug at 11:00am, having spent 15 minutes inside, surely some kind of record.
Just before exiting the state, Scott stops the SUV right next to one of those "WHY DIE" signs and beats it to death. No, I just took some pictures. Evidence of another culture, far different from ours, and the way they respond to the vagaries of fate WALL DRUG.
WYOMING: "One of the fifty!"
Our entry into Wyoming is peppered with observations of cattle gates and not much else. Cattle gates aren't really gates at all, just a hole dug in the road and topped by steel bars. Cars can pass over with impunity, but the hole freaks out the cows ("moooOOOOO!"), and they will not cross. This enables ranchers to have roads travelling through free ranges, save the occasional cow carjacking.
Sundance, Wyoming, is not where Robert Redford's annual Sundance Film Festival is held, but it is the birthplace of the Sundance Kid. For tonight, it's just a nice little town with our motel for the night, the "Bear Lodge." There are no other guests here. We agree to take an hour nap, and head out to Devil's Tower.
Three hours later ("What? It's SIX?"), we hit the road. The landscape consists of rollicking rolling hills topped by sharp clumps of trees. The road in is quite curvey and every so often we lose sight of the tower ("Tower? Do you read? Over."). The road cuts through the hills at some points, exposing a rich vein of deep-red rock.
Triptik: I-90 crosses rolling, interlocking rangelands devoted to livestock. Views of Devils Tower National Monument, 30 miles distance. Area noted for deer and antelope, but the hell if I've seen any.There's a big ole' canyon off to the right side of road; engaged by its haunting beauty, Scott almost pops a wild prairie dog with the SUV. Devil's Tower Junction is six miles out from Devil's Tower proper, and consists of three trailers and a restaurant. We ramble by, feeling the pull of the Tower.
Devil's Tower is the United States' first national monument, and certainly the strangest. Formed by an ancient volcano, Devil's Tower sat around for about 60 million years, reading comic books and whatnot, until the Indians came up with an alternate, far more confusing origin for it.
"Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and his feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear came after them. They came to the stump of great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper." -- Devil's Tower informational pamphlet, National Park Service/U.S. Department of the InteriorThen there's the derivative tale in the Cook County guide to Devil's Tower.
"One day, an Indian tribe was camped beside the river and seven small girls were playing at a distance. The region had a large bear population and a bear began to chase the girls. They ran back toward their village, but the bear was about to catch them. The girls jumped upon a rock about three feet high and began to pray to the rock, 'Rock, take pity on us; Rock, save us.' The rock heard the pleas of the young girls and began to elongate itself upwards, pushing them higher and higher out of reach of the bear. The bear clawed and jumped at the sides of the rock, and broke its claws and fell to the ground. The bear continued to jump at the rock until the girls were pushed up into the sky, where they are to this day in a group of seven little stars (the Pleiades). The marks of the bear claws are there yet. As one looks upon the tower and contemplates its uniqueness, it isn't hard to imagine this legend as fact."Rock, tree stump, Pleiades, Big Dipper, doesn't matter, those chicks became STARS, baby. Devil's Tower was used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an alien ship's landing pad. Throughout the movie, Richard Dreyfuss relentlessly constructs various miniature Devil's Towers, once out of mashed potatoes. Finally, discovering the source of his inspiration, he hightails it on over to the Tower, and then climbs it to the top. Here, reality and art separate; the walls of Devil's Tower are sheer rock. It was believed to be unclimbable until 1893, when William Rogers and Willard Ripley made the ascent with a wooden ladder. That is, they hammered boards into the side of the Tower; you gotta love that Amerikun ingenuity! The ladder was later removed...after they got back down, of course.
What's on top? Critters!The main trail around Devil's Tower is a 1.3 mile gently-rolling hike. There's a rattlesnake warning for a second, longer trail, but not for the main trail. There seems to be a very localized rattlesnake population here.
"please leave prayer bundles/prayer blankets untouched"
The trip around the Tower reveals a mess o' rock at the bottom. The last significant boulder dash occured 14,000 years ago, but smaller rocks occasionally break loose. Scott and I remain ever vigilant.
There are four people climbing amongst the rocky base today, and two more descending the steep side of the Tower. They appear to be the size of ants, but we are not fooled. The nice people at Devil's Tower have rigged up a steel pipe-and-solder telescope to pinpoint the remains of the first makeshift ladder.
As we reach the starting point of the circular trail again, we're fortunate enough to see the entire Tower lowered into its underground base and topped off by two mammoth steel plates to ward off enemy attack. Hunger overwhelms us as we leave Devil's Tower, and we stop at the first viable restaurant, some six miles away. Scott explains his desire to order mashed potatoes and pull a Dreyfuss. This could be a photo opportunity! The diner is a small place, and we enter at 6:55pm. The woman tending the counter appears to be dismayed; we sense she wants to close up the place. A man (her husband?) greets us with smiles, and seats us. There are no mashed potatoes on the menu. Scott's dreams are dashed to the ground. I'm reasonably confident there aren't mashed potatoes on any menu within a fifty-mile radius of Devil's Tower. I order a cheeseburger, and Scott orders a chicken sandwich. We discuss my latest amazing restaurant idea, "Sections."
"You could order anything you wanted on the menu, in any fraction you wanted. Say, one-half a cheeseburger, and one-half a chicken sandwich.""Sheer brilliance," I read on Scott's face.
The population of Sundance stands at 1130, and at least two travellers. We hit the motel's spa, and cruise Sundance, which lasts all of twenty minutes. The motel's cable TV offers us a riddle: who are these women riding this piece of exercise equipment? Why is there no voice-over? What's with the constantly changing themed sets/costumes? Geishas, bikers, cowgirls, etc., all riding this health contraption. Ten minutes later, the true nature of the HealthRider infomercial is revealed. Shame on us.
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