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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Max and Jason: Days 1 and 2

The first long night and day of our cross-country odyssey has come to an end, and I find myself asking one question: How did all of my careful planning go so horribly awry?

Thursday night, everything seemed to be going great. AS PER MY PLAN, I stayed up all night, skinny-dipping at William’s, then catching the midnight premiere of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and then packing. AS PER MY PLAN, I then put on the eyeshades and earplugs, set the alarm for 2PM Friday, and went to sleep. AS PER MY PLAN, I woke up at 2PM… and nobody was home. How could I begin my drive to Massachusetts without the car?

Panicked, I called Robin on her cell phone.

“I’m in a meeting!” she hissed. “I’ll be home soon!”

I had planned to be at Max’s by 3:30PM, but I didn’t have access to the car until 4PM…

“I HAVE TO LEAVE RIGHT NOW!” I shrieked as Robin pulled up.

“I KNOW! I KNOW!” she shrieked back.

I violently threw my bags into the car and leaped into the driver’s seat.

“WAIT!” Robin screamed. “I HAVE TO TELL YOU SOMETHING! THE ‘CHECK ENGINE’ LIGHT JUST CAME ON!”

I pounded the steering wheel in impotent rage.

“GOD! DAMN! IT!”

Short version of the following two hours: I called a Toyota dealer, who assured me that if the light wasn’t flashing, it was “probably nothing.” I drove to Max’s house and picked him up, sat in rush hour traffic for an hour and a half, and finally left the Seattle area around 6PM.

After that, things got slightly better.

Max and I had stocked up on sandwiches and snacks, and we ate those as we hurtled through the night in the Prius.

Playlist for the first night:

Minus the Bear

Battles

Crowded House

Interpol

Police

Rolling Stones

Spoon

We stopped at a rest stop in Idaho (I think), and a nice older man and woman in a booth refilled our water bottles and gave us cookies. They were raising money for their square dance club, so I donated five dollars. We chatted for a while, and the man asked where we were headed. After I answered, he told me a story about his father, who started the first hospital in the town of Holyoke. He said he hadn’t been back there for a while, but that if I got a chance, I should look for his father’s hospital. He told me where to find it, but also said that it may have been turned into an old folks’ home or something, so it might be hard to recognize. The woman warned me that people on the East Coast weren’t as “open” as people on the West Coast, so I should prepare myself. “Fine people, though; just kinda keep to themselves,” her husband added. He also warned me to look out for deer and other critters crossing the highway at night; he had seen more than usual dead at the side of the road recently.

The square-dancing guy was right; I saw more dead animals at the side of the road on this trip than on any trip I can remember. Sometimes the bodies were destroyed and unrecognizable. Sometime during the night, our headlights briefly illuminated one large and beautiful deer with a full set of antlers, dead in the gravel. It was completely intact, with no visible blood or wounds. The only element out of place was the deer’s neck, which the impact had twisted at an impossible angle.

Trains kept us company all night; sometimes, I would look to my right and see odd rippling lights keeping pace with our car, only to realize they were reflections off the side of a train moving along just behind the treeline. Once, a train passed us slowly, heading West, carrying the unpainted fuselages of four passenger jet planes.

Eventually, Max fell asleep, and I was alone. It’s always surprising (to me) how dark it can get between cities. For long stretches there were no streetlights, and it was a bit thrilling and scary to be driving so fast, able to see only a few feet in any direction.

I was enjoying the drive so much that I didn’t notice I had nearly run out of gas. The thought of having to park and walk was terrifying to me; it was many miles between cities out here. Just as my panic was beginning to take hold, I saw the bright lights of a 24-hour gas station off the highway. I pulled off and filled up, then went in the station to use the restroom and buy some snacks. Let me make clear that this gas station was in the middle of exactly nowhere. It was the only business at the exit, and you’d have to drive thirty miles or more in either direction to find another place to stop. Plus, it was something like 2AM. Nonetheless, the small, smoke-filled “casino” attached to the gas station was in full swing. There were also three little kids, none older than 11, standing on the sidewalk outside the “casino,” peering in the window. I went in to purchase my sundries, and the kids followed. They started chasing each other through the convenience store, knocking candy bars and bags of honey-roasted cashews off the shelves, screeching. “Friends of yours?” I wryly asked the convenience store proprietor, who was glaring at the street urchins and fuming. “No sir,” he replied tersely, pulling his lips back to reveal a mouthful of yellow and grey teeth. “But they’re about to become my enemies.” Just then, the door to the casino burst open, and two bleach-blonde women emerged. “Did you win anything, Mommy?” the oldest boy demanded. “Whose money are you using? Mine? Grandma, Mommy is using my birthday money!” The younger of the two women responded by slapping the boy hard across the face. “You shut up!” she yelled. “Me and your Gram are going back to play a few more hands. You keep yourselves out of trouble, or you’ll all get a whipping!” This store was completely populated with guests from the Jerry Springer Show.

Did I mention it was 2AM?

Besides dead animals, the other thing we saw a lot of was bikers, which reminded me that the Sturgis Biker Rally was going on. All night and day, bikers on elaborately-painted Harleys and custom-made trikes with outlandish exhaust systems rumbled proudly past us, carrying stocky guys with long hair tucked into scarves, and their female counterparts, all wearing tube tops and leather chaps and earrings made out of peacock feathers. Well, most of them, anyway. We talked to a couple of the bikers later in the day at a souvenir shop, and found out that the Sturgis Rally has been going on for 67 years! The woman I talked to told me that her life didn’t feel right when she missed Sturgis last year. I asked her why she missed it, but she would only say “medical problems” so I left it alone.

Finally, dawn broke, and we were in Montana. We stopped at a Denny’s for breakfast, and Max took over the driving duties while I settled in for a long-awaited nap.

“So I just stay on this road for a long time, right?” Max asked me as I was dozing off.

“Yeah, just stay on this road,” I agreed, and promptly fell unconscious.

I woke up several hours later, and groggily read the exit signs to get my bearings. Oddly, none of the cities we were passing were names that I expected. I consulted the map, waited until a few more signs had passed, consulted the map again, then sat, dumbfounded.

“What highway are we on?” I asked my traveling partner.

“I stayed on I-94, just like you told me.”

We were supposed to be on I-90. Somehow, just before I fell asleep, we had navigated onto I-94, and we were now several hundred miles off course. After a quick re-calculation, I told Max to take the next exit, and we began navigating our way South, back to I-90. This was kind of a bummer, but the up side was that we were now traveling on the “blue highways,” and we got to enjoy several hours of quiet driving on two-lane blacktop through beautiful rolling farmland and bizarre Dr. Seuss landscapes, without another car in sight for miles.

We listened to music for a while… I queued up the 90’s mix on my iPod, filled with Crash Test Dummies and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. “Yeah, your Mom and I used to listen to this song all the time…” I commented nostalgically at one point. “Why?” Max responded, after a precisely-calculated comedic beat. Damn him. I would be angrier if his delivery wasn’t so good.

Around 3PM, we reached Devil’s Tower, and it was just as unsettling and imposing as you remember it from “Close Encounters.” We drove right up to the parking lot at the base, where most of the parking spots were cordoned off and marked “Bikers Only.”

I kinda imagined the Sturgis attendees would just, you know, stay in Sturgis, shotgunning beers, drag racing for pinks, arm-wrestling, betting on dogfights, and dragging uppity cops behind their customized choppers. Those would be the male bikers; the female bikers I just imagine walking around topless, shouting profanities. But apparently, they like to do a little sight-seeing on their way to and from the weeklong festival of debauchery. So maybe I have been misinformed about bikers. Actually, every one I met was nice to a fault, except the souvenir guy, who was a little guarded. One biker dude even agreed to take a picture of me and Max, and he returned the camera after, and didn’t pull a knife on me or anything.

Though Max doesn’t really like the heat, or hiking, I convinced him to take a short walk up to an unobstructed view, and thank goodness; it was spectacular. Large birds wheeled about at the top, and the base is surrounded by a boulder field made of the parts that have fallen off through the eons. Looking up at it made me feel slightly queasy. Part of it is the association with the movie, and the ominous feeling when Richard Dreyfuss and JoBeth Williams are approaching in the car… but part of it is simply the thing itself. It looks like something molded out of clay, the sides scraped downward with an angular knife… but it’s so huge! And the walls are so steep! And there are prayer cloths and prayer bundles scattered throughout the woods surrounding the tower, which only adds to the surreal feeling.

Anyway, we looked up, mouths agape, for a little while, then Max and I hopped around on the rocks and took pictures of each other, then got back in the car and drove to our hotel in Gillette, which is where I’m sitting right now.

Tomorrow: Mt. Rushmore! Caves! Crazy Horse! Laser Show!

One Comment

  1. sounds like an awesome time. devils tower is amazing!

    “its the journey not the destination”

    haha

    max is so photogenic, is he not?

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