This trip report needs a few introductory words.
First, beyond Mt. Rushmore and dinner with Mike in Iowa, the other stops on this tour were culled from reader comments on Clareified and suggestions left on my facebook and twitter pages. As I’ve admitted previously, I don’t really read maps or have a good sense of the phrase “to scale.”
Second, I drive. I drive all the time. Last year, when the government was practically paying people to buy cars, I bought a brand BMW. When Kearns and I, who are both black, would drive down to AC with Mary, who is white, she’d say that if we ever passed a cop she’s going to press her face against the passenger window in the backseat and mouth for help. Obviously, if there’s a white lady in the back of a new Beamer, with two black people in front, she has been kidnapped and there is a carjacking in progress! #RUDE
However, I’m not really a car savvy person and, a year later, I’m still pushing buttons on my Beamer to “see what this does.” However, there are a number of features on my car which I rely on without much thought. The wipers activate at the drop of water and stop when the water stops falling. The blinkers start flashing at the lightest tap. They stop after a couple of seconds. I love my car. I’m used to my car. I have not driven a car not owned by me in well over six years. Further, since Mary had the fancy car rental status, she would be the driver of record for this trip. This suited me just fine. I could steal all the wine I wanted in town and then take pictures of buffalo billboards while we were on the road.
Now, while I am telling *you* all of this for the first time, I assumed that Mary already knew these facts…
We woke up in Rapid City on Tuesday.
In South Dakota, we still had to do the Badlands and Wall Drug. I had wanted to stop at the Corn Palace, but it was, apparently, far out of the way. Once done with these sights, we would have lunch in Sioux Falls, hit the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa and then head to Harrah’s Council Bluffs for the night.
Mary and I are both priority members of Harrahs, so we were offered complimentary rooms. When we were making our reservations, I jokingly said, we might as well each get our own room as you’ll probably be sick of me by then.
Oh, how prescient I am.
That list of things I just ticked off? Well, people familiar with the Southwest are laughing their faces off right now. For the rest of you, imagine that instead I had written:
We were going to see Central Park, then the Ikea in Jersey City. I had wanted to also stop by the Liberty Bell, but it was out of the way. But we’d have lunch in D.C., hit Mardi Gras in New Orleans for a bit and then head to Disney World for the night.
I wish I were kidding.
I’m not kidding.
Like I said, I looked at the map, the Badlands were real close to Sioux Falls and that was just across the Iowa border. The church and the casino were both in Iowa. How far apart could they possibly be?!
Apparently, there might have been some clues about their proximity or lack thereof. After looking at our itinerary, Mike suggested we spend the night in Sioux Falls.
After I forwarded her the addition of the Grotto of the Redemption, to stick in between Sioux Falls and the casino, Mary added it to our Tripit schedule (another Droid phone APP I LOVE), with a note saying “are you sure”?
Uh, yeah, why not? It was three and a half hours from Sioux Falls, but whatever, that’s probably driving at 60, plus, if the trip now takes 10 hours instead of 7, no big deal. Three hours out of the way is as close to the Grotto of the Redemption as I’ll ever be and it looked cool.
All of which was perfectly sound reasoning! In fact, there was only one teeny slight almost microscopic flaw in my plan. See, while we might have been able to shave 30-45 minutes off the drive from Sioux Falls to West Bend with strategic speeding, the drive from the Badlands to Sioux Falls wasn’t the 5 or 6 hours I thought it was. No, it was more like 10-11 hours. D’oh. Okay, but who knew that? (This is where Mary will say “I did.” Showoff.)
So, we headed out that morning on what I thought would be a nine hour drive, only one hour longer than the leg from Denver to Deadwood – no sweat! I loved the open road. Wanna see how you can tell, I was totally a happy camper? Look at me taking pictures of the road:
In just 16 short hours, the very thought of this image would make me want to hurl. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Badlands! I texted Jake a photo and titled it “I’m at the Badlands!” He replied that “is the perfect place for you.” (Also, when I mused that I would be the next head added to Mount Rushmore, he suggested I aim to get my visage on the Aspen mountain instead! My people are looking into it.)
The badlands are a huge, one might argue, interminable, National Park which looks like the moon:
There are deep and vast caverns everywhere! I actually wondered aloud why *this* wasn’t the place hitmen came to dump bodies. They would never be found! I ceased my out-loud wondering because I noticed Mary listening just a little bit too intently. This is when I decided to text Jake my whereabouts.
We were in the Badlands for a looong time. I resorted to using an outhouse! That’s how long we were out there! Shiver me timbers. We would stop at each station place to take photos.
There was an old woman biking through the park and we would see her zip by us when we were stopping, then when we pulled out and drove a bit, we’d catch up to her again. It was a whole game I was playing in my head. Until, I had the terrible image of us accidentally hitting her and having to hide the body down one of trails. It was very cold and I was foolishly dressed in shorts. The whole process would be very inconvenient. I was clearly starting to hallucinate. The moon is not for the weak.
We left and headed off to Wall Drug. It’s like a huge Mall of Crap you totally don’t need. We took lots of pictures. I went into a fudge store and I waited in line behind this old couple to see if I could try the vanilla fudge to see if I liked it. Well, apparently, the not-so-friendly Wall Drug fudge people DO NOT look kindly on “samples.” The old man in front of me asked to taste the peanut butter fudge and the lady yelled at him, asking if he could read. She pointed at a sign saying “This is the smallest piece of fudge we will cut,” below it was the picture pf a 1/4 LB brown lump.
“So, do you want a 1/4 LB of the peanut butter fudge OR NOT?”
I don’t know what he answered, I was too busy running for my life before she made eye contact with me and could see into my soul and find my fudge tasting desires. I do not like to be yelled at. I do not like at whom to be yelled? That is seriously a stupid grammar rule.
Anyway, we took some funny pictures of me with cowboys and prostitutes. None of these pictures are printable, as, not only was my outfit of shorts and a t-shirt inappropriate because of the cold, looking at them now, it looks like I’m wearing pajamas. Really ugly pajamas. Stop trying to picture them! Stop it, right now!
But here is a picture for Astin:
After Wall Drug we set out in earnest for Sioux Falls. It was early in the trip because someone would say “I wonder how Sue fell?” And we’d laugh and laugh. Seven hours later “I wonder how Sue fell” would be met with “Shut the fuck up.”
I kid, I kid. Mostly.
So we’re driving and driving. And driving and driving and driving. Like I could even use a time lapse camera here AND it still is taking forever. Mary says that she knows she will see this road in her dreams for the next twelve years. I don’t remember what I was doing. Oh, actually, I had set both the TomTom and the Droid X latitude with our destination. The TomTom listed our arrival time at 13 hours and the Latitude said 12 hours. This was my first real clue that this was drive was going to be bad. Very very bad.
As we drove, I invented the “199 miles left to drive, 199 miles, well, that’s one down, we’re closer to town 198 miles left to drive” song. The problem was I’d have to wait the time it took to drive the mile closer to town before being able to start the next verse. And well, it started to get to be depressing how long it actually took to drive a mile, so I abandoned my efforts at 197 miles left to drive. Then, due to construction, we collapsed into a one lane highway.
This is what death MUST be like. We stopped for gas at someplace right out of the movie Deliverance. I clenched my hands into tiny fists ready to punch my way out of there if need be, of course, then I remembered that Mary would just be all “Huh? What? Why are there people with shotguns shooting at us,” instead of hitting the gas and getting out of dodge!
10 hours in I saw a highway sign for the Corn Palace.
“Hey! The Corn Palace. Looks like It *is* on our way! Let’s go.”
Mary had lost the ability to speak. She kinda just shrugged. I directed her to the exit and we used latitude to find it.
Apparently South Dakota calls “High School Gymnasiums” corn palaces. Because this corn palace clearly brought back memories of wheezing through sprints during tryouts for JV basketball in high school. But whatever, anything was better than being balled up in the car, so we walked every inch of that “corn” “palace.” (Look, if it’s NOT made out of corn, it should NOT get to be modified with corn as an adjective.) I can’t even find any corn palace pictures! Here’s one of a corn picture on the gym wall:
(In my head I imagined walking into a saloon with swinging wooden doors, slamming my fist on the bar and saying “hit me with a sasparilla, barkeep.”) Hmm…maybe I should not be transcribing the stuff that happens in my head…
Anyway, the sasparilla was SO gross. I mean, wiping my tongue off with my fingers gross. I don’t think I’ve done that since I was nine and my aunt tricked me into eating goat.
We were back on the road and still there was no end to South Dakota in sight. Mike emailed to find out where we were and I burst into tears of despair.
“We are still in South Dakota. I do not know why. Does this state ever end.”
And hour later I had accepted my fate. I live in South Dakota now. My name is Debbie Elsworth. I am the night manager at Perkin’s. My life is simple.
An hour after that I could say those sentences with a straight face and remembered nothing of my life in New York.
An hour after that, I was crying again.
And then we hit a “welcome to Minnesota,” sign.
WHAT. THE. HELL?
YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE WELCOMING US TO IOWA. I-O-WA.
Mary was all “what did you DO? WHY ARE WE IN MINNESOTA? Did you put in the right City AND STATE?”
“DUDE! I am using TWO different navigation tools, they BOTH say this is the way…don’t know what to tell you…welcome to Minnesota!”
Thankfully, about forty minutes of local Minnesota streets, we were finally welcomed to Iowa.
We were still two hours away according to Tom and an hour away according to Malcolm (Yes, I named my Droid X, Malcolm.)
We navigated the various routes and roads of rural Iowa until we came upon a small clearing. Mary turned into the gravel parking lot and turned off the car. It was dusk, but enough sunlight remained for us to catch the flecks of color off the face of the church.
“Ooh, it’s glinty,” I said.
“You’re driving to the casino,” Mary said, handing me the keys.
The church was surrounded on one side by a playground, and there was a huge moatlike pond in front. Ducks or geese littered the premises. I deftly avoided these.
I walked past the water fountain and headed to the entrance. The visitor’s center was closed but there pamphlets which outlined the path for a self-guided tour. The genesis of the structure was fascinating. Evidently a local parish priest would.collect unusual stones and affix them to his church walls. Eventually, parishioners began to bring their own rare stones and thus, the Grotto of the Redemption was born.
We hung out for a bit, I called the hotel since we had long missed our 6 pm checkin.
“When do you think you will be here, Ms. Clare,” asked the receptionist.
“Oh, not long now, we are in Iowa already, just by West Bend.”
“Oh, so a few hours then?”
Whatever. I would get to this damn casino by ten! Ten thirty the latest!
We were stuck on some Iowan backroad which vascillated between 30 mph and 55 mph. With oh, something in the realm of two minutes notice.
To call this the most frustrating driving experience of my LIFE will include the time I spent four hours parked on I-95 after a Harvard/Yale game AND the two hours spent circling a cemetery on the eve of my 21st birthday when my cousin was trying to teach me to drive stick in a pickup truck with no gas. He would push from behind while yelling “okay, clutch! Cluuuttcchhh!”
In fact, I would drive that pickup truck (with my cousin pushing it) everyday and twice on Sundays over ever again navigating Iowa’s ridiculous dark, winding “55, no, pysche, 30!” slutty tease of a highway.
After a while, I started to see figures darting into the road. I panicked about driving off the road. I drove with the brights on as often as I could, adding the awesome stress of remembering not to blind the motorists on the other side. I caught a glimpse of a clock at the gas station. 9:15.
We were going to die.
I saw lights ahead.
It looked like a regular town. I hit the brakes and yawned. The light up ahead turned yellow, we were halfway to it. I could make it. Mary said we were taking a left hand exit onto the highway in 1 mile. I tapped on the blinker signal, checked my blind spot and shifted in the left lane. The blinker light didn’t activate, but I was already in the left lane. Meh, I’ll wait for the light to change back to green. At the last minute, I pressed the brake.
“There’s a cop with its lights on behind you,” Mary said.
Ugh. I was the first one at the crosswalk and I was in the left lane, there would be no easy way for me to let him pass.
Why doesn’t he just go around me on the right? Jesus.
I made an awkward shift into the right lane. And pulled to the corner.
What. The. Fuck?
“I think he’s pulling you over.”
“I don’t know, were you going the right speed?”
“I thought so. The sign said 35, right?”
I put the car in park. The cop, who I will call Opie, even though he bears no resemblance to Ron Howard, asked me to turn the corner, so we wouldn’t block the traffic on the main road. I did so. Opie returned to ask me to pull up so he could pull in behind me.
Jesus effing Cristo.
Mary said the rental agreement papers were in the driver’s side door compartment. I fished out my license from my bag. I rolled down the window.
“So, okay. I’m pulling you over for two things. First, you didn’t signal when you shifted back there and you were going 41 mph. We’re 35 here and…um…we don’t want any kids getting hurt you know? I mean, it’s (he looks at his watch) 9:45, so that’s a little late for kids. But sometimes there are kids out here.”
I do not laugh out loud. Why do they not give Academy Awards for such forbearance?
“So, where in Texas are you from?”
“I’m from New York. This is a rental car.”
“Well, what are yall doing in Dennison?”
“Um…is that where we are? We just came from the Grotto of the Redemption.”
God card? Check.
Huh? What now? I briefly think through my possible answers, skip “the only cool thing in the entire state of Iowa,” and land on “It’s a church in West Bend.”
“West Bend?! Where’s that?”
Now, I got nothing. Part of me thinks he’s fucking with me, but there he is staring at me with the wide dopey eyes.
“Um…not sure, someplace in Iowa. We’ve been driving all morning. Came down from…” I look at Mary cause I can’t remember what city we woke up in, she is facing forward, I’m not sure if she had been listening, so I simply say “South Dakota…by Mount Rushmore.”
“That’s a long way. What are y’all doing all the way out here?”
“We’re visiting casinos in the Midwest. We went to Deadwood and now we’re going to Harrah’s Council Bluffs.”
My favorite part about this answer? It wasn’t even particularly true. I was just very very tired AND I was a hundred percent sure it was a better answer than “none of your beeswax.”
After a few more aw shucks and gee gollies, he took my license and Mary’s license and the rental car agreement and went back to his patrol car.
We waited. And waited. Even the siren lights started to look tired with all the swirling. Red and blue. Red and blue. Red and… Ooh PURPLE…oh, no… Red and blue.
“What the hell is taking SO long??? Do you have an outstanding warrant,” I asked…um…to no one in particular.
No one answered.
Sigh. It was approaching ten thirty when Opie came back.
“Steph, can you come with me?”
“Sure,” I said in my white voice that I use for business.
I followed him back to the patrol car, he motioned for me to get into the passenger seat.
“So here’s my problem. This rental car agreement doesn’t match your car. Says here you’re supposed to be in a Pinto.”
“Right, well they upgraded us in Denver. They just left all the paperwork in there.”
“Denver? Thought you said you were coming from South Dakota.”
“We flew from New York to Denver and then drove to South Dakota.”
“Hmm…okay, but see here,” he holds the rental agreement to the small light in the cab of the car, “the person who signed for this car isn’t you or Mary, who is this?”
I took the agreement from him and squinted. He was right. The signature was of a Paul Thompson.
“Uh…I don’t know. Mary rented the car. You probably need to ask her.”
He looked at me and sighed.
“Okay. Stay here.” He opened up his door and stepped out. He turned back, stuck his head in and said “Well, I don’t know if I should leave you in here.”
He stared at me.
“Well, don’t touch anything or drive off…”
He looked at me. Oh, wait, was I supposed to say “No, Sir?”
He shut the door and walked back to our car to talk to “Mary.” If that IS her real name.
They talked for a long time. I saw her pointing at me. What’s she saying? If she tells them I kidnapped her…
I saw more flashing red and blue cop lights. Two more officers walked over to Mary and our car. She is opening the trunk. Thank goodness with ditched the cache of automatic weapons back in the Badlands.
Now, she’s opening up her suitcase and one of the new officers is looking inside.
What the fuck?
Opie left his key in the ignition…I could probably make it back to the Grotto and claim sanctuary! Uh oh. One of the new cops is coming my way. He knocks on the window.
I can’t roll down the glass, so I open the door.
“Where you from, miss?”
God in heaven, here we go again.
He whistles in that obnoxious way people whistle when they think they’re being charming.
“Must be like a whole different world way out here where we’re so laid back?”
I looked at the two cop cars, Mary repacking her suitcase in the trunk and the three officers surrounding me for going SIX miles above the speed limit. Allegedly. Uh huh. WAY FUCKING LAID BACK.
“Where you headed?”
“Over in Omaha?”
It was like 11 now, I no longer knew nor cared.
“Oh, I thought it was in Iowa. I don’t know.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer in New York City.” Enough frankly was enough.
He stepped back.
“You’re a lawyer. You don’t look like a lawyer.”
“No? Well, I am. Have been for ten years.”
Opie had walked up beside him.
“She’s a lawyer Sam. Did you know that?”
Opie shook his head.
“Well, I’m going to let you ladies be on your way,” he reached across me and handed me back our licenses.
“Thanks,” I said stepping out the patrol car.
“Drive safely now. Remember, speeding can really ruin lives.”
I walked to the car and drove MAYBE 5 mph an hour as I pulled out. I made the first left and figured, latitude would be able to find the main road again.
Two more lefts and we were back on the road where we started. FIVE FUCKING MINUTES later we were on a major highway, driving 65 mph toward council bluffs. All we had to do was make it FIVE. MORE. MINUTES.
Mary did not know why the rental car agreement was in some guy’s name.
“Yeah, I almost wondered aloud why the other cop didn’t notice that…but then figured there was no need to mention being stopped by other cops.”
She said they asked her if we were trafficking anything from Texas. She opened up her suitcase so they could make sure it wasn’t full of money. We both laughed. Yah. If we had a suitcase full of money in the trunk, we would NOT be driving a crap ass Corolla through Iowa!
“Yeah, that’s what I told him!”
It was about 11:30 when we got to the Council Bluffs checkin desk.
“I’m sorry, but we only have smoking rooms available.”
“NO, I can’t do a smoking room. I have asthma. I called and they said they would hold our rooms for us!” I even started waving my diamond card around.
No dice. There was some fuck all convention in town and we had missed our checkin time, so our rooms had been given away. It was smoking room or homelessness.
Fine. I have to say, the check-in lady felt really badly. She kept handing us free bottles of water. She offered to ionize the room for me. “Okay. And give me some more of them bottles of water.” She shoved two fistsful in my direction.
Ionizing would take an hour, so Mary passed. I knew I would wake up wheezing if I tried to sleep in a smoking room, so I accepted and headed to the casino to kill time.