Friday, May 20, 2011

Like a Bird on the Wire

Stylized Tipi found at every South Dakota Rest Stop
Taken 5/18/2011 at Chamberlain, South Dakota, overlooking the Missouri River

Like a bird on the wire, Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook, Like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.
If I, if I have been unkind, I hope that you can just let it go by,
If I, if I have been untrue, I hope you know it was never to you.
--Words and Music by Leonard Cohen

To hear Leonard Cohen sing Bird on the Wire, click here.

Now why would Leonard Cohen's classic come to mind as we're driving across southeastern Montana? Well, the Montana state bird is the Western Meadowlark, and they were singing so loudly that I could hear them over the CD I had playing, over the noise from Kevin's Ham Radio, and over our own conversation. But I couldn't see any of them until Kevin suggested I look at the fence posts along the highway. Sure enough, there they were, both on the posts and on the barbed wire between the posts. What song would you think of at that point?

Our second day on the road started with breakfast at the only restaurant in Broadus open at that time of the morning. I don't know if the waitress was having a bad day or if she just liked to joke with her customers, but it was an interesting meal. At one point I questioned the slogan that Broadus is the "wavingest town in the West," and she gave me the one finger salute, saying, "I can wave at people." One of the things I like about small town cafes is the local crowd that comes in for coffee every morning. Just beyond our table was a round table set for eight. One by one, five people (four men and one woman) came in and sat down, probably in the same seats they always took. I watched for quite some time and the five just sat there, not talking, not smiling, not really acknowledging each others' presence. They've probably been meeting like that, every day, for years and have nothing left to say to one another.

After breakfast, we hit the road, traveling east on US 212 toward Alzada, the southeastern most town in Montana. Leaving Montana, we crossed a twenty-something mile stretch of Wyoming before entering South Dakota near the town of Belle Fourche. The highway in Wyoming was in excellent shape, which surprised me as it doesn't connect to anything else in Wyoming. Who maintains this road? Does Wyoming contract that out to South Dakota or Montana? I don't know, but just before we left Wyoming, we passed a large industrial complex. At first we thought it was a cement plant, but the signs told us otherwise. It was a processing plant for Bentonite. Now I'm not exactly sure just what Bentonite is--some sort of clay, I gather--so I went to Wikipedia and read their article. I'm still not sure what it is, not even sure what some of the words used in the article mean. If you're brave enough, you can read about it here. The maintenance question was answered when we saw the name of the company processing the clay--Halliburton. OK, it's obviously your tax dollars at work.

Belle Fourche is the closest town to the geographic center of the United States, and I've written about it before. We stopped in town so that I could use the rest room and Kevin could get some Pepsi. On the way out of the store, I saw a large display of truck balls. Surely you know what I mean by "truck balls." They're the plastic (or sometimes metal) scrotum and testicles that people attach to their trailer hitches on the backs of their pickups. That got me to thinking of my patient who told me last Wednesday about how her husband had gone in for surgery due to his testicular cancer, and how the doctors removed the wrong ball. It also got me to thinking about the diner in the Wolf Lodge Steakhouse who on Sunday had ordered "Rocky Mountain Oysters" without knowing what they were. Even the menu's hint that "They're not served on the shell." Didn't help her to understand. When she could not persuade her date to try some, I suggested across the aisle, "It's a guy thing."

Next stop after Belle Fouche was Rapid City, the Presidential City due to its proximity to Mount Rushmore, where we filled the tank before continuing east. This is the fourth time I've driven (or been driven) across South Dakota, albeit only the second time taking Interstate 90. There were two stops I wanted to make, but figured we'd make good time on the crossing. What I hadn't counted on was just how long a trip it is, and how empty South Dakota is along its route.

We didn't stop at Badlands National Park; I'd driven through the park on my last trip in 2007, and Kevin thinks that the Montana landscape is more interesting. I did, however, insist on stopping at Wall Drug, in Wall, SD.

As a child, I recall seeing signs on every highway telling you how far you were from Wall Drug. I may have even seen one in Rovaniemi Finland when I went to visit the Arctic Circle. Those signs are now history, along with the other ubiquitous highway signs advertising Burma Shave. Wall Drug, however, is a thriving concern, and, I would guess, the only reason that Wall, South Dakota hasn't dried up and blown away in the wind. Somewhere in my collection of slides taken by my father, I have a picture of me, age 3, standing in front of Wall Drug. Now, thanks to Kevin, I have one of me, age 61, standing in front of Wall Drug. What goes around, comes around, or so they say. According to the company website, Wall Drug is "America's Favorite Roadside Attraction!" I won't say we visited all 76,000 square feet, but we did spend a bit of money on souvenirs at this tourist trap before getting back on the highway.

Me, age 61, in front of Wall Drug
Taken 5/18/2011 in Wall, South Dakota

It was becoming obvious that my prediction of us making Des Moines was a bit premature. Kevin responded that we were on vacation and who cared how long it took us to get somewhere. With that in mind, when I started seeing signs for the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, SD, I suggested that we had to add that to our itinerary. What can I say about the Pioneer Auto Museum? Well, they sure have a lot of junk. Some really nice things too, including one of Elvis's Cadillacs and a Lamborgini tractor. All told there are something between 250 and 300 cars on display, but the sad part for me is that they're all crammed together. It was nearly impossible to get a good photograph of a car as there was no room to back up and focus. Still, we spent a couple hours wandering from building to building, seeing the 1902 curved-dash Olds, the 1914 Beardsley Electric (everything old is new again), and many, many more. I finally gave up on my photographic amibitions, saving my pixels for shots of radiator badges from unknown or forgotten marques (Franklin, Apperson Jackrabbit, Saxon, Velie Touring, etc.) Lunch in the GTO Cafe following the tour, then back on the highway.

1913 or is it 1914 Beardsley Electric--look out Chevy Volt
Taken 5/18/2011 in Murdo, South Dakota

Next stop, Mitchell, SD. It began to feel as if every town along I-90 was vying for our attention with some reason or other to get off the road, but Mitchell had been on my radar for several years. Mitchell is the home of the Corn Palace, a multi-use facility that in 2011 is hosting everything from the Mitchell High School Graduation to Loretta Lynn in concert. A large, ornate building that fills one city block, the exterior fa├žade features murals redone every year "painted" entirely in corn cobs. Yellow corn predominates, but blue corn, red corn and other colored cobs enable the artists to get quite detailed images up for your enjoyment. One of the main murals on the front this year celebrates the 125th anniversary of the founding of Dakota Wesleyan University, also located in Mitchell. Ornate, yes. Ostentatious, probably. Worth a stop while driving I-90? Definitely.

The Corn Palace--yes that really is all made of ears of corn
Taken 5/18/2011 in Mitchell, South Dakota
(This one you really need to see enlarged)

East of Mitchell, we continued on and on (and on, and on), until we finally reached South Dakota's largest city, Sioux Falls. Roughly one quarter of the state's population lives in Sioux Falls and the surrounding county. This is where we left I-90 for I-29 which heads south to Sioux City, Iowa (and eventually to Omaha, Kansas City and beyond, though those cities were beyond the scope of our travels).

Minnehaha County Farm
Taken 5/18/2011 near Sioux Falls, South Dakota

We stopped for the night in Sioux City where we visited the Odyssey Casino, a structure built entirely on barges in the Missouri River. After losing some money at the Poker and Black Jack tables, we ate dinner in the casino's restaurant and found suitable accommodations at the downtown Ramada. And thus ended day two. Those of you who have been following my peregrinations over the past four years may recall that I wrote about crossing South Dakota back in 2007. On that trip I took the back roads across the state, and if you wish, you can read about the drive through the Badlands from Rapid City to Pierre here, and from Pierre to Des Moines, Iowa here.

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