Thursday, December 4, 2014

High Plains Drifter

It took a long time for the outskirts of exurban Colorado Springs to fade, only to have what was once a small town of Falcon rise on its northern edges as vast subdivisions. These, as we headed east, multiplied but also morphed. Around areas as diverse as Rapid City, Bismarck, Fargo, South Bend, Elkhart, Dayton, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Little Rock, Tulsa, Amarillo, Albuquerque (whew) they rose as typical stucco crammed into highway-adjacent pens. But in the forests near Ada, Michigan, home of Amway, or the way into Holly Springs, Mississippi, the many "wooded lots on one acre" showed with lawns and McMansions behind trees fronting the highways or byways, pricier.

In far less populated areas (at least until the Colorado Front Range keeps expanding), we found flatness in land but twangs in accents. First in the exotically named hamlet of Simla.where at the Hen House we lunched. I had to learn that the veggie option contains my hated foe, lettuce. The humble place commemorates the hill station made famous by Kipling in India. The town's founder's daughter in the 1880s had read a book set there. Despite its miniscule population, it's won many state high school championships. We passed motor courts and humble church fronts, and I could not tell if either were open for business off-season, in the somnolent setting. Hunting and fishing seemed popular, if not at the moment. We would passed hunters arrayed for action soon. The chatter of the three men behind us at our late meal, three o'clock, made me wonder if they were done for the day; they spoke of many other places I'd seen on the excellent Colorado State map, of concrete poured, of construction in progress on those roads, of schools and houses remodeled. I tried when leaving to usher a persistent fly outside, but the waitress assured me he and his ilk liked the sunbathing. We were over six thousand feet, but felt none of the altitude. Odd to be so high up in a flat landscape.

Luckily, informed with a AAA guide, I was corrected after thinking that a more southerly route from Colorado up through Kansas and Nebraska at Burlington might be at this time of year open. To my regret, the carousel at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds was closed, and nothing else in the whole eastern half of the Centennial State appealed. Instead, we moved up through the woebegone Limon (prison, as Layne had watched on Lockup and/or Lockdown) through the blip that is Last Chance on a very straight county road. The terrain was flat by Rockies comparison, sure, but not as much as I figured. Only in the Dakotas did it start to assume the Midwestern eidetic image I'd always assumed.

It dipped over small hills, down into little gullies, and the clouds separated. Past Sterling, with another giant prison south of the interstate, we veered into Nebraska. The wind picked up. Recalling an account by William T. Vollmann in his travelogue of life with what used to be called hobos, Riding Toward Everywhere, I thought a visit to North Platte, with the biggest yard in the country might be fun, and to give Layne a chance to get some footage from atop Union Pacific's Golden Spike Tower.

The same old sprawl of the less nostalgic type of neon, the retail chains, the bright glare of lights, the cars and trucks clogged the streets, and despite the city's relative smallness, it can be a jolt to enter such after hundreds of miles of few Simlas amid empty lanes. We were off the main drag, for once, and away from the interstate, in perhaps the only accommodation so situated. The avuncular, affable man with a great white mustache, shades of the Old West, and a marked accent compared to the lack of such we have, signed us in at America's Best Value Inn. He recalled his years at Camp Pendleton, when, as often, we were asked our hometown and why we happened to be passing through where we wound up, or where we'd intended. We petted his black cat (Halloween neared). I missed again Gary.

A flyswatter was on the wall of the room, over the calendar, and inspirational paragraphs out of the time Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis thrived were taped nearby. The room was clean and the night cold. In the morning, we ate our instant oatmeal after making respectively our coffee and tea in the boiler. Layne had been apprehended, or at least the mechanism resembling to TSA x-rays a suspect device, at LAX. This attested to her determination to have her caffeine, abetted by that in any hotel.

Next morning, Layne went into a bank. I sat in the car, studying the AAA map. An older man walked by the Prius' open door, wishing me "howdy." I replied, surprised. Students stationed or coming from the Midwest had remarked on how this civility is common other than in California. This was my first random instance, and as I recall in retrospect, the last spontaneous greeting outside of a commercial transaction. As the Golden Spike would not open for a few minutes, we walked around the old downtown, under towering grain elevators, past a barber shop, a dilapidated theater, a closed attempt at a hotel and cafe with a address still in the faded window, a few straggly shops, and the abandoned depot which once saw off thousands who came in briefly and then departed from the USO station in WWII, soldiers and sailors filled with donuts and coffee by North Platte's local ladies.  We learned that story at the museum at the foot of the seven-story tower over the rail yard, in turn overlooking cornfields. We looked down as a tractor cut into the corn, readying a Halloween maze.

Off to the grasslands. Prompted by guidebooks promising a scenic byway, we angled up stark roads--grandly called the Glenn Miller Memorial Highway--into the least populated stretches of our entire journey. The first long haul took us over more dips and rises, over rivers with French or simple declamatory names. Every half hour, a settlement survived; barns and collapsed dwellings proved the loss of people. I noted on the map how tiny Tryon, which we passed through, had a courthouse and seemed the only real town in a county; the next one over, the likely even smaller Arthur, had only one town and no other. Who worked there, who lived there, and how did they rotate any jury duty? Was it a safe place to wrangle a government-paid sinecure no matter what, or a bad one during a downturn?

Descending into the relatively large small town of Mullen, with a golf course, we turned left to join State Highway 2. This traversed the center of Nebraska, into its panhandle. I suppose in spring it must be lush, for the photos showed green and mauve fields to the horizon. Now, it was grey but still handsome prairie. Grazing land here and there, but often no sign of humans save the asphalt. Spaced out along the stretch, again out of Google Maps range, accompanied often by the sight of a river, this may have been the longest span I'd covered in years without logos, no apparent commerce roadside, and outposts of human life delayed over many miles. Cattle surely outnumbered ambulant citizens.

After Whitman, sandhills grew more dramatic with ups and downs. Dos Passos' tale as dramatized by David Drummond continued, and we passed Hyannis, Ashby, Ellsworth as little specks, apparently stops once for the Burlington Railroad. As Union Pacific has its crucial fueling center in North Platte, so that smaller line has Alliance. You can see its motto on its municipal website: "Building the Best Hometown in America" [TM] Yelp guided us to eat at Newberry's in what was once part of the corner store of that name, which once you could find in many such small towns. The rail and the presence of rivers, rich fields for potatoes and sunflowers, and the giant lots for homesteaders kept it prosperous.

This from the city website, early on in its history: "One of the areas {sic} worst problems was created with the need for teachers. The school board soon discovered any young female was quickly married. For a time, school boards even publicized in Eastern newspapers for young women of plain and homely countenance to come West and teach. But even the less beautiful married quickly. Frustrated school boards then hit upon another solution. Contracts often included a clause preventing a teacher from marrying for two years. For its time, a restrictive but necessary clause." Thus the town thrived.

We wandered after our sandwiches (a not-homely if young waitress chatted with us about California as the locals, who all naturally knew each other, passed the warm afternoon by, when Cornhusker gear was commonly worn) around its tidy downtown: courthouse, bank, storefronts. We did not go to the Carnegie Library turned art museum, as we had to head by day's end over into South Dakota.

The first of three places we'd visit where healing waters would be claimed, the waitress told us about the indoor water slide and baths at historic Hot Springs. We stayed south of another picturesque place trying to hold on, at least off-season. Gateway to the site of the first road-trip in the nation, most likely, the center had scads of sandstone buildings across from a pretty river which fed the springs. But many facades harbored nothing but glass and space. Where we stopped at an ATM, surly local kids kicked their way down the road, in shirtsleeves despite the chillier weather (a phenomenon we'd regard with awe as we drifted across the plains down into Minnesota and Illinois and Wisconsin). They seemed already tipsy, before nightfall, but maybe Halloween's imminence was to blame.

Sonny's Shur-Rite Market, the first stop for such entering the town from the south, challenged us. Fresh fare for non-beef eaters in this expanse narrows options immediately. The local cans Crow's Peak IPA, pleased us, but Layne had to draw on her secondhand prison cooking skills to heat the frozen spinach, pasta, and canned tuna she'd meant to cook in the microwave of our cabin, a bunkhouse on a real working quarterhorse ranch off Highway 71 (the same one we'd traveled on way down in Colorado before we shifted into the Cornhusker State). For, the wonderful dwelling for all its charm lacked that amenity. Layne had to use the boiler to improvise a meal, that hungry as we were we scarfed down. The ranch had been built up over twenty-two years by John, an engineer from Chicago who bought a decaying homestead and then designed his own house, buildings imitating those in a Western movie, and the bunkhouse, full of cowboy memorabilia arranged practically (horseshoes for hooks) and cleverly (a pinup cowgirl poster on the underside of a bunk). John had lived in a trailer on the property, a quarter-mile from the highway, and we relished its neighing quiet.

No fault to it, as after all it was a real and not a dud or dude ranch, with pastures and manure outside the back window, but the flies inside overwhelmed me. I spent a time reminiscent of "I killed seven with one blow" from "The Brave Little Tailor" tale. But by day two, I'd eradicated the insect menace.

We were joshed by our host--"daylight's burning up"--when we emerged after road trip weariness nearing noon by the time we aimed to set out. Our plans to visit the town center, however, narrowed as nothing there seemed open. We were delayed more by a stint on the benches in the pink-painted laundromat, one of two next to each other in the town. That may be why it was for sale, reduced from $275 to $219k. The wi-fi password, when I asked the (grand?)daughter of the woman I guessed the laundromat's seller, was "salvation." Tracts nestled in the racks, along with a few ragged magazines. I did Duolingo to catch up on French as I try to do daily, the past year-plus since I visited Quebec.

In South Dakota, given the off-season, Wind Cave National Park was closed for tours. Anyway, Layne wisely refused any theoretical crawl into slime and wet deep below. Entry by the gravel road (John recommended it but we lacked his high pickups with four-wheel drive) through Custer State Park would slow us down too much by sunset, given the shift to shorter days and northern latitudes.

We stayed on the scenic loop, and kept to a slow pace, for more than one reason, but at least the inclines balanced declines, and the speed limit was doubly appropriate. No entry fee (nobody there) cheered me anyhow, as did bison, close-up enough for satisfaction, believe me, on nearly barren byways. Prairie dogs, discerned once you stared at dirt that camouflaged them next to their burrows, scurried. Bighorn sheep were rumored, but not seen. We enjoyed the roads, but anxiety as Layne demurred from my advice to gas up in Hot Springs grew, for the bar lowered to one on the dash.

We paid fifty cents more per gallon than we would have by the time we hit Keystone. Eerie, as if a plague had struck. Imagine a whole block and two of souvenir shops and hotels totally devoid of a people presence. But the pump still took our cards in zombieland, and we had to fill up, dutifully.  All the same, we liked the pigtail turns that were arranged to frame Mount Rushmore ahead. These distinguish Iron Mountain Road as engineered under the urging of Senator Peter Norbeck. At an outlook named after him, you can admire the view, and we were content with it, for the light near dusk did not allow a true definition of the state's license plate slogan, "Big Faces, Great Spaces." All we could discern was Washington's nose and some of his profile; the other three stayed in shadow.

The stirring end-of-1941 prose on the marker for the Mount fit Dos Passos' patriotic register, from a war earlier. You can read here how the waymark has praised the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. Despite my weariness at the state of our nation, where the predictions of Republicans less amenable to environmental protection or true populism than principled Norbeck drowned the previous week's Ebola scares, I was moved by the rhetoric, perhaps more than by the loss of such eloquence now than the content. I prefer my hillsides left intact; the sad news when I got home revealed no less than three new homes on my street to be constructed, tripling the amount when we moved in 22 years ago.

We drove back down intending to find the Needles Highway portion and its narrow passages through rock faces, but suddenly the road ended without warning. I found out a few days later, browsing the Rapid City paper, that this blockade had frustrated other drivers who refused to turn back. Apparently the published date of November as the time the road is shut off was not followed, for it was still, if barely, October, and already, the unannounced barrier had caused hard feelings and scofflaws locally.

There was still light enough to make out the tiny head of Crazy Horse in the distance. It is the visible start of a monument intended to commemorate the other side, literally and symbolically, of Rushmore. Funded by the Lakota (not Sioux, which I learned on this trip garbles "little serpents" from their Ojibway enemies; the tribes naturally prefer to be known as Lakota, Dakota--both mean "allies"--or Oglala et al.), a few miles south from Rushmore, that memorial, already with light shows and concerts, will dwarf the four presidents. I have mixed feelings. I understand the indigenous spirit and sympathize with its assertion. The fact the State Park's named after Custer may or not be a posthumous tribute. But the reason the General's presence predates his demise takes the blame for the tribal resentment. Custer and his men occupied the uncharted Black Hills when gold was discovered there in 1874. This mightily angered the Lakota who held this ground as sacred. The resulting rush into the region by whites worsened tensions. However, if land is sacred (new Grand Canyon subdivisions on or next to Hualapai and Navajo tribal lands come to mind on ground held to be "where life begins"), it baffles me how exploitation of such for raw alteration is construed as appropriate. It comes down to control and power. The Feds bankrolled Mt. Rushmore and that's an imposition. The Lakota then rally for a counter-monument to their warrior to redress their local loss.

Yet given the massive design vs. how little has been dynamited and shaped so far, I may never see this. If I did not know Crazy Horse's head was evident, I might never have noticed it. And who's to say it's any different than Rushmore, that shrine familiar to all of us? By the way, if you've seen that represented, you've seen a much larger view than that afforded the driver by or roadside gawker up.

Speaking of pop cultural trends, the next day we had to leave the horses behind. We took the faster highway into the boomtown of Rapid City (before which we passed three giant white plaster busts of Kennedy, Lincoln and one other dead prez), and in which there's a Mobil station with an adjoining taxidermy display, where I wished we'd have fueled up. We did in Sturgis, the site of the mass motorcycle rally, near Deadwood. Tellingly, throughout much of this heartland, so full of riggers, bikers, truckers, and rebels I reckon, you see stickers on gas pumps warning of video surveillance and the dire penalties exacted on those who pump and don't pay. Some welcome. The wide highways to and from Deadwood attest to its popularity, and probably all those bikers in summer. The town itself we circled, not stopping. But I wondered, as our friend Broderick had told us of the view from high up over the canyon where the frontier slumbered at Mount Moriah cemetery. There was one sign of Jewish presence once, Goldberg's storefront, but its wooden buildings, preserved now, bore evidence of their current purpose, as gambling flourishes. After the recent election, it expanded in Deadwood.

We wanted to see, getting out of town well before another sunset, the national park at another Western site of lore, the Badlands. So, off we retraced our time on the interstate, going in the right direction, east. I was happy to leave the big rigs and frackers behind after getting tangled in traffic in the numbing bland strip malls and apartments of Rapid City, which as with so many cities no matter how venerable appeared on the highway as if built yesterday, with all the visual appeal that carries.

Taking Highway 44 down to it, through the barely-there Caputa and Farmingdale, reminiscent of Dust Bowl vignettes, we came into the Badlands from the south. Pine Ridge sounded bleak, and its own tribal center was closed. I tried the radio station mentioned in a guidebook as broadcasting in Lakota. All I got was static, and a faint sound of heavy metal bleeding in. We climbed around a scenic lookout, on a wooden platform, where you can see a table mountain 30 miles south on the reservation. John at the ranch had told us of an even better vantage point on Sheep's Mountain, but the gravel road prevented our bravery. Then we visited the interpretative center. There we learned that homesteading is tough in this moonlike, silent, beige or striped, raw and scraped clean landscape, accounting for the failure of the 160-acre plots supplanting the loss of native lands. That is, 20-30 acres per animal is needed for grazing livestock per year. Alliance's pioneers proved clever, as they moved it up to 640 acres. Which may account for the gloom surrounding Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, and the ad I saw in South Dakota one night from the Lakota, urging teens not to consider suicide. But, consider the pride rebounding around Crazy Horse. Like slavery (even amid the festivity of Thanksgiving as Mark Twain's autobiography acerbically remarks), tribal ghosts haunt our national conscience, the reverse or negative side of patriotic emanations indelibly inscribed upon Rushmore.

Our last stop, after miles of marveling at the stillness, broken only by people like us driving across the whispering plains, reminded us of the contrasts too between the solitude of the Dakotas and the sparse presence we added to. It shows also how far one must go to retreat from the interstate hum. When we pulled into the earnestly advertised (once, many more billboards promising ice water enticed the first wayfarers along the pre-interstate in pre-air conditioned times of the Depression)
Wall Drug, we found the giant store, far larger than the original pharmacy, nearly empty. It was almost closing time. A young woman, a native American, took our order. My fish and chips totalled over ten dollars for a skimpy meal, as Layne and I had our curiosity fulfilled. Ice water is still free, but in tiny Dixie cups. We left a tip for the forlorn teenager sweeping up the enormous dining hall, and watched the short-shirtsleeve with tie no-nonsense manager scowl over his staff, which had a Southeast Asian man as another counter worker. An elderly man, another sort of native from his name tag, chatted with us as we bought a 3-D bookmark of a unicorn and a tiger for our two sons.

Nothing really appealed for us, but Layne also fell for some overpriced chokecherry jelly as a souvenir for a client; the clerk told us how his wife made the same preserves. We waited out our time but it all closed early and we headed down a cold street past fake Western fronts, past a bar or two with the inevitable football games, to the market. The interstate roared, and a pizza place (even the smallest burbs have one) sat next to a Dairy Queen. Two young men, one obese in overalls with a goatish beard, face, and gait, the other skinny and feral, bought a suitcase of something Coors and cheap, along with chewing tobacco. Then, we stocked up on a few more instant oatmeals, yogurt, pineapple, foraging for nourishment among carbs or starches. The sky turned rosy over grain towers.

On the way back, passing a small ranger station's display that revealed what to us looked like weeds and brush harbored protected grasslands, we passed Ann's Motel. It looked nicer than the chains nearer the interstate. But proprietor and her husband were at the 5 p.m. Mass at St. Patrick's, a notably ugly, squat edifice ca. 1972 in style. So, we circled Wall's streets, arousing a glance from a man unlocking the volunteer firefighter's building as we clutched our plastic bags and peered beyond the houses to the east, abutting directly on a wall, for there rose the Badlands themselves, pink dusk.

The elderly woman and her stoic husband arrived nearly fifteen minutes late. Apparently the priest got carried away with his sermon, or else gossip kept the couple at parish doors. We were about to leave, but I reasoned to Layne no other accommodation would be any better; all others abutted the noisy interstate. I still heard it, but at least a few blocks away, once our smoke-redolent room was exchanged for the one next door. No great improvement as banging kept happening behind my side of the bed from the stairwell entrance opening and closing. No breakfast either, no place to drop off the key even, but we hit north soon, and promptly left Wall's little grid and 800-odd inhabitants behind. 

Heading north, we entered the Cheyenne reservation which takes you into the north-central section of South Dakota and up into its companion state above. But you'd never know, except for small handwritten signs here and there with the names of two rival women for tribal secretary on the side of very empty county and state roads. These took us past the usual crossroads, and abandoned farms. Few seemed to stay, and their land must have expanded decades ago for grazing. At Faith, we stopped for gas. The woman told Layne to pay after filling up--the only place other than Pigeon Point or is it Piedras Blancas on the 1 north of Davenport that I think this has happened, or was it Cambria?

Four old men played cards in a side room. I waited for the bathroom along with a multi-generational family, looking as if fresh from church. We were the only whites around. The station also sold pizza on the side, if not at 9 a.m. when the time zone changed on Sunday morning, further confused by the fact that zone bisects the Dakotas along the Missouri River, down the center of the rival or companion states. The bathroom as all I entered since Canon City's prison museum was very clean. A neatly lettered sign warned us males to put up the seat, keep it tidy, and use paper towels provided. "If you make a mess, and you're married, I feel sorry for your wife," concluded the reproving message.

The air was getting colder, not that it was that warm since we'd been in Las Vegas, NM, the last real place we'd had average (for us) fall weather (and a dirty bathroom). Veering north steadily but detouring at right angles onto other roads, so as to line up with the destination a ways past Bismarck. Mullen, Flasher (all of its named roadsigns had bullet holes through one of the vowels), and McIntosh. Pride in teams, modest centers with small houses, surrounded by prairie, sometimes fields.

Mandan stretched out prettily over bridges, iron fenced spreads, and an older section of the town. It sprung up the other side of the wide river from the capital of the Peace Garden State, apparently another railroad center. More interstates and national highways, until we sauntered back and finally over the Missouri which had brought explorers in 1804 from Jefferson's Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark and their thirty-odd corpsmen, recruited for various trades and skills, left St. Louis and up the river found few to stop their progress as they towed or rowed their boats and 60 tons of supplies against the current. The ranger who showed us around the reconstructed fort near the river's bank, Jeff, reasoned most of the Arikara or Mandan were off hunting, rather than waiting for lookey-loos.

Finally, as winter set in, the Corps landed at the native settlement to build the fort named after the tribe, Fort Mandan. From here, they headed west to seek the Northwest Passage and a way to the Pacific, as Jefferson directed. We found at the interpretative center all about the expedition. It took the men a half-hour to pump up an air-powered rifle, showing the tedium for everyday essentials. The men had Sacagawea, a captured Shoshone, to interpret between that language further west and Mandan, which in turn her husband, trader Touissant Charbonneau, could handle along with French.

The Mandan, situated ideally at the center of the continent, traded with everyone else, and any lore about them harboring "blond" natives two-plus centuries ago may be attributed, our guide suggested after my inquiry, to the fact they had so many other tribes moving through, as well as French contact to at least the 1730s. One marvels at this Corps' train of communication into English, and how the tribes (the whites and their companions finally met some near Wyoming, showing again the vast territory and the comparatively few people populating it then, or at least those on the trail) managed to interpret the less-threatening figure of a mother with an infant she suckled, along with the white men they likely had no names for to translate yet. Or maybe so; the 1796-7 map of adventurer John Evans, given to Clark by Jefferson, prepared the way for Lewis and Clark's foray, as Evans had pursued rumors of the Mandan as "Welsh Indians." This fanciful claim about the legendary medieval voyage of Prince Madoc in 1170 persists among a few inventive Celts today, as I wrote about in 2009 on this blog. (I happen to be revisiting this as I write, reviewing Gruff Rhys' media project about a "interpretative concert tour" retracing the steps of Evans, his distant forebear, in American Interior.)

Back in 2007, I liked if did not love Brian Hall's novel "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company" about the Lewis and Clark's expedition's four main protagonists, told from each of their points of view. Their determination, and as we learned from the specimens displayed and the helpful captions at the center, the Enlightenment-era angle on the expedition--the Bible was taken as a legal measure to enforce oaths and obedience, and no missionary or chaplain accompanied the men and their formidable array of carefully chosen supplies and equipment--showed Jefferson's influence. I tried on a buffalo gown. We saw the fort and learned of the lives of the men so dug in for a 1804 winter. This photo shows at its gate Layne and I ready for bear, and a blunderbuss, as day lengthened. asserting our venerable 2nd Amendment right to bear arms if not against armed bears. At the foot of the lovely river (which had obliterated the original fort in its meanderings long ago), we admired the giant one-ton statue of Seaman, Lewis' beloved Newfoundland companion. He is said to have remained loyal at the grave of Lewis, who as Hall's novel dramatizes, met a sad end in 1809.

After, we headed into Bismarck. Once more Layne's refusal to get gas (at Washburn when I suggested) turned us into a downhill, luckily, ride into that boomtown. It went on forever, echoes of Williston's fracking frenzy and housing shortages. Around us where we finally fueled up, dirty trucks and spattered truckers showed the current types of expeditions North Dakota's known for, and why we kept traveling until Jamestown, further east, so as to find a relatively rare hotel room at Days Inn.

There, closed in by welcome corridor from the cold, we settled in after a meal at Buffalo City Diner in the historic core of Jamestown, a district similar in size and feel to North Platte. We tried the Fargo Oktoberfest brew, I had walleye in batter, a local specialty, and the game played on the big screen in a large space converted from a bank. By the time we left around 8 p.m., the hip coffeehouse across the street had closed. Not much else to report, and in the morning, election projections replacing Ebola scares, we left behind the Dakotas at Fargo itself for the Land of 10,000 Lakes, over another big river.

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