Little did I know when we started out on this hallowed journey toward Valhalla we'd wind up face-to-face with a mama Grizzly, defending her cubs who just happened to find the beef jerky in our now-clawed-open car just as satisfying as we did. Apparently Lola had done little to satiate their hunger earlier in the night when we discovered she'd gone missing on a routine potty break. With J wielding a hatchet behind me, the Grizzly now charging toward us with her snout wrinkled and teeth bared, I gripped the hunting knife in my white-knuckled hands and....
Got your attention yet? Good. Cause none of that happened although it would have been sweet if it did. Ditto if we had found ourselves in the path of some giant tornado, J, Lola and I strapped to a random pole on a Kansas farm by nothing but a leather belt, Twister-style. But that didn't happen either.
We encountered no killer mosquitoes, vengeful bears or creepy toothless truckers (okay, maybe a couple) on our "Ain't Nothing Wrong With Freedom, Man" Trip Across America (a name we borrowed from a Dennis Hopper line in Easy Rider). In fact, for such an unplanned cross-country jaunt it went surprisingly well, save for a slight...situation...near the South Dakota/Wyoming border. But even that was more funny than terrible (to me, at least. J: not so happy.) With that, here are the highlights of our journey:
After two days straight of driving on the road, taking turns sleeping while the other drove, fatigue began to set in somewhere in Iowa around midnight. And of course we happened to be on one long stretch of freeway that had NO exits for what seemed like a hundred miles or so. Just the road in front of us, dark cow pastures on either side. I could barely keep my eyes open. "Must...get...to...South Dakota..." I murmured, as exhaustion continued lulling my eyelids closed. J kept yelling at me to stay awake until we could pull over but after a while his yells were useless against my fatigue, so we switched places in the cab like a deranged Cirque de Soleil trapeze act while our truck roared down the freeway. I know what you're thinking and in hindsight I don't recommend anyone attempt this, but the alternative was either a.) die in a horrible truck accident by falling asleep at the wheel, or b.) die in a horrible truck accident by parking our vehicle on the narrow highway shoulder and risk getting hit by one of the many passing Big Rigs traveling at speeds of 85+ mph. Seriously.
When we finally found an off-ramp we pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of some hybrid truck stop slash dive bar. (There was nothing else around.) Nestled between parked Big Rigs, we pulled out our sleeping bags and climbed into the front seats of our Hyundai on the tow cart. The air reeked of cow manure and the smattering of semis parked in the lot had their engines running all night for what I think was air conditioning in their sleeping cabs, but I'm not sure. All I knew was that after two days of pounding hundreds of miles of pavement, all I wanted was a few hours of sleep beneath my polyester sleeping bag. As terrible as it sounds it was actually fun. I'd finally become a nomad.
During our second night in Iowa we drove through a town called Sac City and though it was all closed up for the evening, it was fascinating. Sac City is a sleepy little village only a few blocks long, built next to a two-lane thoroughfare that winds through the center of Iowa. There's a small high school (or K-12, I wasn't sure), a community center, a post office, a convenience store, a few charming storefronts selling antiques and other oddities, and a handful of locally owned eateries. Most driving through would probably find it un-amazing but something about it intrigued me enough to comment out loud that I'd love to come back and stay at a B&B. Someday we will go back.
Our first "real" stop -- meaning we actually hung out for a few hours in said place -- was Mitchell, South Dakota, home to the infamous Corn Palace. "How hokey," you might think. "A whole palace made of corn?" Yes. And it's phenomenal. It's not entirely made of corn anymore, though I think when it was first built it was (imagine the popcorn potential in such a place!). Anyway, while the Corn Palace was delightful I was even more intrigued by Mitchell itself. Mitchell was and is the kind of community Norman Rockwell painted in all those Saturday Evening Post covers. We wandered in and off the main street and were greeted with warm smiles from locals as they went about their daily business. Even stopping in a local coffee shop was fabulous -- the barista and cashier were genuine, happy and hospitable. It was a nice respite from what we'd grown accustomed to out East. I'm delighted that this kind of town still exists...the kind of place where everybody knows your name.
Next stop was Badlands, South Dakota, where we set up camp for a night. Badlands is a peculiar but stunning national park filled with craggy stalagmite-looking rock formations in the middle of the Dakota plains. Once inside the park it feels like you're on the moon. It's barren, solitary and captivating. The winds had picked up by the time we pulled our tent out that afternoon and it was high comedy helping J set up everything while 30mph winds whipped past our faces and gear. J tends to lose his patience in situations like these so I have some hilarious pictures of him as he struggled with pieces of tent that ended up wrapped around him like a superhero cape. Of course, it didn't help that I was howling with laughter as I continued taking pictures of his plight. He's such a lucky man to be married to me. ;)
The next day after Badlands we stopped at Wall Drug Store on our way to Black Hills National Forest. I know, I know, what's the big deal about some old drug store, right? Well, everything, actually. This particular drug store takes its name from the town of Wall, South Dakota, where it's located. Wall used to be known by locals as "the geographical center of nowhere," until a guy started Wall Drug Store and saved it through the Great Depression by using an advertising gimmick of offering "free ice water" to any customers. To this day Wall Drug still serves free ice water and 5-cent coffee (along with a plethora of cheesy South Dakota tourism merchandise and some of the best homemade fudge I've eaten in my life). Wall Drug is known around the world because of the hand-painted wooden signs that advertise their business globally. Apparently there are Wall Drug signs promoting free ice water in places like London, Kenya, and even in the Paris Metro. The more you know.
Later that day we cruised into the Black Hills National Forest near the South Dakota/Wyoming border. Herein is where our story takes a turn for the ridiculous, kiddies. We were uber excited as we drove past the ranger entrance. After all, the Black Hills are home to some fabulous sites: Mount Rushmore, Jewel Caves, the old outlaw town of Deadwood where Calamity Jane out-drank her male counterparts and Wild Bill Hickok was eventually gunned down. Oh and buffalo. We couldn't wait to see buffalo. Our plan was find a campsite, set up the tent, take the car off the hitch and use it to drive around the forest (the mountains would have been much harder to traverse in our Budget Truck). So we found a campsite and as J unloaded our gear I patiently waited, suddenly writhing like a spastic each time I'd hear a buzzing in my ear from one of the many wasps who had found our campsite just as splendid as we did.
Once J was finished he circled our car on its hitch, undoing the four chains that held it in place (two in the front, two in back). As he climbed into the car and started the engine I suppose I should have been paying more attention from my vantage point on the street because as soon he backed off the hitch there was a loud pop...or was it a crunch? I can't remember now but all I can recollect was that it was a hideous sound. An expensive sound.
"I think you bottomed out!" I yelled over the engine. But the minute he peered out the window and I watched the blood drain from his face, I saw exactly what the problem was. The left tire behind him was completely crooked, and was now turned at an obnoxious, wall-eyed angle. Apparently he'd forgotten to take the rear chains off and the left axle thing (don't you love how technical I am?) was completely bent.
The funny thing? After the initial shock wore off I just couldn't be angry. Of all places and times for something like that to happen -- Mount Rushmore was supposed to be the peak of our journey -- we now had a car that could barely move, much less make it up a steep mountain to see the Four Heads. How could I not laugh? We deliberated for a moment before I decided we should just pack up all our gear and try to see Mount Rushmore on our way out of the park that evening. The sun was already beginning to set and there was no sense staying at the campsite for two nights when we wouldn't have easy access to climb all those hills around us comfortably in a smaller car. So we left.
Mount Rushmore was, of course, magnificent and we got to catch a lighting ceremony around 9:30pm which made it even better. But by the time we pulled out of the parking lot there we were exhausted. It had been a long, hot day, filled with stops at famous drug stores and absent-minded wrecking of rear car axles. So we stopped in a tiny tourist town just a few miles down the winding forest road from the monument, but the first motel in said town cost $120 -- $120! For what looked like an inimical den full of bedbugs and tired slot machines -- so we decided to keep driving...the entire length of the Black Hills. At this time it was around 11pm and though we only had about 30 miles to get out of the national park, they were 30 miles of steep elevations and harrowing descents. Not the ideal setting for a full moving truck with car hitch.
It was silent during most of the ride, but there was palpable tension in the air. We each gritted our teeth, J behind the wheel, me in the passenger seat, as we silently hoped the truck wouldn't break down climbing one of the many mountains at 10mph, or even worse lose its brakes as we descended each 7% grade. We managed to drive through Deadwood on our way out, which was cool since it still remains an "outlaw"-style town with antiquated storefronts, saloons, hotels, restaurants and city streetlamps. I can't wait till we return and I can spend more than just 5 minutes there.
Finally, finally!, as the Budget truck was seemingly on its last knee, coughing and sputtering up the final behemoth of a mountain, we reached the main freeway and exited the Black Hills. The first town we came upon was a place called Spearfish and we ended up crashing at a Howard Johnson there (which, I should mention, had peculiar taxidermy fowl strategically placed on the walls above the check-in desk in the "lobby" if you could call it that. It was very Psycho, and I half-expected to see Norman Bates walk out from back, asking if we'd like a room and to possibly meet his mother. But there was no Norman Bates, only a middle-aged, tired-looking man with a thick Russian accent who knocked five bucks off the price of the room because he could tell I needed a break).
All I cared about was a.) taking a shower (it had been days since we bathed and though I was a trooper about the whole camping thing, even about the bugs, I couldn't wait to have access to soap and running water. Especially since temperatures had been hot the whole week. Yummy.), and b.) sleeping. That night I fully appreciated the merits of a hot shower and warm, clean bed. Too many of us take for granted those everyday things.
After we awoke in Spearfish and checked out of the HoJo we crossed the South Dakota border into Wyoming en route to Devils Tower. Devils Tower basically looks like a giant slab of clay that someone stuck in a forested area of the corner of the state. My description does not do it justice because it's magnificent. I think it's about 900 feet tall and deep grooves are etched up and down the length it, making it look like a giant bear sharpened its claws on all sides (which is actually the Indian legend about the monument). From our campsite we had a sweet view of the Tower and were even conveniently located next to a Prairie Dog town in the park, where hundreds of thousands of burrowing chipmunk-looking animals would "bark" (or more like squeak) at passing walkers and cars as they protected the openings of their burrows. Later that afternoon J decided he wanted to hike up around the base of the Tower, and though it was hot I trudged along, climbing to an elevation of probably around 300 feet, which gave us spectacular views of the land down below.
That night at Devils Tower it rained. Luckily our tent was waterproof but sometime after the rains stopped it began getting cold. Butt cold. The kind of cold where two hoodies and a pair of flannel pajama pants wasn't enough. I hunkered deep into my polyester Target sleeping bag, which wasn't equipped for such temperatures and would probably have been better suited as a slumber party bag on a living room floor. I remember hoping I wouldn't freeze to death sometime in the night, like Jack Nicholson did in the final scene of The Shining. All night long I'd wake up to my teeth chattering, I'd check on Lola beneath her blanket, and then try to fall back asleep as I wondered how many giant ants I'd squashed under our tent base as I lay there freezing to death.
But I survived. The next morning temps returned to normal and we packed up yet again, hoping to make it to Salt Lake City by nightfall. We crossed the state of Wyoming in almost a perfect diagonal, fighting fierce winds the entire way. J mentioned we were only getting 5 miles a gallon through most of that leg of the trip. Once we reached Salt Lake City we found a motel near the airport (we didn't know SLC at all and had no clue what area we were in, but things often look better at night). In the morning we were pleasantly amused with our surroundings. Especially when I witnessed a blatant drug deal go down at the gas station across the street around 8:30 in the morning. Oh and speaking of drug deals, I also watched one transpire at a gas station in Casper, Wyoming. My guess it was probably meth since it seems meth use in these cities is abnormally high (many anti-meth billboards dot main thoroughfares). Sad.
From Salt Lake City we blasted across the rest of Utah and the entire state of Nevada until we reached Reno. Our plan was to stay in Reno for the night but as we drove through the downtown casino area my heart sank with every block. Reno was just as seedy as people say. There were blocks upon blocks of broken down, abandoned motels, many filled with squatters and people who'd taken up residence in whatever rooms they could find. Old barbecues and car parts lay sitting outside dingy motel doors and front offices, many of these places actually advertising they had vacancies. The last thing I wanted was the contents of our truck stolen (we were, after all, carrying my three seasons of Mad Men, people), so we continued on the freeway past a few upscale housing developments until we reached a solitary resort and casino called Boomtown on a hill outside of Reno's lines. It seemed we stumbled upon a retiree's heaven. There were numerous luxury RVs parked outside and we were by the far the youngest couple on the casino floor. This I could handle. For $50 we got an excellent hotel room and had fun that night listening to a live motown band and gambling with a few dollars at the slot machines. It was a very Hunter S. Thompson-esque way of ending our cross-country roadtrip. Fear and Loathing in Boomtown.
The next morning we crossed the final state line and within 4 hours were home. Throughout our trip pounds of beef jerky were consumed, along with copious amounts of fast food and the occasional slurpee for good measure. And we even got to see a couple buffalo in South Dakota. All in all, it was an amazing trip.
I was going to post photos but this has become a novella, so I'll throw up photos in a pictorial essay in a day or two. I know I've been blogging erratically but once we're settled I'll be back to my normal blogging routine.
Oh and in case you were wondering, J just fixed our car (how I love being married to a man that knows cars.) The part was only $60 and his labor was free. Score. It took him 6 hours to get the two bolts off (they'd completely rusted through because of the DC humidity), but once they were off it took a mere 15 minutes to put the new piece on. I helped out, true to form, in a fabulous new floppy sunhat and heels, as I sat in the shade and kept him entertained with rousing conversation. Again, he's a lucky man.