Monday, September 17, 2007

Through the Land of Short Elephants

There's a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There's a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephant's eye,
An' it looks like it's climbin' clear up to the sky.

Oh, what a beautiful mornin',
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin'
Ev'rything's goin' my way.

--Oscar Hammerstein II

In the category of, DUH!?!
Warning sign along the Missouri River
Taken 9/13/07, Pierre SD

Leaving the campground at Oahe Dam, I started by crossing the dam itself. The structure, one of the largest earthfilled dams in the world, looks for all to see as if a gently sloping, grass-covered hill has completely crossed the river, forming Oahe Lake behind it. The downstream recreation area, where I had camped for the previous two nights has 3 campgrounds, a marina resort and restaurant, an amphitheatre, and miles of biking and hiking trails. By crossing the dam I was able to get a better view of what had been my most recent home. This also allowed me to enter Pierre from the North, instead of from the West, which, in turn, allowed me to find Pierre’s historic residential district. For more of my impressions of Pierre, read my travel site:

One thing I had counted on before leaving town was finding a good place for lunch. Unfortunately, other than the bagel place where I had eaten lunch on Wednesday, I saw only fast food chains. I wasn’t hungry enough to subject myself to them, and hoped that something would turn up further east.

The landscape changes as you head east. The hills become lower, the slopes gentler, and eventually you find yourself in prairie farm land. South Dakota Highway 34 crosses through miles of corn fields, interspersed with sunflower and soy bean fields. But mostly corn. Now I’m not sure just how high an elephant’s eye is, but when I got out of the car to stand by the corn stalks, they were just barely over my head, which would put them about seven feet. Surely an elephant’s eye is higher than that—either that or these were very short elephants.

About an hour out of Pierre, I reached Fort Thompson on the Cow Creek Reservation, where an Indian Casino had a restaurant. I ordered a burger, fries, and salad for lunch with iced tea, and enjoyed watching the crew try to move a large coke machine in order to reach the wires for the non-working electric cash register. I must say they made for quite a floor show, but before I was ready to pay, the cooler had been moved, the wires reconnected, and the till made operational.

Back in Pierre, my friend Daniel had told me that all South Dakota highway patrolmen were enjoying a conference in the state’s capitol. That explained why I hadn’t seen any in the western part of the state. Apparently the conference ended Thursday morning, for in the sixty miles beyond Fort Thompson four separate patrol cars passed me on the two lane road. I was carefully driving the posted speed limit, and no red lights came on to slow my progress.

The oddest phenomena I saw in South Dakota were the gas station price signs. I had noticed in Rapid City that several signs seemed to have been mis-marked. The super unleaded was at least ten cents less per gallon than regular unleaded. At first I thought this was due to folks getting the numbers confused, but as I continued across the state, all the signs showed a higher price for regular than for super. When I finally had to fill up in Madison, I asked the attendant why this anomaly. He had no idea, but suggested that ethanol cost less, and indeed, the super unleaded was 10% ethanol. All I can say is that the car is running fine and getting good mileage. If the super is less than the regular, I’ll buy it.

In the prairie, trees generally mean one of two things. You’re seeing either a farmstead with the trees forming a windbreak around the house and barns, or you’re coming to a town. In either case, there are historically three structures that you see rising above the trees. In the case of a farm, the silos will most often be the tallest thing around. Their counterpart in town is the grain elevator, which is almost always the tallest structure in any farm town. Next you’ll see the town’s water tower, and quite often a church spire.

St. Wilfred's Roman Catholic Church
Taken 9/13/07, in Woonsocket South Dakota

One of the first (and certainly not the last) of the church spires to catch my eye was in Woonsocket. No, I hadn’t already crossed the continent. This Woonsocket is a town of 700 or so South Dakotans. The largest structure by far is St. Wilfred’s Roman Catholic Church. Again and again as I continued across South Dakota and Minnesota I’d be struck by the size of the Catholic church. Usually there was an equally large parochial school right next door. Judging by the size of the church, the sanctuary should easily seat over a thousand people. Remember that the population of the town is less than eight hundred. Also note that there were three other churches in town, a Lutheran, a United Methodist, and a Baptist. The latter three were all white clapboard structures looking like your archtypical rural church. Where the congregation and money came from to support St. Wilfrid’s, I have no idea.

Lately a new structure rises above the plains. All across eastern South Dakota and well into Minnesota wind turbines cover every ridge line. I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, I’m thrilled for anything that can take us away from non-renewable energy sources. On the other hand, the turbines really do make a visual statement, and not necessarily a good one. While I was watching the proliferation of these tall, white poles, a program came on NPR talking about the civic reaction to various ways of saving energy. Poughkeepsie, New York, for instance, has just passed an ordinance against hanging clothes on a line in certain circumstances. Other towns have outlawed compost piles. One caller complained about the wind turbines. There are no coincidences. I was supposed to be listening to this show. The question in my mind, and I’m sure in the minds of many others, is how do we cut our energy consumption if we’re not willing to have alternatives in our own location? The NIMBY (Not in my back yard) phenomenon still arises to thwart our conservation efforts.

South Dakota Farm with Silos
Taken 9/13/07 in Moody County, South Dakota

I crossed the Minnesota state line and camped at a private campground—actually what was probably a former KOA campground judging by the buildings—in Pipestone, Minnesota. I had wonderful internet connections there, but no electricity near my tent, so I caught up on e-mail, but ran out of battery power before I could do any writing. Thursday night was even colder than the previous night had been, and I wore sweats, socks, a cap inside my mummy bag, and pulled two blankets over the bag. I was still cold. The next morning, I hurriedly ate breakfast, packed up the car, and headed over to Pipestone National Monument.

The Monument has set aside one of the main quarries used by the Sioux nation to cut red stone used in the making of ceremonial pipes. Inside the Visitor’s Center, three traditional craftsmen work at cutting, polishing and shaping the stone. When I asked one about the hacksaw and rasp she was using, she replied that, hard as it is to work the stone, it’s still much easier than it used to be when flint and other hard rocks were used. The Visitor’s Center also has a small gallery, a theater where you can view an eight-minute film on the history of the area, and a gift shop where you can buy pipes made from the stone. Just outside the Center is the original quarry where respectful visitors can see how the stone appears in nature.

At the entrance to the Monument grounds you’ll see a sign telling you about the Hiawatha pageant, held annually in Pipestone. Immediately my mind went to the dactylic hexameter “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock…” A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and I’m sure some English teacher from years ago will be resting happy in the knowledge that at least one lesson was learned in her class.

Having studied the map looking for a route south, I noticed Lake Benton, the Hole-in-the-Mountain, and a ski resort all shown about fifteen miles north of Pipestone. Why not take a clue from Columbus, I asked myself, and travel south by going north? While the southwestern corner of Minnesota was certainly not flat, there was nothing I could see that I’d consider skiing country. This could be an interesting educational field trip—and isn’t that what the 6,000 Mile Sunday Drive is all about?

Well, Hole-in-the-Mountain turned out to be a tract of land where the prairie was cut deeply by erosion. Lake Benton turned out to be a pretty little town on US Highway 14, with the lake for which the town was named just on the north edge of the highway. My first of Minnesota’s ten-thousand lakes. I never did find the ski resort, or anything that remotely resembled what I know as a ski resort, but I did notice that I was now headed east on 14, “The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway.” I’ll bet that somewhere along this road is a little house, out on the prairie.

The welcome signs as you enter Minnesota towns seem to carry a slogan or motto in addition to the town name. Tyler, which sported a Danish flag, was the Danebod. Another sign advertised the Apfelskiver Festival, and a third noted the seven churches in town—every one of them some variety of Lutheran or other. Balaton claimed to be “The One and Only,” but I’m sure folk in Hungary would disagree as Lake Balaton is the largest body of water in that land-locked country. The lake at Balaton, Minnesota is Yankton Lake. Oh well. Tracy, Minnesota is where the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is, but I didn’t check it out. Once Little Joe grew up and left the Ponderosa, I lost interest.

In Tracy I did stop at the Red Rooster CafĂ© where I ordered a bowl of chili, a green salad, and, you guessed it, Iced Tea. The salad came first and was a bowl of iceberg lettuce, some shredded red cabbage, wearing a solid hat of blue cheese dressing and croutons. When the chili came I was amazed to find I had ordered something completely tasteless. Who’d a thunk that chili might have no flavor. To reward myself for getting this gustatory delight down my gullet, I ordered a piece of yummy looking coconut cream pie. Suffice it to say that the pie I had in Port Orford, Oregon, is not in any danger of losing its crown as the best yet. By the way, one other thing that amazed me was the smoke. Every table I could see had at least one ashtray, and the smoke in the air was quite noticeable. I can honestly say this is the first restaurant I’ve visited in probably ten years that wasn’t smoke free. And I thought Minnesotans were supposed to be healthy.

St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church
Taken 9/14/07 in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota

The captivating church spire over New Ulm turned out to be the Cathedral of the Trinity, and yes, there was a parochial school just across the street—with a New Ulm Schools bus parked at the curb. Hmm. The sign welcoming travelers to New Ulm was in English, but the sign as I left town said “Auf Wiedersehen.”

East of New Ulm I drove into Mankato. The largest town by far since I had left Missoula, Mankato is the home of one of Minnesota’s state universities. Apparently they have a gun control problem here, as the buildings I saw in town all had signs saying that guns were not welcome in the building. I’ve never seen signs like that anywhere else.

Turning at Mankato, I drove south on US 169, crossing the Iowa state line at Elmore. I had called ahead and reserved a bed at the Raccoon River Resort just outside Des Moines, and with only a hundred or so miles to go, I figured there wouldn’t be any problem. What I hadn’t counted on was that speed limits in Minnesota and Iowa were ten miles an hour lower than in South Dakota (which were, remember, five miles an hour lower than Montana’s). Now fifty-five is a fine speed for driving the Oregon coast. When all you see are corn fields and soybean acres, fifty-five is a lot slower. And that’s all I saw as I crossed Iowa.

An Iowa Corn Field
Or, Just How Tall Are Elephants Anyway?

Taken 9/14/07 in Winnebago County, Iowa

Fort Dodge is the only town of any size on Iowa’s stretch of US 169, and I just drove through. I was hoping to get to my next bedroom by seven or so, but at eight I stopped in Ogden, Iowa and had a pizza. The restaurant’s slogan? Be Happy, Eat at Chappy’s. Having finished half my 12” pizza, a Solheim Special by the way, and having drunk most of my glass of Iced Tea, I called the resort to tell my host I was going to be late, but wasn’t lost, and continued on.

I arrived at the resort around 9:30, to find two wonderful gentlemen who immediately invited me to unwind with them in the hot tub. I’ll be writing all about Harold, Fred, and the Raccoon River Resort in my next posting, this time at As of two p.m., Monday, September 17th, 2007, that piece has not been written, let alone posted, but it will be before Tuesday.

At this point I’ve driven almost 3,000 miles, and I’m not even half-way done. The Six Thousand Mile Sunday Drive is going to be a lot longer than six thousand miles. Stay tuned.


There was one topic that dominated my mind as I drove across eastern South Dakota and southern Minnesota. Starting just east of Pierre were the “Vote Pro-Life” signs. These signs became more strident the further east I drove. In front of one Catholic church I even saw a tombstone for the “Unborn Victims of Abortion.” Please understand, I believe that abortion is an awful choice. I wish there were viable alternatives. I do realize, however, that as a gay man, this is a decision I am never going to be forced to make. That said, what bothered me most was that the people claiming to vote “pro-life” are liars. Pretty much all of them as near as I can tell, because they seem to form the base of today’s Republican Party. Now understand, I was raised Republican, and in my heart of hearts I still consider myself conservative. I do not, however, consider the present-day Republican Party to be at all conservative, and it is certainly not “pro-life.” You cannot be pro-life and support the death penalty. That is a contradiction in terms. You cannot be pro-life and support war. That is a contradiction in terms (and no, I’m not talking about situations such as World War II). You cannot be pro-life and veto health care for children, or restrict programs like WIC, or keep adoptable children from getting loving homes because the prospective parents are a gay or lesbian couple. Those actions are not pro-life. The people who vote this way are definitely NOT pro-life. They may be pro-fetus, but they are not pro-life. So grow up America, and let’s stop lying to ourselves. We are either in favor of life, or we’re in favor of restrictions. But please, stop framing the debate in indefensible terminology.



Carl said...

Good rant!

Danish said...

1. Midwestern chili is not really supposed to be chili as recognized by anyone from outside the area. It's a hamburger and kidney bean soup, heavy on tomatoes, that's actually pretty good on a cold day if the tomatoes and celery are fresh and there's enough salt in the mix. Recipes from the Heartland call for 1 tsp. of chili powder to 1 quart to gallon of soup so you can see that it is not reallly expected to be "chili."

2. You should have hung around for the apfelskiver festival. They are Danish filled apple cakes baked on top of the stove in a special pan that turns out round little pastries filled with fruit. Plain, they are good for breakfast, or dusted with sugar, they make a tasty snack.

3. You didn't eat any deepfried whitefish livers? Or lake trout? Or wild rice? When in Rome you really do need to eat like the Romans to properly judge the cuisine. I would strongly advise you to skip the lutefisk and the lefse however. Even 2nd generation Norwegians won't touch them.

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