Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Day 7: South by Southwest

July 21: Devil’s Tower to Mount Rushmore to the Badlands to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Houston, Minnesota

Soundtrack: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, The Essential Simon and Garfunkel;The Rolling Stones, 40 Licks #1; Harvey Danger

...I was not prepared for the Bad Lands. They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley In Search of America

Passing the campground at the edge of Devil’s Tower National Monument, we snuck by the ranger shack too early to need the park card and found nothing open in the visitor center. At a kiosk in the parking lot we examined the list of trails for the tower, a destination for rock climbers from all over the world, inventive names like Up in Smoke, Spank the Monkey, Potatoes Alien, Non Dairy Creamer, Jerry’s Kids, Pee Pee’s Plunge, The Howling, Some Like It Hot, Abject Cathexis, Mr. Clean, Tulgey Wood, Mystery Express, Scott-free, Liken Lichen, Accident Victim, Blotter Is My Spotter, Porcupining Away, Conquistador, and, as Laura put it, many more...
We couldn’t take time to scale the vertical shafts, but took a nameless trail to the edge of the prismatic boulders. On the way out we stopped at the campstore for eggs and toast on a checkered oilcloth and the obligatory pin button. I bypassed the park decal because it was too glitzy, unaware that classy retro stickers like those at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park were the exception in souvenir circles and I would have to make do with similar foil-edged designs at Mount Rushmore and Badlands. Truth was, the glitzy, kitschy ones lasted longer.
South through the Western movie set towns of Lead and Deadwood, the scenery was gorgeous and antique shops beckoned along the brickfront streets, but we pushed on down the 385 to Rapid City, Cary Grant’s famous destination in North By Northwest. I was cruising along looking at the big heads through the trees and I guess I exceeded the speed limit a little in my excitement. Let’s let Laura’s journal write the script for our adventure at the National Monument:
We got pulled ova in Mount Rushmore...
Rollin’ 49 in a 35 about 5 minutes from the parking lot for the monument a ranger pulls us over. At one point she asks:
Ranger: Do you have any weapons in the car, ma’am?
Mama (not making eye contact): Yeah, we got lots.
Ranger: What kind of weapons do you have?
Mama: We got knives.
Ranger: What kind of knives?
Mama: Well, we have a swiss army knife and a butter knife and a cheese spreading knife...
Ranger: O.K., O.K. How about insurance? Do you have proof of insurance?
There followed much rummaging around in the dash compartment and a call to AAA because the insurance card was expired. But the ranger was cool...she eventually let us off with a warning.

When we finally got out to look at the Presidents’ heads on the mountain, we took pictures, went into the restaurant and looked at exhibits, and ate frozen custards like all the other tourists under the flags of the states.
We had departed a little from Steinbeck’s itinerary because he had a hankering to see Fargo, North Dakota, “coldest place on the continent.” We’d seen that movie and opted for Mt. Rushmore, but reconnected in the Badlands, where no one asked to look at our Golden Eagle Pass. Heading east, I let Laura drive, walking up for the Visitor Center but no lunch, just a soda and a couple of wildflower seed postcards from the prairie. We looked about some, but it was too hot to hike; Steinbeck’s trepidation in this wasteland was translated into worrying over running out of gas. I took over driving and brought us into Sioux Falls, South Dakota jonesing for a gas station. We got out and walked around a lovely park built over the falls, climbing pink rocks and just missing a good meal at the restored mill that was the park restaurant. The locals were spread across the grass for a patriotic concert and a slide show of Sioux Falls history, but we elected to sample a mid-western coffee shop called Perkins’ and had a lovely dinner near the on-ramp to highway 90. Night was coming on, and, as women traveling alone, we took some precautions driving after dark, including hugging the main roads where there was a better chance of service stations being open. Laura took over on the Interstate and I dreamed on past dozens of tiny towns across southern Minnesota.
Houston, Minnesota, as Laura says, a “Beautiful town.”
The way we ended up there was eerie. Laura had overdriven the Mississippi River Bridge in the dark and was running out of steam, realizing that she had not been able to get a pin button on the marathon drive across the state. I wanted to make crossing the Mississippi for the first time a peak experience, so I backtracked across into Minnesota and headed south down the dotted line of the riverbank. But at the junction of state roads 16 and 26 I saw a sign for a town called Houston and was drawn off to the west.
Charlie’s middle name was Houston, because I was homesick when he was born and wanted him to have some connection with our Texas origins. Doug and I were both from the Houston suburbs, though our paths did not cross until the 70’s in the Montrose, a bohemian community near downtown. Now signs for Houston lured me down a dark, narrow road shrouded in heavy ground fog. Along the roadside a possum looked up from eating something amorphous, its eyes luminous in the headlights. The road up to well-maintained fencing was adopted by the Houston Police Department, landscaped shrubbery lined the shoulders, and banks of flowers loomed out of the mists that floated like veils across the road. I found a radio station that was playing “classic rock,” but no gas station was open on the way in to Houston, Minnesota.
The radio began to play one of Charlie’s favorite songs, “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” and the tears were streaming down my face as I remembered watching the video with him, knowing this was the song he always played when he was trying to quit smoking marijuana. All the antique streetlights were glowing on the deserted main street of Houston at 3 in the morning. There was nothing open, and the shuttered gas station was cattycorner from a Tru-Valu Hardware with a mural that proclaimed Houston “the best of Bluff County.” I parked on the southwest corner, at the side of the dark Crossroads Cafe, leaned back the seat, and waited under the streetlight for the gas station to open.