Today was going to be a busy day. There were just too many cool places between Chamberlain, South Dakota and Billings, Montana to not check out at least a few of them.
First, I looped off the highway and into Badlands National Park. I was instantly transported to what seemed like another planet. The landscape is surreal and stunning. And to make it even more otherworldly, I was listening to Ravel’s Bolero on the radio, which always reminds me of that episode of Star Trek where Spock goes back to Vulcan. Then it switched to classical guitar, which seemed rather fitting as well.
Since I had gone off the direct route, my GPS kept saying, “Turn around when possible.” I imagine that when people explored this area for their first time, back when there was no infrastructure, their horses would have liked to have said the same thing to them. This would be brutal country to find yourself in back then.
Just as I was beginning to wonder if I was going to see any wildlife, I came around a curve, and there was a prairie dog sitting on the side of the road. And around the next curve, a bighorn sheep.
We stopped at a lot of overlooks and the dogs enjoyed walking in the mud and scaring the bejeesus out of me by trying to get too close to the edges of precipices. I took a lot of pictures. I’d like to come back here someday, dogless and with a companion, and actually hike some of the trails.
Next I stopped at Wall Drug. It seemed kind of mandatory. I’d been seeing their billboards for two days. It was cloudy and rainy and actually kind of chilly out, so I felt comfortable leaving the dogs in the van for a half hour.
Wall Drug is every bit as tacky as I anticipated. Acres and acres of tacky. You could get lost among the Mount Rushmore shot glasses and the jackalopes and have to send up a signal flare to be rescued. Yet they still got my money. I bought some postcards, a fridge magnet, and a t-shirt. The place is a tourist trap beyond belief. But I enjoyed it, actually. I’m glad I went. I recommend that everyone go. Once.
The population of the town of Wall is only around 800. I bet 90 percent of them work at Wall Drug. It’s actually a brilliant way to make a buck in the middle of nowhere. I’ve got to hand it to them. That survival skill has probably been passed down from their pioneer ancestors.
Next on the agenda was something I had been anticipating for weeks. Mount Rushmore. I’ve always wanted to see it, but couldn’t ever justify the journey. I actually thought that there’d be nothing else to do in South Dakota (silly me) so I couldn’t see myself going all the way out there just to stare at a rock. But since it was relatively close to my path, I was going to see it! Woo hoo!
And while dogs aren’t allowed in the park, I read that there was a covered area where you could park when you have pets, and it’s right next to a dog comfort area where they could do their business. I could leave the dogs in the van, go into the visitors’ center and get a much coveted stamp in my National Parks Passport, walk the grounds and take tons of pictures, and be back before the dogs even knew I was gone. That would work out perfectly! Or so I thought.
This trip had been going smoothly. Almost too smoothly.
So I drive up to the parking attendant, roll down the window, pay for my parking pass, and head into the covered parking area. And my automatic window won’t roll back up. I toggle the switch. About a million times. Nothing. Hmmm.
So I walk the dogs over to the comfort area, and think. I can see Mount Rushmore from there, if I stand on tip toe. And the full gravity of the situation begins to dawn on me. Now I can’t leave the dogs in the van. They’d jump out the window and explore South Dakota. And a lot of my worldly possessions are in there, too. People could just help themselves to the detritus of my life. I stood on tip toe and realized I was getting my only glimpse of Mount Rushmore. Sigh.
I walked back to the car, and thought maybe I’d blown yet another fuse. This vehicle is known for that. Just the other day I had to replace the fuse for my radio. So I looked in the fuse boxes. Unfortunately none of the fuses are labeled “windows”. I got in the van, toggled the switch another million times and thought some more. (Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?)
My dog Blue jumped out the window. I chased him around the parking garage. I got back in the van. I thought some more.
This window HAD to go back up. There was no two ways about it. It was getting cold. And the clouds were looking ominous. I looked on my GPS for a mechanic. The nearest one was about 15 miles away in Hill City, which was even further into the middle of nowhere.
And it was going to cost money. Money that I don’t have. I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for this relocation. And it was going to mean I probably wouldn’t get to my motel in Billings, Montana until about midnight (that is if they could even help me that day or at all). And I had to pee, but couldn’t leave the dogs.
I go to the first mechanic and the guy says he can’t help me because his guy isn’t there. He sends me down the road to Route 16 Autobody. And it’s closed. I sit in the parking lot and burst into tears. I look on my GPS, and the next nearest place is 30 miles away in Rapid City. I’m cold and I have to pee. I keep toggling the window switch. Nothing. I call my friend who can’t stand it when I cry, and I just blubbered.
And this lady walks out of the office and says, “Can I help you?” By then I’m crying so hard I’m hiccupping. She must have thought I was crazy. I told her I had driven all the way across country for this great job, and now I can’t roll my window up and I didn’t get the Mount Rushmore stamp in my National Parks Passport and I didn’t know what to do. In retrospect, this probably did not improve her opinion of my mental state.
Her husband had a doctor’s appointment in Rapid City, which was why they were closed. She offered me plastic for my window and was very comforting. I told her I’m usually not hysterical. She said it was due to the stress. I said I guess I’d have to go to Rapid City.
After I drove off, it occurred to me that I should have had her watch the dogs while I used her bathroom, but by then I was already 5 miles out of town. So I just gritted my teeth and pressed forward. About 10 miles down the road, I decided to toggle the accursed window switch one last time, and the window went up.
I stopped at the nearest gas station and rushed into their bathroom. Then I bought a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch and sat there and ate the whole thing. I will never try to roll that window down again. Ever. I HATE automatic windows!
By now I’m emotionally exhausted and still 6 hours away from Billings. Nothing for it but to keep driving. At least I’m wide awake thanks to the coffee ice cream.
When I got to the Western Inn Motel in Billings, I was appalled at the conditions. Housing is at a premium in that city because workers have come in to work the oil fields, and there is not enough accommodations for them, so the hotels know they can charge whatever they please. So this dump, which might be worth 27 dollars on a good day, charged me over 100. There were muddy work boots scattered in the hallway. But I was too tired to care.
Random thoughts I had during the long open stretches of road today:
- All this wide open space and no wind farms. Why aren’t there any wind farms?
- I don’t know what’s happening in the world. I haven’t heard the news in days. I kind of like it.
- Getaway is really kind of a hostile term when you think about it. Get away.
- I entered the Mountain time zone today. If there ever was a day I needed to gain an hour, it was this one.
- I passed through Wyoming. Another state I wasn’t expecting to see! I really need to brush up on my geography.
- Normally I find the actual travel part of travel to be very stressful. Usually it’s the destination I enjoy. But I find myself really loving this process, except for this whole Mount Rushmore nightmare. I’m enjoying the journey.
- After I left South Dakota, suddenly NPR radio stations became extremely available again. Am I back in a more liberal area? I heard an ad for a concert entitled “It’s Baroque and We Ain’t Fixin’ It.” I love a good pun.
- I see Custer’s name everywhere. Towns and memorials and parks and forests. You’d think he’d be persona non grata around here.
- I hit a torrential downpour in Montana. I couldn’t see a thing. Thank God the window went up. There are no overpasses to hide under, no gas stations in which to take refuge. I’d have been one wet, cold, miserable person.
- You know you’re in cow country when there’s cattle grating on expressway on ramps.
Places I saw that must have a story behind them:
- Winner, South Dakota
- False Bottom Creek
Places I would have loved to have had the time to visit:
- Devil’s Tower
- Little Bighorn
- Glacier National Park
- Pictograph Cave
Interesting and random stuff I saw:
- Amber waves of grain. Actual, honest to God amber waves of grain.
- A camel grazing in a pasture outside of a tourist trap called 1880’s town. I almost drove off the road.
- In the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, the highway was blocked off for funeral procession. Dozens of veterans in leather jackets, police officers, and a truck driver were standing along the route saluting the dozens of cars. It was sad to see, but also heartening that the family was getting so much support.
Something I learned today: I can take care of myself, even in the worst of circumstances. What a pity it took me 49 years to figure that one out.
God, what a day. I’m hoping tomorrow will be a little bit less eventful. Next stop: Spokane, Washington!
Check out part 6 here!