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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Max and Jason: Days 3 and 4

In the 1955 Clouzot film, “Wages of Fear,” four lowlife bums have to transport crates of volatile nitroglycerine through the jungle in rickety old trucks. Of course, the crates explode one by one, until none are left to blow out the oil well fire, which was the reason they had to retrieve the nitro in the first place. In much the same way, my “Mini-Moo” half-and-half packages are exploding one by one in the August heat, progressively soaking all of my coffee-making apparatus in hot cream and driving me to existential despair.

See, I knew it was a crapshoot hoping to find decent coffee out in the uncharted “Middle Area” of the U.S., so I brought my own French Press (aluminum, so it wouldn’t break in transit), ground-to-order Café Ladro coffee, and a travel cup. But for me the experience is not complete without half-and-half – and I mean the real stuff, not that powdered crap. I don’t care if it IS “French Vanilla” flavored. So, long story short, I snagged some Mini-Moos from the office, but they are not faring as well as I had hoped.

Side note: No matter what people say, I think William Friedkin’s 1977 remake, “Sorcerer” is pretty gripping. Awesome soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Not yet available in a widescreen R1 DVD.

Have I mentioned the anti-meth signs? You know how, out in rural areas, you’ll often see hand-painted signs out in some guy’s corn field, bearing thought-provoking slogans such as: “My Mommy Was Pro-Life” and “Humans Use Duct Tape to Fix Everything; Jesus Used NAILS”? Over the first couple days of our trip, I saw at least four large, amateurishly painted anti-meth signs posted in fields next to the highway. One depicted a (presumably) horrifying death’s head, and smoke surrounding the demonic face spelled out the word “m-e-t-h”. Underneath this compelling imagery was the somewhat vague slogan “Got Meth?” The other one I remember had a picture of a hypodermic needle, with a skeleton inside. To avoid any confusion, the hypodermic was labeled with the word “METH” in bold, blood-red type. The slogan on this sign read “Not Even Once!”

On Sunday, we woke up in Gillette, WY, gassed up at the “Kum & Go” (no, I am not making this up) and headed for the Black Hills of South Dakota. Every step of the way, we were accompanied by squadrons of bikers, many of them sporting American flag doo-rags, wraparound sunglasses, and leather vests emblazoned with the name of their local biker’s association. Somebody is doing a brisk business selling embroidered patches which read “Helmet Laws Suck”. Every business for a hundred miles in every direction has a sign in their window reading “Welcome Bikers!” The Sturgis Rally is the front-page story on every local paper. It is, apparently, a Big Deal.

Some cool biker-related things we saw:

One Road Warrior-esque guy who looked like a business associate of Dog, The Bounty Hunter, was driving a customized trike. The trike apparently doubled as a tax-deductible company vehicle, because the name of his company was painted on the back panel: “Jeff Johnson Professional Investigators”. To give you a clearer picture of the range of services offered by Jeff, he had helpfully included the following slogan on the side panel: “We handle criminal cases of ALL TYPES.”

At a stoplight, a group of bikers pulled up next to our car. Many of the bikes we saw had custom-painted gas tanks, but the one that materialized next to our driver’s-side window went beyond anything we had seen thus far: A completely over-the-top Frank Frazetta-esque God-forsaken DEMON of some type, with blazing eyes and horns, belching brimstone and clutching the souls of the misbegotten in his grotesque cloven hooves. Max and I were awestruck. Mouths agape, we just could not tear our eyes away from the FRIGGING GAS-TANK DEMON parked next to us. Then the guy driving the bike, sensing our stares, whipped his head around and glared at us, as if to say, “What’re you pansies lookin’ at?” and we immediately pretended to be looking at something else until the light changed and we could escape.

Later in the day, we were driving behind a large group of motorcycles, climbing a long hill. As we neared the top, another group of motorcycles came over the hill toward us. The lead biker in the approaching group very quickly and calmly held out a hand, palm down, then lowered it; the universal “slow down” sign. This signal was so casual and so brief that it almost didn’t register – with me, that is. It clearly registered with the bikers in front of us, because they all immediately dropped their speed by 15 MPH, which irritated me… until the two State Patrol cars came over the hill, and I realized what had just taken place.

The Black Hills are really marvelous to behold and unlike any landscape I’ve seen; lush forest and rolling green hills, interrupted by startling outcroppings of stacked, rounded rocks that look like they were designed to be climbed on. I had to exercise my willpower not to stop every hundred yards to explore. The place is filled with caves, resorts, trails, campsites, lakes, and other, more low-rent attractions, like “Flintstones’ Bedrock City” and “The World’s Only Hand-Dug Oil Well!” which has a gift shop made out of a giant disused oil storage tank.

In fact, there were small oil wells scattered all over the area, which led Max and I to wonder if they were privately owned. How would that work, exactly? How do people know they have oil under their property? Max opined that it had something to do with “analyzing the soil” but I’m not convinced he knows what he’s talking about.

Another question we asked frequently: Who is abandoning all of these houses and cars? Every half mile or so, we’d see another abandoned shack, barn, stable, mobile home, or car. Max assured me that, if there was a single abandoned building or vehicle in his neighborhood, kids would take it over as a fort or a place to smoke and make out. Based on my own experiences, I would have to agree with Max on this. But all of these abandoned buildings and vehicles just looked… abandoned. Nobody seemed interested in them at all, maybe because they were so common and so accessible.

One homeowner had collected a field full of ancient, rusted trucks, wagons, and various farm tools. All of this stuff could not possibly have belonged to one family… so what was going on? Who had gathered this stuff? Why? Across the street, we found a disquieting Graveyard of Lost Bicycles. Children’s bicycles of every conceivable design and frame size lay in tangled heaps. Again: Why? It all seemed so wasteful and so odd.

In the town of Custer (yes, really), we ate lunch at Buster’s Cowboy Café. The walls were festooned with several hundred cowboy hats, buffalo pelts and skulls, and those laser-cut steel wall art pieces shaped like mighty elks and pine trees and stuff. You could buy each piece individually: The bull elk was $400, the trees were $200, and the moon was $180. That way, if you couldn’t afford the whole thing at once, you could get it one piece at a time. For a while, you would just have the trees, but eventually you would complete the set and it would definitely be worth the wait. If you got an unexpected bonus around Christmas, you could splurge on the optional bald eagle piece ($250). Max ate a beefalo burger, and enjoyed it. After lunch, we played “boot hoops” – a game where you try to throw tiny lassoes (sp?) over boots mounted on a sheet of plywood. Some people just drive through Custer on their way to Mt. Rushmore or Jewel Cave, but I say, stop a while. The folks are mighty friendly, the beefalo is delicious, and boot hoops is a G.D. hoot.

From Custer, we drove to Jewel Cave: “The Second Longest Cave in the World!” They had a bunch of tours to choose from, including the “Spelunking Tour.” To qualify for the Spelunking Tour, you had to exhale, grease yourself down, and crawl through a tiny hole in a cement block out in the courtyard of the Visitor Center. I barely made it through the hole, and had a minor panic attack when I thought I was stuck halfway through, so we decided to take the “Scenic Tour” instead. Our tour was led by Ranger Shay, who was very good at her job. She was the best kind of Ranger: knowledgeable, friendly, capable, and eager to share her vast Ranger knowledge with us. Whenever we passed under a low-hanging rock, she instructed us to yell out “Head-Knocker!” to warn the people behind us. The first few times, I yelled it out in tune to the Foreigner song, “Headknocker,” but that didn’t really catch on, so I dropped it. The cave itself was spectacular, with plenty of all the things you hope to see in a cave: Stalactites (“they hang TIGHT to the ceiling”), Stalagmites (“if you don’t watch where you’re going, you MIGHT trip over them”), rock formations that look like animals or dead celebrities, underground pools, flowstone, cave popcorn, dog’s tooth spar, nailhead spar, you name it.

From there, we proceeded to Wind Cave, which is only the FOURTH longest cave in the world. (“But we’re catching up! Jewel Cave better watch their back!” our tour guide told us. Apparently, there’s quite a cave-length rivalry going on.) Wind Cave is a relatively dry cave, so there are fewer water-related features (stalactites, stalagmites), but it’s still a geologically interesting place. Our tour guide, Ranger April (“But I’ll answer to any month!” she cheerily told us) obviously knew her stuff. The problem was, she talked to us like she was a brand-new first grade teacher, with exaggerated gestures and cartoonish facial expressions and a chirpy voice, and I found myself grinding my teeth.

Max and I learned something new: Both of these caves are “breathing caves” which means the cave is always trying to equalize the air pressure inside the cave with the air pressure outside the cave. If the air pressure is higher on the outside than on the inside, a stiff breeze is sucked IN to the cave. If the air pressure is higher on the inside than on the outside, a stiff breeze blows OUT of the cave. By measuring the volume of the air that moves in or out of the cave, scientists can determine the overall volume of the cave itself, which tells them how much of the cave remains undiscovered.

Predictably, Max used this newly-learned information as fodder for an endless stream of fart jokes:

“Mmmm… I think I need to equalize my inner air pressure… Ahh. Equilibrium achieved.”

“I think a low-pressure front is moving in… must… equalize… Ahh. Now I can calculate the volume of my interior areas.”

And so on.

After the caves, we were in the mood for some awe-inspiring monuments. Our choices: The seemingly obligatory yet slightly cheesy Mt. Rushmore, or the more culturally sensitive but as-yet-unfinished Crazy Horse. The Crazy Horse monument is located 17 miles from Mt. Rushmore, and it is not a federally-funded project (Oh, really? I hear you saying.) The sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on the monument in 1948, with the assistance of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear. Ziolkowski died in 1982, and he left plans for others to continue the project. The head of Crazy Horse is complete, and his horse is now being blocked out. At night, a laser show sketches the outlines of the finished sculpture, accompanied by the anthemic music of Styx. (Just kidding about Styx, but that would be rad.)

Turns out, you can see the Crazy Horse monument quite easily from the highway, and honestly, there isn’t much to see (yet). So we slowed down to look as we drove past, and then continued on to Mt. Rushmore.

As previously mentioned, when bikers aren’t stabbing Rolling Stones fans, they like to do a bit of sightseeing. From what I can gather, bikers are also a patriotic bunch. This may help to explain why so many of them were at Mt. Rushmore on Sunday. (“But why were YOU there?” you may be asking. We’re different; we were just there as cultural observers.)

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Behind the heads of Mt. Rushmore, there is a narrow box canyon, only visible from a high angle. Inside this box canyon, there is a vault cut into the rock. Inside this vault are several large enamel panels, containing an abbreviated history of the United States, and background information about Mt. Rushmore itself. The vault is now sealed, in the hope that future civilizations (or, let’s be honest: ALIENS) will discover it. That’s just one of the many things I learned in the Mt. Rushmore museum. I also learned how they repair cracks in the president’s faces: foam rubber tubes and silicone sealant, the same way you’d repair a sidewalk or patio.

After taking the “President’s Walk” tour and taking a bunch of un-spectacular photos, we settled in for the evening program. The official Ranger-led program didn’t start until 9PM, but the amphitheater was filled with folks wearing leather chaps and American flag doo-rags at 8PM, so the wise people at the National Parks Service scheduled a rock band to “open” for the Ranger. Thus, over the next hour, we were treated to the Christian-rock stylings of Godstruck, sort of like Seven Mary Three extolling the healing power of Christ’s love. Or like… Creed. Anyway, as the earnest young singer prowled the stage in front of the large “National Park Service” sign and crooned passionately about his personal relationship with Jesus, Max and I had a hard time not snickering, but everyone around us seemed to be totally down with Godstruck, so we bit our lips and tried not to look at each other.

After Godstruck closed with a prayer (ok, not really), the Ranger came on and told a story comparing Teddy Roosevelt to a magpie or something which didn’t quite work for me, and then they lowered a screen and ran a 20-minute movie about the four presidents depicted on the mountain. It was pretty much a hack hagiography, reverently ticking off the standard list of their noble and statesmanlike attributes, and glossing over any “unpleasantness” like, you know, owning slaves and whatnot. Throughout the film, stirring John Phillip Sousa marches provided the soundtrack… except just after they quoted something Jefferson said about hoping the new settlers and the native peoples could learn to live as one, with the same rights and benefits. At that moment, they cut the rah-rah Sousa track and cranked the generic “Mournful Native American” music. “Unfortunately,” the narrator intoned ruefully, “tensions grew between the settlers and the native inhabitants, and policies were enacted which would eventually lead to drastic reductions in the native population.” So apparently some “policies” were enacted, but we’re not really sure who exactly “enacted” these policies, and these well-intentioned and spontaneously-generated policies just happened to have the unfortunate side effect of, um, let’s see… genocide? Arrgh.

But it sure was cool when they flipped on them lights and illuminated the mountain! Whoo-hoo!

Late Sunday night, we pulled into Rapid City, South Dakota. Possible alternate names for Rapid City, as suggested by Max:

Speedy Town
Speedyville
Quick Town
Quickville
Fast Village
Quickton
Speedyton (this is our favorite)

The next morning, we shared our Continental Breakfast with a charming biker couple in their 60’s. They were members of ABATE, which I think stands for American Bikers Aiming To Educate. They were very nice, and told us about their own trip across the country. We groused about the high room rates at the hotel (they jack them up from $89 to $259 during the Sturgis Rally) before shaking hands and parting ways. Max and I had a long day of driving ahead of us.

Quite a long day, in fact. I told Max we could leave at 10AM, since we only had 8 hours to drive. But around 2PM, I looked at my itinerary and realized that we had more like 11 hours to drive, which made neither one of us happy. Especially because the sky was grey, rain was drizzling down, and the landscape out here in the middle of the country is unbelievably dull. One frigging corn or wheat field after another. For God’s sake, people, can’t you put up some anti-meth signs or something to relieve the monotony?

During the long drive, while Max slept, I listened to my iPod and felt gloomy. Every song seemed to be critiquing my life, reminding me of things I wanted to forget. At my lowest ebb, with hundreds of miles to go, the most exquisitely sad song ever performed came up to the top of the playlist: Nina Simone’s cover of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”:

* * * *

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time

For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

* * * *

Thank goodness Max was asleep.

Finally we reached Onalaska, WI. Oddly enough, I just found out that our friend Kelli used to live in Onalaska.

Playlist for the last two days:

Muse
Led Zeppelin
Bob Marley
Trans Am
R.E.M.
The Faint
Rage Against the Machine
Film School
Mew
Whitest Boy Alive
Jason’s Trip Hop Playlist (Max calls it: “Baby-Making Music”)
Editors
Shins

Update on Robin: As Max and I traverse the country, battling heat, bikers, getting lost, etc. Robin finishes up her final days in Seattle. Last night, William made her an intimate dinner with just himself, Kelli and Lorie. The table was beautifully set outside on the patio, overlooking Lake Washington. At each place was a little picture of Robin, and the patio was decorated with paper airplanes (OK, they were left over from the really big SeaFair party he’d had the day before, but certainly fitting). They had a 4 course meal, including mushroom risotto, rosemary grilled corn, and lavendar creme brulee. Heaven. After dinner, the girls went for a swim – a final float in the heated pool.

Today Robin took 3 boxes to UPS (mostly filled with the laundry Jason left!), finagled a ride from Hartford airport to her new digs in Agawam, and is now having a final cocktail at The Sambar with Kelli & William. She and Quasar will soon be on a plane headed East, and will meet us on the “other side.”

Tomorrow: Chicago!

One Comment

  1. Yes, I’m reading and, yes, I’m entertained. 🙂 DON’T STOP.

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