roadtrip, part 2
It’s cool and vaguely rainy as I leave Jersey Monday night. I had originally planned on leaving Tuesday morning, and I am still tired, but after the hellish marathon drive the week before, decided it was better to get on the road and get clear of the nightmare that was Pennsylvania that night. I dial the playlist to Bruce Springsteen and begin with “Cynthia,” the song he opened 8/31 with, and played for the very first time ever.
The drive was even worse, if that’s possible. It had stopped raining when I stopped for dinner around 8pm, but it just got worse. Twisting, curvy roads, down to one lane in many places due to construction, uneven road surfaces making me positive that I had a tire going flat every 10 minutes. I promise myself that I will stop at the next exit that has any signs of civilization… and then the rain stops, I see CLEVELAND 81 on the next sign, and since I was listening to Springsteen doing a live version of “The Fever” from 1975, dedicated to Kid Leo, I took it as a sign I should keep driving, blowing past the Youngstown exit. Somehow, I’d thought that Youngstown was in Pennsylvania… this is despite knowing the song by heart, which starts out with “Here in Northeast Ohio, back in 1803…”
Five seconds later I think better and decide to get off at the next exit and turn around, but of course it’s not one of those easy on-easy off exits, it’s one that shoots you straight onto a local highway. So it’s two miles before I can turn around again, but I do, and crawl back into Youngstown. There are at least a dozen hotels, but the sign for a local chain advertising $26.95 rooms is way too enticing. It looks fine from the outside, signs trumpeting that it’s “family-owned,” but I should have realized my error when they charged me a $10 deposit for the TV remote. It was fine, and there were three locks on the doors, but I won’t take my socks off and I brought my sleeping bag out of the car. For the 7 hours I was going to be in the room, it didn’t make any sense to pay much more than that.
I am faced with 14 empty pots of coffee at the Kwik Stop across the street the next morning. There is an old pot of regular coffee sitting there, and even though the clerk is trying to get me to avoid it, telling me she’d just got on and was making more, I needed to get some energy and get on the road. I didn’t sleep well (too hyped up from driving, and not enough time to come down), but I have a long way to travel today.
It’s still raining in Ohio, and in Indiana. I’m sad, because not only is it fall by date – it’s September – but it doesn’t feel like summer anymore. I’m glad to not have the heat, but I am not quite ready for the summer to be over so soon. But then here’s South Bend, and I have to travel north on 31 up to Michigan. I grew up in Southwestern Michigan, and have never been back, and have always wanted to for some reason. I almost considered skipping this stop, but then realized that it had been 30 years and the chances of me being here again were slim and none. So off I went, the weather clearing up as I drove north; by the time I got to St. Joseph, the sun was out and the sky was blue. Portent.
The highway is cracked and decrepit and barely looks in use. My heart starts beating faster as I think I start to recognize things, but it’s been 30 years, surely I’m just imagining this. I am following directions and am sure that I am once again going the wrong way, but then there’s the sign for Marquette Woods Road, so I turn left, through corn fields and grape arbors. I’m watching the speedometer and checking directions, and turn again, and can’t see the road. I’m now officially lost… except that I think I recognize this intersection – wait, is that the middle school? The high school should just be up on the corner, and there were some gas stations there… and there are, and I go in and get redirected back. This time, I find our old street, turn in, and there it is – our old house. It’s got a different street number, and there’s a fence, and god the trees are so much bigger, and there are no more vacant lots – what was a desolate, empty street is now crowded and tree-lined and shady. I get out of the car, and take pictures, and call my father, who asks me questions and I try to answer. I hang up, and get up the nerve to go knock on the door, but no one’s home – but I take this chance to walk around the house on the grass and take more pictures. My heart is still beating fast for a reason I don’t understand yet.
After a while, I just stood there, staring at the house. I didn’t know why, exactly, I felt such a strong need to come back here, but at that moment I think I figured it out. We only spent five years here, it’s not like my childhood was traumatic or that I dreamed of this house (a la Springsteen’s “My Father’s House”), but this was the place I became who I am. Where I started to love music, where I would lie under the covers at night listening to WLS coming in across the lake from Chicago on my tiny black GE transistor radio, where I would try to get Detroit radio in and make lists of all the bands I heard. I would ride on my bike to the library to take out books and records, I would ride in the other direction to go to the store where I bought 45s for 44 cents. I wasn’t born here (I was actually born in New Jersey), but in a sense, I really was born here.
I drive off in search of my old elementary school, and the landscape is still amazingly familiar, more farms and distant farm houses; the distances are much shorter and everything seems much smaller (I could not believe how small our yard was, or how short the distance from the house to the corner where we got the school bus was). The trailer park near the school is still a trailer park. I put on Bruce singing “My Hometown” from a SNL soundcheck as I pull into the school, which looks exactly the same, and for some reason, I am crying. It’s just dumb. I have far more trauma and memories associated with Connecticut.
I head towards the nearest small town, where the library was and where I’d ride my bike on Saturdays to go get ice cream. There’s a new library now, and the old one is now a pizza hut; ice cream store is gone. I’d toyed with the idea of having lunch in a diner, small town America, but there’s nothing there any more. Memory takes me right, and I know the old drive-in, road to the beach, and the big fancy restaurant is… but the drive-in is gone, and I’m kind of done with this trip down memory lane. So I have lunch at Burger King and get on 94 towards Chicago. I call my mother and say, “We really lived there? I mean, where did you shop???”
Traffic is horrible through Indiana and Illinois is always dreadful, but I carefully skirt Chicago and head north towards Rockford. The sun is finally out, and I open my roof and put on Cheap Trick. I call my friend in Minnesota, who’s just back from her trip to Jersey, and she tells me I’m only five hours away. I look at the map; either I stop when I get to Madison in about three hours (which I would like to do – always heard good things about Madison), or I keep driving to see her. I decide to keep driving.
Wisconsin is unspectacular, although I am amused by a large sign on a truck stop reading CHEESE; the scenery improves towards the Wisconsin Dells, and when I finally truly head west again, and the traffic lightens up, it’s truly beautiful. But this is nothing compared to what it was like when I crossed the Mississippi and headed into Minnesota. It was around 4pm, the “magic hour,” and it was stunning, golden sun illuminating the ribbon of highway, 75mph speed limit making me happy. I’d started listening to Greendale (which I realized I hadn’t done, when I’d uploaded the album at my friends’ in Missouri – don’t worry, I’m going to buy it), and I was listening to “Be The Rain” as I crossed the border. I don’t know what happened, or how to explain it, but somehow, the music just ripped all the emotional garbage I was still carrying, and didn’t want, out of my chest and threw it into the wind. It felt free and liberating and light and I was laughing and crying at the same time. Only one album made sense at that moment, and I cued up Born To Run as the sun sank lower in the West, singing along at the top of my lungs. Born To Run has always been an album of freedom and strength to me, but over the past few months, it’s just made me sad. Being at the shows in Jersey helped take it back, but tonight was the real reclamation.
I pulled into exit 192 around 7:30pm, and my friend was waiting for me at the exit. Cornfields stretch out for miles. We stopped to see her kids, and where she grew up, and then drove into the next real town, Austin, Minnesota, where we had a surprisingly great meal at a Mexican restaurant. We talked until 1am, and I decided to get a late start tomorrow so I could go to the, erm, Spam Museum. (She works for Hormel, which is what Austin is known for, so it was a big deal.) Plus I’d gotten such a head start with how far I’d driven that day that I could afford it. And I needed the sleep.
Okay, so I only hit the gift shop, and saw her office, and then I was off for the rest of Minnesota, this time with the Replacements playlist on. My friend had almost apologized for what the rest of the state was going to look like, but I thought it was beautiful. And then, there’s the South Dakota border, and finally! This is what I thought Nebraska was going to look like! It’s windswept and desolate but the sky stretches out forever. I don’t understand why they call Montana “Big Sky Country” – the real big sky is in the Dakotas. Big fluffy white clouds, distant deserted farmhouses, it’s endless and flat but I’m loving every second of it.
I was originally going to spend the night about an hour from the Badlands, but I’d cancelled the reservation when I left Austin that morning, because I wanted to be able to wing it, and thought I might get a better deal now that we were post-tourist season. And I didn’t want to make a race of it today. But I’m sorry I skipped the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder in favor of the Corn Palace; the former would have been more interesting and meaningful to me, and lord knows I’ll never be back that way again most likely. I gain an hour as I cross into mountain time, and it’s only 4pm when I approach the easternmost entrance to Badlands National Park. I decide to go for it; the “magic hour” being my favorite time to drive so far, I thought it would be incredible.
I’m not alone; there’s a long line of cars and bikers (everyone returning from the Harley 100th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee over Labor Day) at the entrance. It’s a 25 mile loop through the park that exits you in Wall, SD, home of Wall Drug; there’s a longer road that will take you to Rapid City, but I wasn’t sure how long the daylight (and my euphoria-induced energy) would last.
I stopped at the first three viewpoints and walked around and took pictures, but honestly, I was far more impressed with the Dances With Wolves flat rolling prairie beyond the Badlands than I was with them after a while. The one thing I will remember forever is the unbelievable, pure quiet. This is a quiet you have never ever heard, it’s not even the kind of quiet I’ve heard in the desert. It wasn’t a scary quiet, either, it was peaceful and soothing. The drive through the rest of the park was incredible, and I listened to “This Hard Land” and “This Land Is Your Land” and various Uncle Tupelo and Dylan songs as I drove along, along with all five versions of “Badlands” I happen to have loaded on the iPod. (I giggled insanely the first time I did this… but it got old soon, even for someone as obsessive as me.)
It took me an hour to drive the loop, with stopping and pulling over and driving slowly, and then I was ready to stop, honestly. So I took the road out to Wall, and, well, went to Wall Drug. (What else is there to do? And how can you not go after seeing the signs for 500+ miles?) I was going to eat, but the one place I wanted to go into was too divey and full of bikers for me to walk into by myself, and the other one was too touristy. So I decided to push on into the sunset to Rapid City, where my accommodation decision was made by the Howard Johnson’s billboard advertising “Free High Speed Internet”.
I ask the girl at the desk for a dinner recommendation, and she seems perplexed by my request, but makes one that’s only a few blocks away, and is perfect. I sit at the bar and write in my journal, and talk to the bartender. But I’m fading fast, and tomorrow is another big day. The bed at the hotel that night was so comfortable I am sorry I didn’t get into it sooner.
I’m on the road at 8:30 the next morning, heading south down 16 towards Mount Rushmore. I should have done what all the bikers did, which was drive around the entrance to the turn-off, where you can see it just as well as you can from inside (you don’t pay admission, but you do pay $8 to park). I didn’t have the energy nor did I want to invest the time to walk closer. The exhibits were interesting, but I can get a book later and read about it. So, back in the car, a stop to take a picture of the mountain in profile, and I’m off to the Crazy Horse memorial.
Crazy Horse is absolutely incredible. It’s just jaw-dropping. I spend an hour and a half there, take the bus ride up to the foot of the mountain, shoot dozens of photos. It was mobbed – far more mobbed than Rushmore, although I was at both earlier and it might have gotten worse later. There are more bikers here than at Rushmore, too, which makes sense. Finally, it’s time to go on. I was going to route myself back to 90 and stop in Sturgis, get a shirt for my brother, but there was no way to do that that wasn’t retracing steps. So I decide to take 385 up through the Black Hills, and it ends up in this old Butch Cassidy-era mining town, which is now primarily a gambling town. The drive was lovely, but I’m kind of spoiled for Switzerland-like pine mountains up here, and it didn’t help that I was stuck behind a logging truck for most of it. I was going to grab 14 over to Sturgis after all, until I saw the sign saying, 14 LOOSE GRAVEL – CONSIDER ALT ROUTES.
So I end up in Deadwood, which is quaint, and I’m going to blow right through it, but then I feel bad and stop at tourist information. Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill are buried here, and I’d read that the graveyard was cool, so I decide to backtrack and go up there. But the graves have been ‘modernized’ so it wasn’t quite that scenic, and was somewhat disappointing, so it was a quick visit. Then I am heading out of town and feel bad again, so I turn to drive down the main street, and then I have to stop and change camera batteries – and after all that, it’s all casinos. Not that interesting, and nothing really for me to have done there. I finally get my ass back on the road, hightail it up to 90, and it’s 1pm. I decide to hit it and make some serious time. I realize I can make it to Gillette before I’d have to stop for lunch or gas, so I decide to do this. Spearfish was ugly and Sundance had nothing, really, so I’m glad I’ve decided to push forward.
Wyoming is, again, beautiful beyond description. I’m loving it insanely. Red and brown and yellow and purple and wide open spaces. Gillette is ugly, but it works for food and gas, and I realize that I can make it into Montana, easily, today. I can’t find my map of Montana, but I remember the original plan was overnight in Billings or Bozeman. I figure I’ll stop at the border and either find the map or get another one from tourist information.
The turnoffs to Yellowstone still continue to make me envious, but I push on steadily. Finally, the border, I’m here! I’ve made it! But… tourist information is 57 miles ahead! Okay, I’ll keep driving… to Little Big Horn, and the battlefield sites, and I still don’t see tourist information. I decide that I’ll stop for ice cream – it got HOT again, the second hottest drive of the trip – and figure it out then. But nothing presents itself, and I finally pull over at a rest stop 15 minutes from Billings. I get a drink, I find the damn map, and I take a breath and study it carefully. Okay. Bozeman is only about 2 more hours, and more importantly, it’s only 3 hours from Bozeman to Missoula, and Missoula is only 8 hours from Seattle.
It’s clear what I did next. I mean, that made the decision. I could be home at a reasonable hour Friday night, and not have to stop in Missoula (because it made no sense to stop after that), or be crossing Snoqualmie Pass at 3 in the morning. I would have been fine with the drive, except for the construction and lane closures every 20 miles, and the smoke haze from the forest fires in Glacier National Park. I guess that this is what I am seeing hanging over everything, and what I am breathing, and what is making me enormously thirsty, and this is confirmed when I watch the weather that night, where the forecast for the next three days is “Smoke”. I roll into Bozeman around 7, where my hotel of choice is booked, but they take pity on me and make a call and get me a room at the Best Western, one exit back. The girls at the desk understand me very well when I make my restaurant request, and send me to a place in old Bozeman called the Garage, where I sit outside under the stars, eat a great burger, drink beer, and write. Only down side was the live Grateful Dead tape that was playing.
Last day. I almost don’t want to get on the road, and drag my feet, but am back on 90 at 8:15. More construction, and constant smoke haze, but even then it is beautiful – it is Montana, I don’t think there’s a part of the state (besides Billings) that is not. I make one stop at a rest area (when I can’t stand another stretch of gravel and one lane-ness). There are senior citizens, people with their dogs, and a group of truckers standing around, eating Pringles, and looking at a porn magazine… at 10:30 in the morning. Priceless.
I reach Missoula by 11:15, and had decided to let myself stop and play for an hour. Part of it was not wanting to hit Seattle rush hour traffic, but the rest of it was, well, not wanting to get home all that fast. I hit Rockin’ Rudy’s, and get some lunch at a brewpub downtown, but it’s 12:45 and I have to start driving again. Sigh. The smoke haze is so bad that I cannot see the airport from the highway, and it doesn’t clear up again until 25 miles from the Idaho border. There is traffic, and an accident that routes us through local roads to the next exit, and then Spokane area traffic, in which I get my only windshield ding of the entire trip. Figures. Eastern Washington is ridiculously hot, and it just goes on forever. Although it has some of the same desolate beautiful qualities that I loved in South Dakota and Wyoming, and I’m trying to appreciate it from the same perspective – it’s just not pretty.
I stop in Moses Lake, and get Starbucks and gas, and then I am not going to stop again until I pull into my driveway. Which would have been fine, except more uneven pavement makes me sure I’m getting a flat (which, after the windshield ding, would have made perfect sense). So I pull over at the Gorge exit and carefully check all my tires – they’re fine. That final paranoia out of the way, I blast across the Columbia and homeward. It is clear and just gorgeous in the pass, although the 82 degree temperature posting makes me realize that it’s been hot. There’s no traffic at all, blessedly, and I creep through Seattle, back to the house, and collapse.
* * * * * * * * * *
WHAT I WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY:
* Have a state map for EVERY state I drove through. You need to be able to see exactly where you are in relation to the rest of your route. You can’t do that from Triptiks or Streets & Trips.
* More time. Would have gone to Minneapolis for sure. Wish I hadn’t skipped Devil’s Tower in favor of that drive through the Black Hills.
* Would have a modem for the cell phone; it would have been nice to Priceline the hotels in Rapid City and Bozeman, I definitely paid twice what I needed to. I could have pulled over for 10 minutes and done it myself if I’d had the cell phone modem, because you can do it up until 6pm local time – I didn’t want to commit first thing in the morning in case something came up.
* I wish I had been traveling with a guy; the ability to stop anywhere, and drive at night comfortably, was missing. I could have stopped at smaller towns instead of big cities, and go into all those grungy looking dives for a beer.
* Having to pass up Yellowstone sucked.
* I would have avoided all major cities when possible, even if it meant smaller, longer local highways. The worst experiences were around the major cities – Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City. There are quieter and more interesting ways around all of those places.
MUSIC THAT ALWAYS WORKED:
Whiskeytown (Ryan to a lesser extent)
Soundgarden, also surprisingly
Pearl Jam (see above, but only No Code, Yield and Binaural were on the iPod)
MUSIC THAT DIDN’T WORK
Gram Parsons, surprisingly. Maybe it was just my mood.
Beatles. Again, big surprise there. Couldn’t deal.