The world was massive gray, shrapnel tore across the plains and a fierce wind pummeled my van. I should not have been on the road; I pressed on anyway. Driving the Chief, one of the least aerodynamic vehicles ever made, in one of the worst wind storms in recent memory, was like wrestling a cinder block through a churning river; I was battling a beast. The torrent of air rushed past and around us, it nearly tore my door off its hinges, it shredded my weather stripping, it gripped and wrenched my sky-lights, as it divided itself into ever smaller demons that crawled and climbed over my hull. I felt like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Wind has no visible form, but betrays its shape depending on the surfaces it blows over, or what it carries with it. On the Missouri River it was a roil of white-caps; across the grassy plains it flattened into a undulating frenzy; in dust it rose into howling curtained walls. Whatever form it came in, it felt sentient, it had intention, it was daunting and powerfully beautiful. I gripped the steering wheel with two hands, squeezing extra tight when a rare big rig barreled past, compressing the air and rain into a blinding blast that nearly threw the Chief off the road.
According to the radio, gusts were between 70-80mph, hurricane force. I don’t remember ever having been in such ferocity. Not in Haiti when I hunkered down in the fragile tent cities to wait out a hurricane, not in Belize when a young local and I swam huge seas to rescue an unmoored catamaran, not in an Australian typhoon when I brazenly challenged strands of lighting atop a boulder on Magnetic Island. This unobstructed juggernaut of the Dakotan plains was far worse.
Only a few days earlier, when I dropped into South Dakota along a black road, the day sky gift-wrapped blue, in a beautiful dome that seemed both limiting and limitless, tied with golden ribbons of sun. I’d been warned by Dakotans that there was nothing in this area, that I should just drive through it. But there was, an absolute sky presiding over a slight roll of amber hills, and the flatness between sometimes filled with small ponds which absorbed the heavens into waters that opened into blue worlds of their own, offering mirrors that were really doorways.
The first town in South Dakota was Belle Fourche, the self-proclaimed geographic center of the country (accounting for Alaska and Hawaii). For me this was also the edge of the West, an area that, after nearly 10 months on the road, was once again becoming familiar. I was nearing places I’d been before, many years before, like Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, Deadwood, the Badlands, and Devils Tower –a pop-icon from Johnny Quest and Close Encounters. But the tower was in Wyoming and I was supposed to be concentrating on South Dakota this week. It taunted me, just over the border. I swerved to make a bid for it, a cross-state hijack that would save me time when I returned to Wyoming in a month. Zig-zagging with the Belle Fourche River, it lead eventually to the monolithic tower where we shared a perfect sunset, and after the bridge of night, an equally marvelous dawn.
South Dakota re-welcomed me at Spearfish, a border town and entry for a scenic route through the Black Hills. The Chief and I paralleled narrow hard-charging rivers on US-14 to Deadwood, escorted by tall pines and golden aspen-cloaked cliffs, cliffs whose faces were sometimes so sheer, the weather shattered them to rubble that filled the deep ravines.
In true American fashion, my family station-wagoned the area when I was 5. My mother recently emailed me pictures of the trip, including one of my sister and me riding on a Deadwood stagecoach. I remembered the old brick buildings that were still there, but the stage coaches were gone, a runaway horse and litigious America, erased them. Gambling had crept in and slot machines populated a town that sold T-shirts and shot glasses. Kevin Costner’s restaurant was emblazoned with Dances with Wolves memorabilia. I ordered a whiskey and imbibed the friendly tips of bartender John Tobin, who suggested micro-breweries worth visiting along my future route.
The cemetery clung to a steep hill above the city, a terrestrial home for Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, who asked to be buried next to him, even though they barely knew each other. Notoriously, Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head at a poker game, after having been in town only a few weeks. His murderer claimed vengeance for the death of his brother. Sympathy reigned, the locals called it an even exchange, and Bill’s shooter was acquitted, only to be picked up again in another town for bragging he’d outdrawn Wild Bill. Not quite as lenient as the Deadwood juries, the killer was hung. It turned out he didn’t even have a brother.
I recollected from my youth the sparse grass and the hill’s slope and the city below the shifting headstones. The graves were much nicer and the trees taller than they were nearly 40 years ago. Gambling revenue had provided the funds to encase the graveyard occupants in rectangles of cement, preventing their bones from creeping down the hill. Bill’s bones were secure, so I invited his ghost back for a drink.
The Ghost of Wild Bill.
The sun dropped and the shadows grew long until they engulfed the old streets. No. 10 called my name, and I responded, sitting at the saloon with sawdust on the floor, and faces, all dead, animal and human, hanging from the walls. I ordered more whiskey and toasted Bill, shot at this very same bar before it relocated from down the street.
I also toasted a young couple who’d gotten engaged an hour earlier. The suitor had lacked courage, so he palmed the ring to the bartender with instructions to propose on his behalf while he excused himself to the restroom. He returned to a wife-to-be. We drank jovially into the evening until he grabbed another man’s drink and drained it, only to find himself on the floor after a stout shove. Blustering, the fiancé staggered up and the men involved bumped chests, insults were thrown along with un-landed punches; the bride-to-be cried their special day shouldn’t end like this. Soon, with the bouncers’ aid, the yelling was bustled outside into the night. The chaos seemed appropriate for the saloon, just another stories added to the specters collected here.
Rapid City wasn’t far and a couple of recent friends were holed up on a hotel rooftop overlooking the city. From the van I called Donna and Kathleen whom I’d met in Medora a few days earlier. They’d known each other and traveled together for many years, but this was their first solo road trip. After divorces, grown kids, and international adventure, they were exploring the Dakotas together. I arrived at the Alex Johnson to a bottle of wine and a fire-pit that soaked in our conversation.
I crashed that night in my van on the streets below. A gorgeous dawn draped over the statues of U.S. Presidents when I awoke, the only other figures on the streets that early, and according to my tourist pamphlet, a primary attraction for the town. Among them were Nixon, brooding and dour, Jimmy Carter with his goofy smile, Reagan in his cowboy hat, and Clinton holding a microphone, each frozen eerily at street corners, waiting for the release of Aslan’s breath. Donna and Kathleen let me shower in their room and helped me when the Chief wouldn’t start. I’d left the lights on again, and despite their best efforts, had to call AAA.
More frozen Presidents peered from Mount Rushmore about a half hour away, just as inspiring as they were when I saw them back in ’76. Their size seemed undiminished though I was twice as tall. They were awesome. A trail circled below, allowing me to gaze at them between rocks and trees, framed by yellow leaves as the sun ascended, eliciting their almost sad expressions. They knew perhaps that long after we’d finished ourselves off and gone, they would bear witness to the world, at least until the glaciers reformed then unformed, grinding them too into dust.
Flags representing the States marched to the site. New Mexico caught my eye immediately, I was born there. There was also a poster alerting tourists that Thomas Jefferson wrote the first known ice-cream recipe in America. A gift shop offered paper-weights, polished stones and bobble heads, and an old man signing books he’d authored about the monument. Without looking up, he signed whatever paper slipped beneath his thin hands.
Needle’s Crazy Cave.
When cars pull over, I pull over; there’s a reason. Usually, it’s an indication of danger or something interesting. This time it was a mountain goat, white and erudite, gnawing at the grassy edge of the road. Left alone, I got quite close, and I sat with him awhile. The goat’s face was strangely human, augmented by a beard and intelligent eyes that soon asked me to leave.
Needles Drive was a wonderland of satin smooth mountain lakes, rocks rifted and creased into craggy piles, and tunnels burrowed through mountains revealing vibrant vistas beyond. I’m keeping some lakes as secrets for myself to return to.
I swooped by the Crazy Horse Monument, where from a very distant distance, one may witness his face carved from the cliff by 60 years of labor. A let down? Well, I’d say it’ll be worth another visit when it’s completed in 100. By contrast, the faces of Rushmore were completed in less than 14.
Jewel Cave was closed due to an elevator malfunction; I was sorry to miss it. The surrounding forests suffered, devastated by fires and beetle destruction. Additionally, the buffalo were gone from nearby Custer Park, collected for the winter. Almost everything in Custer was closed, including the Flintstones motor-park. The tourist season was over, the campgrounds shuttered. Three strikes this afternoon. I hoped I’d have better luck finding a place to park for the night.
My Lucky Number.
My luck changed by a factor of 13 when I succumbed to a $3 wine tasting at a street-side winery. There I met Dann and Monica, who invited me to their Lucky 13 Ranch up near Crazy Horse for the night. Used to taking in strays, they’d also accrued a herd of goats, a wayward lama, a bunch of cats, and a man from Venice Beach who was living in their luxurious RV. He’d tragically lost his girlfriend, and needed a place to clear his head. We ate ribs and talked politics and relationships. Dann and Monica met a few years back on a trip to Thailand; they’d been together ever since. Originally planning to tour the U.S. in their awesome RV, they fell in love with the Black Hills. In nearby the Sturges Motorcycle Rally, they stumbled on Lucky 13 Ranch at auction and bought it on a whim.
Morning light ignited the tree-tops when I left; I would be heading east. Dann suggested a stop in Hill City which had interesting art. Then I was off, breaking free from the Black Hills on a sprint to Wall City, down the multi-laned interstate dominated by roaring rigs.
Against a Wall.
America is defined by its signs, and long ago we erected many of these enticing announcements along stretches of common road and later Eisenhower’s National Highways. Weathered signs of Wall Drug kitsch lined the entire route, designed to ensnare kids and their parents, as well as offering free coffee and donuts for honeymooners. What would Wall have for me?
I stared down at a buffalo-chip Frisbee and rubber horse-shoes, and was thankful they provided a map through this maze of curios. I sought refuge in the diner filled with a formidable western art collection and coffee for 5 cents per cup. A large round man with a thick country accent held court in a booth. He talked and talked to a pair of bored elderly women. I swallowed my last bit of burger along with his last bit of conversation, “Hell, she talked to her dog just like a person. If I ever get like that take me outback and shoot me. I guess once you get old and lonely you’ll talk to anything.” He fell silent when he realized I was eavesdropping. I grinned a goodbye and headed outside.
Greyness had descended on the world, accompanied by a misty rain and darkness. These conditions called for cover and a snack across the street. The Debate was on; I convinced the bartender to change the channel, few patrons bothered to glance up from their suds as the politicking dragged on.
The Great Wind began that night at the campground, bellowing against the Chief, rocking him on his tired moorings. I curled into fetal position in my sleeping bag, surrounded by the deep red carpet and the stomach rumblings of wind; I was back in the womb. As night progressed, I burrowed deeper, leaving a only small hole for air. I needed a snorkel.
If you don’t have to hack a desperate existence from the soil, the Badlands are amazing; their blended colors were furrowed by an inland sea that dried and departed, leaving buttes that huddled against the thrashing wind. The hills, unruffled by the aggravated assault of the skies, epitomized staunch patience. Big horn sheep clustered along the roadside and narrow canyons. When the sun briefly broke through, I spied one standing majestically atop a parapet overlooking the valley. I got out of the car and watched it for a long time. Growing up in the Southwest, the landscape felt like home for me. It also provided a convenient hiding place for weapons of the Cold War.
A Minute Man Missile Museum lies just beyond the park’s exit. Here you can visit a decommissioned missile silo and watch a movie on the development and deployment of the Minute Man II, capable of reaching the Soviet Union in a half hour. A twist of two keys by two soldiers pushing two buttons detonated a launch in minutes, thus guaranteeing enemy destruction even after a first strike. Comforting.
The Great Wind.
When I left, the wind was behind me, propelling the van past fields where it rolled bundles of hay like sections of asevered caterpillar. Barbed wire fences became catchalls for tumble weeds, some of which flew through the air to disappear into the impenetrable dust.
I turned east at Philip, heading toward Pierre, the State Capitol. T-bar ranch signs cut creative silhouettes against the storm. I crossed the embattled Missouri and detoured onto an island before pulling into McDonald’s. A customer confided he’d passed me on the way in, and marveled at the heroic struggle of my brick-like van. He was visiting his son for a few days and curious about what I was doing so far from California. I explained I was on a walk-about for Good.
Yellow ribbons encircled the columns of the Capitol Building, closed for the evening. I parked the Chief at Walmart under a brilliant bloody sky. Truckers in their big-rigs surrounded me protectively, shielding the van from the worst of the storm. The store employees said they’d never experienced a wind like this and moaned that it was supposed to get worse. The next day it did.
Bits of everything marched in processions of dust a hundred feet high across the road. I passed old farm houses with blown-out glass, cows running blindly across the fields, the blasted metal of rusty cars. Damage was everywhere. The grass heaved in surreal waves of shredded granular spray. The Chief rode on a bleached bone sea. Sometimes there were little island towns with shuttered white churches, sometimes military convoys, resolute and serious, sailed past, marked by a stream of dual yellow lanterns. The only stillness was found in faded skeletal towers, their arms raised to exhibit man’s rebellion, holding aloft fragile electric lines. It was a road to madness. I pictured somewhere out there, in the storm’s dark heart, a Conradian Kurtz summoning the world to him.
My life-line was the Rob and Tom radio show which cut-through my isolation, a one-sided conversation that provided welcome distraction…George McGovern died, the girl shot by the Taliban wished to return to school, Newsweek’s last paper issue would be published in December. The voices were weak and disembodied, a counterpoint to the ferocity outside. I was in a capsule; I could have been listening to dispatches from the moon or another era. Suddenly Rob and Tom were gone. I scrolled through the emptiness, caught a Classical Station begging for money to stay on the air, before it too was lost in static. My isolation complete, it was just me and a machine and the wind trying to dismantle us.
Corn Palace Wild.
My destination loomed out of clouds illuminated by traffic lights, its perimeter dotted by hand-painted signs welcoming hunters…The Corn Palace, surrounded by thematically consistent nic-nac shacks in the quaint town of Mitchell. Volunteers signed me in. The huge auditorium was empty but filled with tables set for dinner celebrating Pheasant Season. Diners would ogle the murals fabricated completely from corn. I was drawn to one of Mount Rushmore.
Just north, the road shined blue, leading to the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the gift shop I got a map, a pair of books, and spoke with the patron of the Oberholtzer family with 11 kids. They crowded the little store on their way to see the Black Hills. I excused myself in order to beat them to the original Wilder house a few blocks away, and rushed on again to the touristy Ingalls Wilder Farmstead, but it was closed for the season.
Reclaiming the road, I halted at a sign that read “Into the Wild”. A sheriff pulled over and shouted through the wind that it was filmed in Carthage a few miles away. Only one business was open, a tavern called Cabaret. The owners, Rich and Toni, told me about the bar’s involvement in the movie. Rich’s summation: Emil Hersch was curious, Sean Penn was gracious, Vince Vaughn…an ass.
I scored, it was Prime Rib night, and they convinced me to stay for the slab of meat that was the best in South Dakota. Other beef-eaters included a crew in camo from Texas, up for hunting season. They came every year. They agreed there was Good in America, earning me free beers and an impassioned appraisal of the wonders of East Texas.
Doubling my excitement, a few doors away, laundry facilities and hot showers were available for free. I made use of them while dinner was prepared. While I ate, I with the owners’ happy and pregnant daughter on life in Carthage. Her parents, after 10 years, were interested in selling the bar. Toni invited me to sleep on their couch to avoid freezing cold, but I figured they’d get out late and I was tired. Darkness, especially with the cloud cover lasted until almost 8am; I got over 10 hours of solid sleep. Lumbering on to Sioux Falls, huge grain elevators and silos designated villages on the way.
The Falls Count.
Thankfully, the wind had let up, but the cold had not. Falls Park presented a series of beautiful waterfalls and churning piles of foam that whipped and swirled like sudsy clouds of soap. A local woman said they were due to fertilizer run-off from the farms. Trees with large roots stabbed into the rock around the falls, and still-green swards of grass led to a tower I climbed. From there I could see a humble downtown and big cattle stations. I strolled the city blocks, noticing graffiti scrawled over a brownstone wall, “Our votes count for nothing,” Nearby was an historic marker announcing the hanging of an innocent man. It felt like a Frontier town.
South Dakota is a bridge welding different parts of the country, part of the zipper that held the east and west together, but containing distinct traits of both. I was ready for Nebraska and curious of the discoveries another bridge State would bring. Extreme heat I handled over the summer. Extreme cold I was ready for. I just hoped to be done with the wind.