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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Wheedle in My Headlights, October 2015 (Part 2)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

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Day 4: Sun, Oct 25, 2015

Rochester, MN to Mitchell, SD
~ 310 miles

ROAD TRIP MUSIC THOUGHTS: #3: Gram Parsons made an appearance in today’s playlist, specifically the song Ooh Las Vegas. That inspired some humming and steering-wheel-percussion on my part, and eventually I couldn’t listen to the iPod anymore, because my own generic country-rock melody was crowding it out. This melody came complete with several verses of lyrics, which I sang loudly as I drove across Minnesota. I should have pulled over and written it down, because this is all I can remember:

All the way from Minnesota
To Mitchell, South Dakota
Got your picture taped to the dash

Saw the Corn Palace
Then I headed down to Dallas
With a suitcase full of hash

I know it’s not much to go on, but can somebody please help me finish this song so I can get it out of my head?

As the sun rose, I pulled off the interstate at Blue Earth, MN, home of the giant statue of the Jolly Green Giant (Little Green Sprout is sadly not represented). At 55 feet, it’s about 5 feet taller than the statue of Mary I saw on Friday – make of that what you will. Back in the 1970s, local DJ Paul Hedberg would interview people passing through town. At the end of each interview, he would present the lucky travelers with samples of canned corn and peas from the local Green Giant canning facility. At some point, somebody said, “I’d sure like to meet this Green Giant feller, heh, heh” and Hedberg’s eyes twinkled with inspiration. He got approval from the President of Green Giant Company (provided, of course, that the Green Giant Company didn’t have to fund the project, and would not be held liable for any injuries sustained by crazy, pill-popping teens climbing the Green Giant statue), convinced some of his buddies in the Blue Earth Chamber of Commerce to cough up 5k each, and in 1979 the statue was completed. Hedberg was so bullish on Green Giant and Blue Earth that he talked the Highway Administration into re-routing I-90 to pass by his home town. Here is an actual quote from Hedberg’s actual autobiography, The Time of My Life:

I made arrangements with a local crane owner to display the statue temporarily at the site of the I-90 dedication: suspended from this crane, with straps under his armpits, the Giant offered his approving smile for what we’d accomplished with the Highway Administration! It was a spectacular piece of publicity for Blue Earth.

Undoubtedly, you now want to purchase Paul Hedberg’s autobiography, and you can do that here.

The Green Giant statue was constructed by Creative Displays, a company that later changed its name to (wait for it)… FAST Corporation.

Two hours later, I was in Sioux Falls, SD (“The Heart of America”). I was there to see Sioux Falls, obviously, but I also wanted to see one of the classic Muffler Man statues. This particular variation of Muffler Man is known as Mr. Bendo (his name is usually “embroidered” on his shirt pocket), and he was made by a company named International Fiberglass in Venice, CA – recently accused of stealing top-secret fiberglass elephant technology from their sworn rivals, FAST Corporation. (I just made that up.) Here’s Steve Dashew, former president of International Fiberglass:

The first figure was a Paul Bunyan, done for the PB Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona in about 1962… This was created by a fellow named Bob Prewitt, who owned Prewitt Fiberglass… Most of the statues were derivatives of that one mold – fill in the beard… or add a new chest for Indians, etc… We had a variety of figures which we adapted from one mold – such as golfers, cowboys, spacemen, Indians, muffler men, etc.

From Mr. Bendo, it was a short drive downtown to Falls Park. It wasn’t even noon, and there had already been SO MANY ACTIVITIES!

Sioux Falls, SD (“Queen City of the West”) is the 47th fastest-growing city in the United States, and Falls Park is right in the middle of downtown. The photogenic falls tumble over and through stacks of pinkish quartzite, great for climbing even though the signs say not to do that under penalty of arrest and/or death. The whole area was originally inhabited by Ho-Chunk, Ioway, Otoe, and other indigenous agricultural tribes/nations, but of course that had all changed by the mid-1800s. The only historic ruins I saw at Falls Park were mills and military forts built by European colonizers, though I have read since that native burial mounds are visible nearby. The park itself is beautiful and well-maintained, with bike paths and viewing platforms and picnic areas and a restaurant that tips out over the falls and I recommend that you visit.

After a quick lunch (roasted pineapple and habanero pork flatbread pizza GET IN MAH BELLY), I checked my itinerary and found that I could still make it to the Corn Palace before closing time, if I left immediately and didn’t stop to urinate on the way, which was unlikely. The Corn Palace is a theater/arena in Mitchell, South Dakota, where they host high school basketball games (local team is named the Kernels, because of course they are), country music concerts (sponsored by local radio station KORN, obviously) and other special events, but more to the point, there is a gigantic sun-baked mural of moonwalking Michael Jackson made ENTIRELY OUT OF CORN.

The building itself is a cartoonish South Dakotan Epcot Center take on a Russian palace if it were designed by Peter Max, completely out of place on the sand-blown streets of Mitchell.

Interesting side note (courtesy of Wikipedia and the Mitchell Daily Republic): In 2007, the Corn Palace received $25,000 in funding from the Department of Homeland Security. They used that money to install a closed-circuit camera system, which was necessary for a) protecting President Obama when he visited in 2008 and b) preventing local moonshine-addled teens from defacing the fiberglass statue of Corn Palace mascot Cornelius, an anthropomorphic ear of corn. Your tax dollars at work!

Inside the Corn Palace are more corn murals, mostly in the WPA “Hard-Working Farmers are the Backbone of our Great Nation!” genre. It was off-season, and I was all alone in there, taking pictures and enjoying the quiet. About the time I was wrapping it up, two women entered, a mother and her daughter. They were trying to take a selfie with both of their faces in the picture and one of the murals in the background, but it wasn’t going well, so I offered to help. They were grateful, and happy with the pictures I took, and the conversation was easy. Mom asked about my trip. I gave her the short version, and told her that I was headed to Seattle.

“Small world – we’re headed to Yakima!” Mom exclaimed. “Just like you, I’m between two homes at the moment, sort of unsure about the future. Trying to decide what the rest of my life is going to look like.”

It’s always fascinating to me when a casual conversation takes a serious turn, especially with someone that I don’t know well. I feel a kind of hyper-awareness settle between us, like we both know we’ve just crossed a boundary and we’re sizing each other up, trying to decide how to collaborate in the process of steering the boat into that more dangerous and more interesting part of the lake. I genuinely wanted to know what was going on in Mom’s life, and it seemed that she wanted to tell me about it.

“Sounds like you’ve experienced some big life changes recently,” was the best I could muster under pressure. “Can I ask what happened? Not that it’s any of my business – I realize that I just met you.”

“Oh! Well, yes. I guess I can – well, my husband just died. We’d been married for 43 years.”

At this, her smile evaporated. She was tearing up but controlling it. “Oh, Mom…” said her daughter, worried. I had no idea what would be appropriate, so I asked if I could give her a hug.

“Yes! Yes, of course you can give me a hug. I’d like that.”

And so I hugged her, and it felt like a relief for both of us. Right at that moment, I felt full of the most intense love for this woman I had just met, so glad that I had offered to take a picture. She cried against my chest just for a moment, squeezed me tight and thanked me, and then it was time to leave the Corn Palace because they were about to close, and the janitors wanted to start mopping.

I was eager to visit the Official Corn Palace Gift Shop, so I hurried across the street. Here’s a description of the wondrous delights to be found in said gift shop, direct from their listing on the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce website:

A-maizing Gift Ideas! The Corn Palace Gift Shop offers a variety of unique gift ideas and novelty items. From corn platters to corn suckers! They feature many South Dakota Made Products such as corn cob jelly, buffalo jerky and more!

Business was slow. The owner or manager, a heavy-set elderly woman, sat behind a folding card table at the back of the store, knitting what appeared to be a sweater for a chinchilla. She was irritated by my arrival. “We’re closing in fifteen minutes!” she hollered sternly from her seat, the entry bell on the door still tinkling. “Understood!” I assured her, and headed directly for the t-shirt racks. I was hoping to get an Official Corn Palace T-Shirt, but couldn’t find any in my size.

“Excuse me, ma’am – do you have this shirt in-”

“We’re out of Small, Large, Extra Large and Extra Extra Large!” she shouted. “If it isn’t on the rack, we don’t have it. End of the season. I told them I needed more of the Large and Extra Large, but they don’t listen to me. THEY NEVER LISTEN TO ME.”

During this impromptu lecture on the harsh realities of novelty t-shirt supply-and-demand, a couple entered and started browsing. I was unable to warn them in time.

“Miss, do you have the buffalo jerky in any flavor besides-”

“IF IT ISN’T ON THE RACK, WE DON’T HAVE IT. We’re out of Tex-Mex, Sweet Dave’s Extra Hot BBQ, and South Dakota Sizzle. We’re also out of commemorative key chains, jackalope sweaters, posters of Willie Nelson, and all of the souvenir license plates except ‘Ethel’ because who names a kid Ethel these days? I keep telling them they need more Courtney, more Brandon, but they don’t listen! NOBODY LISTENS.”

I made my way to the motel, and found it similarly devoid of visitors.

“Yeah, it’s kinda slow at the moment,” the desk clerk admitted cheerily. “Look, the only reason to visit South Dakota at all is for pheasant season.”

I genuinely tried to work up some interest in this topic, but it was useless; I was exhausted and there was nothing in it for me. I replied with the absolute minimum allowable engagement: “Pheasants, eh?”

“Yep. Pheasants are our state bird, but we also shoot lots of ’em, heh heh! Here’s your room key. Pool’s open, including the water slide, but there’s no lifeguard until tomorrow. I don’t know if you like to swim? And if you’re looking for someplace to eat, can I recommend Whiskey Creek, over by the mall? Here’s a complimentary coupon for 10% off your entire order. Except alcohol. It doesn’t cover alcohol. Enjoy your stay in Mitchell!”

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Day 5: Mon, Oct 26, 2015

Mitchell, SD to Rapid City, SD
~ 277 miles

I had a lot of miles to cover, so I got up before dawn and partook of the complimentary continental breakfast. There was just one other guy – stocky, older, neatly groomed – sitting there, and he offered an amiable smile as I entered. Fellow travelers. We were the only two people in the flourescent-lit conference room, our styrofoam plates piled high with day-old bagels, foil packets of grape jelly, and disc-shaped portions of deep-fried egg substitute. Don’t even ask about the coffee. It was awkward sitting in silence, so the guy came over, extended his hand, and introduced himself.

“Bob Hays, State Farm Agent! Mind if I join ya?”

He told me about his family and his farm and the surprising fluctuations of the insurance business and his plans to retire soon and his tricked-out RV and also his three best friends, who were still asleep. They were only in South Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Three hours later, I arrived in Philip, South Dakota, home of the Minuteman Missile National Historical Site.

The START treaty, signed in 1991 by Bush 41 and Gorbachev, led to the “deactivation and destruction of all 450 Minuteman II Launch Facilities (LFs) and 45 associated Launch Control Facilities (LCFs) with the exception of Launch Facility (Missile Silo) Delta-09 and Launch Control Facility Delta-01,” which were preserved for educational purposes. That quote is direct from the official website. The tours are free, but they give out tickets on a first-come first-serve basis, and they are frequently booked up by 10AM. I arrived around 8:30, and snagged the last remaining ticket for the day.

Touring the site is complicated. Tickets for the guided tour are only available at the Visitor Center, and only after you have secured a ticket will the Ranger give you the super secret sheet of paper with directions to the underground Launch Control Facility, which is a couple miles away, and the silo itself, which is 15 miles away. When Eric and I toured the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, the word EXPIRED magically appeared on the visitor badge after it had been exposed to sunlight. I would like to report that the directions to Delta-01 were written in lemon juice or that the paper self-combusted after 15 minutes, but no, it was just a standard photocopy. Odder still, you don’t need a ticket at all to see the missile silo itself; you just need to know where it is.

The tour didn’t start for a bit, so I drove down to see the silo. I took the exit indicated on the sheet of directions and immediately assumed the directions were wrong or I had made a mistake, because I was on a dirt road and my passage was blocked by a herd of cows. I eased forward and they reluctantly moved, mooing in a threatening tone and glaring at me with their wet, murderous eyes. Now I was driving through an open gate and across one of those grates designed to cripple any rogue cows who dared try to escape. Bold-lettered signs indicated that I was on private property, and not to leave my vehicle for any reason, presumably because of the unpredictable and belligerent cows. The dirt road twisted around a hill and I saw a raised area ahead, enclosed by a tall fence and razor wire. It was during visiting hours, so the gate was open. Right there, in the middle of someone’s active cattle ranch, was a (theoretically) deactivated Minuteman II Missile.

When active, each one of these missiles carried as much destructive power as one-third of all bombs used during World War II and yes, that includes both atomic bombs. I was looking down at it through a glass window in the ground, and the sight made me queasy. Part of it was pure vertigo – the silo was deep and I could see all the way to the bottom, where some water had collected. And also: I was looking at a weapon explicitly designed to kill hundreds of thousands of non-combatant human beings.

Back at Delta-01, the Launch Control Facility, the park ranger was ready to take us underground. Max and Robin and I all have a soft spot for park rangers and their presentations. Somehow, despite being government employees in military-esque uniforms, their odd personalities shine through.

“Welcome to Minuteman Missile National Historical Site. Today we’ll be touring Launch Control Facility Delta-01. I’m Ranger Swanson, and I’ll try to make the apocalypse both educational and humorous.”

I took a bunch of pictures, and they probably do a better job of describing the experience, but here are a couple of things that you won’t get from the pictures:

The control room is a box suspended by shock-absorbing beams inside a larger hollow space underground. The only viable way in or out was through numerous checkpoints, locked doors, and narrow tunnels, with all kinds of complicated security protocols. BUT. The designers did build in an escape hatch for the missileers, just in case. A secured door marked Emergancy Exit (sic) leads to a tunnel that goes directly up to the surface. That door can only be unlocked from below, and the tunnel is filled with sand. The sand would make it difficult for anyone trying to come down from above, but if the door was unlocked from insde, the sand would just pour out into the large hollow space, allowing the missileers to escape. Or not. Ranger Swanson explains: “Sounds pretty good, right? Yes, those engineers were just tickled pink at this clever idea they had. One thing they forgot, though. If a nuclear warhead landed anywhere nearby, the sand in the tunnel would be turned to a solid pillar of glass, blocking the escape tunnel permanently. Of course, if a nuclear warhead landed nearby, what would be the point of escaping? Oh well.”

Ranger Swanson also did this neat little audience participation thing where he accused us of espionage. He set it up at the beginning of the tour:

“Now before we go underground, I just want each and every one of you to know: I’m on to you. DHS isn’t gathering all your facebook messages for nothing – Ranger Swanson knows your secrets. And I happen to know that one of you is a Russian spy, trying to gain access to Delta-01 and steal our launch codes. Now, I’m not gonna name names just yet, but I want all of you to keep your eyes on the person next to you, and see if you can identify the Russian spy before the end of the tour…”

He worked this theme throughout the morning, masterfully prepping us for the payoff, which came at the very end of the tour. As we left the launch control room and assembled at the elevator to return to the surface, Ranger Swanson informed us that the time had come to expose the sleeper agent in our midst.

“I’m surprised that none of you have identified the spy yet. It’s pretty obvious, when you’ve been in this business as long as I have. The mole on the tour… is always the last person to leave the control room.”

We all turned around just in time to see the final straggling member of the tour group – a sad sack wearing a Hawaiian shirt and three cameras around his neck – duck his head as he exited the control room. When he stood up, we were all looking at him and chuckling.

“Uh… what?”

Nicely played, Ranger Swanson.

I hadn’t planned on stopping at Wall Drug, but it was still early in the day, and it was right off the freeway, and I needed to pee, as I almost always do. I hadn’t eaten since the Continental Abomination in Mitchell, so I sat in the Wall Drug Cafe and ordered lunch. It was still before noon, so I was mostly alone. While I was reading the inspiring history of Wall Drug on the menu (short version: Ice Water = Loss Leader), a group of white guys in off-the-rack suits gathered at the table next to mine; some kind of business meeting. Actually, all of them were wearing suits except one guy, who seemed to be the host of the meeting – he was wearing a sweater vest. He had glasses and a mustache and I know I mentioned the sweater vest previously, but I really do want to stress that he was, in fact, wearing a sweater vest and he said “gosh” frequently and he was annoyingly chipper and he was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Ned Flanders IRL.

“Say there, Darlene? Gosh, we’re all just real thirsty here – could you bring us a bunch of Diet Cokes?”

Apparently, he knew the waitstaff – maybe he worked there? Then one of his associates called him Rick, and I looked at the pictures in the menu again, and realized that I was looking at Rick Hustead, current Chairman of Wall Drug. His grandfather, Ted Hustead, was the founder. The quote below is from Rick, in an article on the South Dakota Retailer’s Association website. For the full effect, Google a picture of Rick Hustead, and then – while looking at the picture – read the following in Ned Flander’s voice:

I want to strive to run this business in an excellent fashion. I also want to provide outstanding customer service. When those two things happen together, I’m having a great day!

When Darlene returned with the Diet Cokes, Rick ordered the Wall Drug Cafe Daily Special for everyone: beef stroganoff over spaghetti noodles, with a big heap of creamed corn on the side.

Two words: Sweater. Vest.

Yes, I asked someone to take a picture with me pretending to ride the fiberglass jackalope. I’m glad I finally saw Wall Drug, but I didn’t stay long, and one visit was definitely enough. I did enjoy the animatronic Chuck Wagon Quartet singing Cool Water:

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…but that’s more about childhood memories of driving with my Dad, listening to The Sons of the Pioneers on the cassette player.

Somewhere between Wall and Rapid City, my oil light came on. Since I was still a thousand miles from Seattle, and because I am an anxious person and that light on the dash was distracting me (and I needed to pee anyway), I decided to get an oil change. I found a garage in Rapid City (how did we navigate the world before smartphones?) and dropped in. Sitting next to me in the waiting room was a Native American woman in her 50s or 60s. One of the garage bros came out to ask her what oil weight she wanted, but she didn’t know, and the question left her flustered.

“I hate car questions,” she said. “I don’t know how to answer – I don’t know anything about cars!”

She seemed to want a response, but I’ll be honest – I was tired and irritable, and she seemed a little off in some way I couldn’t articulate, and I just didn’t have the energy. But it also felt wrong to say nothing, and I had set out to have conversations with people on this trip, so I put my phone in my pocket and turned to face her.

“Ha, me too. I’m a guy, so I’m supposed to know about cars, but I don’t. Not at all. Makes me feel like an idiot.”

“I know, right? And if you don’t know the answer, they treat you like you’re a child. Plus, it’s not even my car; it’s my brother’s. How should I know what kind of oil he likes?”

“Ha! Next time, tell your brother to deal with his own oil change!”

“I would, but by the next time his car needs an oil change, he’ll be dead. The only reason I’m here in Rapid City is to take care of him while he’s dying.”

Once again, I had stepped directly into a stranger’s tragedy. She went on to tell me about her brother, how he had probably contracted cancer from a dangerous job he had worked for many years. Because he was poor, and alone, and uneducated, he felt at the mercy of his doctors, who prescribed increasinly horrifying treatments which sounded worse than the cancer. She told me about their childhood together, their many years of separation and estrangement, their reunion and how hard it was to watch him fade. Eventually, it seemed she had told me everything that she wanted to on that topic, so I asked her something else.

“I apologize in advance for asking a personal question, but am I correct that you have some Native heritage?”

As soon as this left my mouth, it felt like a mistake. To my surprise, she brightened visibly.

“Yes! Absolutely. I’m 100% Dakota, or you might say Sioux. I grew up on a reservation not far from here.”

“Can you tell me what it was like for a Native American girl to grow up in an area like Rapid City?”

“It was horrible! Everyone I went to school with, all the people in town, made it clear that they looked down on us. You know – ‘Trash!’ or ‘Drunkards!’ When I could, I hid my heritage. I was ashamed. When I was eight, my mother died and I moved to Florida. I made a friend in school, and I never told her that I was Sioux. Then one day she found out, I don’t know how. At recess, she confronted me. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she said. ‘That’s so cool!’ I was ten years old before anyone gave me the idea that my heritage was something to be proud of.”

After my oil change was complete, I drove downtown to see Art Alley, which is an “alley” that’s full of “art” (graffiti). At first I couldn’t find it, so I went in to a jewelry store and asked for directions.

“It’s right behind this block,” the proprietor told me, pointing toward the back wall. “Word to the wise? Go there now, before it gets dark. And leave your valuables locked in your car.”

I’ve heard these kinds of warnings before, and they often seem to mean: PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THE AREA. So I dismissed the concerns of Nervous Nelly and found my way to the art. Before I had walked twenty feet down the alley, I passed a cluster of unhealthy guys obviously engaged in a drug deal. Then, a clearly fucked-up dude started following me. I left my camera in my backpack and walked faster, with purpose. The dude ran to catch up with me, and stood inches away, well within my personal space. He did not appear to be well.

“Hey, man… you got a cigarette?”

I told him no and continued walking. A second guy approached me, and again stood much too close and asked if I had a cigarette. Or a lighter. Or matches. Or bus fare. Even after I exited the alley and was standing on the street, it was difficult to shake him. So, I only got a couple of pictures of Art Alley, and only with my phone. Which is a shame, because it was pretty cool.

I dropped by the only record store in town, a place called Ernie November. They carry skateboards, magazines, smoking accessories, CDs and LPs, and the usual assortment of independent record store “weird stuff.” Had a nice conversation with the young man behind the counter, who wanted to move to Portland, OR with his girlfriend, but was worried that it might be too gentrified and expensive. On the other hand, he said with a laugh, Rapid City could stand a bit more gentrification. On his recommendation, I picked up CDs by Windhand (dirgy doom metal) and Fuzz (psychedelic garage metal with Ty Segall on drums).

At dinner that night, the waiter in training was obviously anxious to prove himself. When I presented my debit card, he looked at it and smiled.

“Thank you, Mr. TAVES. Heh heh.”

“Well done! Nobody ever gets that right. How did you know how to pronounce it?”

He grinned proudly and pointed to his Chicago Blackhawks shirt. For anyone who is not a hockey fan (like me, for example), Jonathan Toews is currently the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s a Mennonite from Canada, which makes sense because my Mennonite ancestors migrated from the Netherlands to Royal Prussia to Crimea (which shortly thereafter was annexed by Russia) and finally to Canada. (“… our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world!” – Bill Murray, Stripes.) Later, some of the Canadian Toews intermarried with their cousins in Kansas, and eventually I was born. There’s still a big community of my relatives, all Mennonites, up in Alberta. Also of note, a Canadian Mennonite named Miriam Toews has written several acclaimed novels about Canadian Mennonites.

Bottom line: That waiter got a sizeable tip.

Also: Big thanks to my cuz Rebecca, who set me straight on the Toews migration. I probably still got it wrong.

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Day 6: Tue, Oct 27, 2015

Rapid City, SD to Cody, WY
~ 408 miles

After a night staring at the ceiling in a Howard Johnson’s (strangely – and not by design – the same Howard Johnson’s that Max and I slept in eight years earlier), I escaped from Rapid City before dawn and set the controls for the heart of Deadwood. But the closer I got, the less interesting it sounded – a bunch of casinos and gift shops and other fake (and probably racist) “Wild West” bullshit. I was exhausted, and what I really wanted was some quiet. When I saw the sign for Deadwood, I pulled over and took a picture, then turned off the highway and drove to Mount Roosevelt instead.

Seth Bullock, born 1849, was a hardware store owner, hotel owner, Sheriff of Deadwood, rancher, alfalfa farmer, member of the Rough Riders, and U.S. Marshal. He also, based on the photographic evidence at my disposal, had a small weasel or ferret attached to his upper lip. Bullock met Theodore Roosevelt (then a deputy sheriff) in 1884 while bringing in a horse thief known as Crazy Steve. That is a real thing that happened. They remained friends for life. When Roosevelt died in 1919, Bullock had Sheep Mountain, overlooking Deadwood, rechristened as Mount Roosevelt. At the peak of Mount Roosevelt, Bullock and the Black Hills Pioneers built a stone monument and named it Friendship Tower. When Seth Bullock died later that same year, he was buried (along with “Wild Bill” Hickok and Calamity Jane) in Mount Moriah Cemetery, his grave facing Mount Roosevelt.

I found myself alone at the top of the mountain, and that was fine by me. I spent an hour or so resting, taking pictures, and enjoying the view. Then I used the portable toilet in the parking lot (thank ye kindly, U.S. Forest Service) and departed for Wyoming, which mostly looks like this:

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WYOMING TRAVEL TIPS, #1: Highway 14 through the Bighorn Mountain range is a feast for the senses, and highly recommended! However, for maximum enjoyment – and to ensure your personal safety – please do not take this route if any of the following conditions are true: a) The sun is about to set b) a local tells you that “I heard it was snowin’ up top” or c) you are driving a Prius. Happy Motoring!

WYOMING TRAVEL TIPS, #2: Gas tank half empty? Start looking for a gas station. Otherwise, you might find yourself waiting desperately for a gas station – or any fucking civilization at all – to appear, and you might be tempted to pull off the freeway to look for a gas station and then find that there is no on-ramp back on to the freeway and so you end up winding through an endless wasteland for an hour while your gas tank gradually empties and then when the “fuel tank empty” light is flashing, you might finally see a gas station in the middle of nowhere and find that it is non-functional and long abandoned, and you may begin to weep, and nobody wants to deal with that. Happy Motoring!

WYOMING TRAVEL TIPS, #3: Here in Wyoming, we are patriotic and God-fearing people, and believe that our children are a precious gift from the Lord. Because of these deeply-held beliefs, we are very strict about our school zone speed limits. So – speaking hypothetically – if you happen to look down at the GPS for a moment and thereby miss the sign indicating that the 40mph zone changes to 20mph during school hours, and you happen to be going 35mph, you will be issued a ticket for 290 dollars and 10 cents. Happy Motoring!

The T. Rex Natural History Museum in Ranchester, WY turned out to be just an enlarged garage in front of Mike Dawson’s house. On the door was a sign, which informed potential visitors that – if the door was locked – Mike was probably over in the adjacent apartment, and to honk your horn. So I did, and Mike poked his head out the window, gesturing to indicate he would be over in a minute. He came out tucking in his shirt and smoothing down his hair.

“Hi! Welcome to the T. Rex Natural History Museum!”

Inside, there was a cramped gift shop area and a cash register. After I paid my entry fee, Mike unhooked a velvet rope, allowing me to enter the museum proper which is basically a large living room with a cement floor. Positioned around the walls were dioramas and fossils and bones, all in homemade display cases. In the middle of the space was a cast T. Rex skull (“Sue”) and a cast Triceratops skull (“Mikey”). Mike asked if I wanted the guided tour, and I said of course, so he walked me around the exhibits, delivering a brief prepared lecture on each, hands in pockets. During his presentation about Sue, I noticed something on the floor and gasped.

“Say, Mike… there are small snakes slithering around on the floor beneath that chair.”

“Yeah, they got in here a while ago, and I can’t seem to keep ’em out. They’re actually just the babies of a larger one that I think is hiding behind one of the exhibits. But I don’t see any mice in here, so I can’t complain too much about the snakes.”

Here’s Mike’s friend Peter Larson, a renowned paleontologist at the Black Hills Institute, on why you should visit:

You get to learn about the biggest, baddest monster that ever lived. And also about a nice, great human who’s… well, not like some other people I know.

I could not have said it better. At the end of the tour, I purchased a cast raptor tooth. “It’s for my son, Max,” I explained. Mike showed me a framed picture of his granddaughter. The bottom border of the frame read, “CUTE-A-SAURUS.”

From Ranchester, I took US 14 over the Bighorn Mountains toward Cody. The slanting rays of the setting sun illuminated the orange and pink mountains, which looked like the background from a Road Runner cartoon. It was snowing at the top, just as Mike had warned me. I reached Cody at dusk.

Proceed to Part 3

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