Sunday, October 25, 2009

Second Installment - Western Trip

Saturday, July 26. Today it seems we drove from one end of the flat planet earth to the other. It seems. Actually (get out your maps, children) we drove from Munising, Michigan in the eastern upper peninsula of Michigan to just south of Duluth, Minnesota. But it has rained every day. . .everyday day for the past five days, except Thursday afternoon when we visited Mackinaw Island.

Now, back to the back story.

Here’s a picture that made me laugh. I took it near Mackinaw City. Since then, we’ve seen many such signs.

Pasties. I wonder if others giggle. Pasties. I was raised in Indianapolis. My dad was the doctor for the local burlesque theater—the Fox Burlesque. That was back in the days when the “Burlesque Queens”—they were called—never appeared nude – er - naked. The lovely women—dancers they were—always ended up their dance in a G-string and pasties, those silver dollar-sized white adhesives that theaters required they wear on their nipples. Pasties. So here JoAnn and I are in the upper Michigan peninsula seeing many stores advertising “Pasties.” Think of it; an entire peninsula of frustrated burlesque queens, and JoAnn and I are fortunate enough to be driving through. . .yet we never saw Mrs. Muldoon’s.

And on the stage the dancers came.

The way they dressed it was a shame.

It almost spoiled my vision evermore.

The leading lady blushing fat

For all she wore was just her hat

That barely hid her prizes from my stare.

Etc. etc.

I didn’t go to church today. I spent the day frustrated. I got an email from a fellow writer. . .a pastor named John Snyder (he’s reading Emerson The Magnificent). The New Hope Presbyterian Church meets every Sunday at 9:30 A.M. at the Holiday Inn Express in Elk Grove, California. John is the preacher. His daughters Sarah (vocals and guitar) and Stephanie (vocals and drums) and wife Shirin (bass guitar--electric) lead the worship team. They've also led worship for some of John’s conferences. Sarah and Stephanie have just added their band Deer Park Avenue to Myspace. They are really good. Google them. God’s calling. I won’t miss another Sunday. I must learn to work around His schedule, not ask that He work around mine.

There was a wonderful book written in the late 90s called Blue Highways by William Least Heatmoon. He traveled around the United States on back roads, called blue highways. Red roads are major highways. JoAnn and I often travel the blue highways because we see more and meet more interesting people.

The upper peninsula of Michigan, in many parts, looks just like Cape Cod. . . dunes, eel grass and scrub pines. Otherwise it is green and deciduous like Massachusetts, but no mountains or big hills. Minnesota, too, is green and deciduous but with many lakes whose shores are lined with tents, pop-up trailers and rvs. Sailboats, jet skis and kayaks. Just like Massachusetts. So rv-ing–as it is called—is not so much about enjoying the sights as it is about the journey. . .the struggle. It is a part of life; perhaps not as sedentary as many of our friends’ lives, but we don’t do it 24/7. Momentary high levels of decision making, strenuous exercise and planning. . .all while sitting two feet from your spouse. Now that is insanity.

We found a campsite outside of Duluth, MN. Tomorrow we will head diagonally across the state on a blue highway (MN rte 23).

Tuesday. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We have discovered one of the trailer tires has worn excessively (not sure what caused it). I’m not sure we will make it to the Badlands on the western end of the state. I still haven’t resolved the dilemma of our hot water heater. I need a new right rear stabilizing strut. I think I’ll buy a tire this morning, have the dealer mount it and balance it and I will jack up the trailer and replace it, or face a minimum service fee of $105. JoAnn will fret and remind me that I am nearing seventy. She forgets: Insanity has no age limits nor retrospect.

We both look forward to the Badlands. Sounds like someplace I belong. No scrub pines, dunes or jet skis. Four hundred miles away.

Got on the road a little after 10:00 A.M. Bought two tires and the mounting fee was just eight dollars.

Interstate 90, sun on my back. It was good to see the early morning brightness casting long shadows across the Dakota plains where rolls of hay dot the prairie like forgotten toys. It’s as flat out here as a worn door mat. Occasional spurts of cottonwood trees grow for no apparent reason and random herds of angus gather to spice up the monotony of the landscape. JoAnn sleeps. I wish I could join her. My mind drifts as the sameness of the scenery passes. When 20 angus gather in an informal circle, noses to the center, do they communicate? I have read that many species of plains’ grasses (Buffalo Grass) grow as high as a horserider’s head. The young warriors of the Lakota Sioux used to sit high on the backs of their ponies racing through fields playing a kind of tag. Think of that visual; all you could see was the chest and head of two Indians racing across the tops of the grasses.

Pierre, South Dakota. Exit 78. I awake momentarily.

I recall an article I read about the 100th Meridian; the isohedryl line of demarcation which delineates the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air in the Gulf of Mexico from the eastern boundary of mostly arid, difficult-to-grow-crops. . .a line true westerners claim as the psychological and environmental entrance to their land—the land of the cowboys. In South Dakota the line is just west of Pierre, the state’s capital. It heads south through Cozad, Nebraska where JoAnn and I stopped on an hysterical impromptu visit three years ago, because it is also the birthplace of the founder of the Ash Can School of Art—Robert Henri. I wrote about that on our first trip west, no sense bothering many of you again. However, there is a sign across U.S. Highway 30 in Cozad, Nebraska that prominently marks the precise place where the meridian intersects the routes of the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express Trail, the transcontinental railroad, and the Lincoln Highway. The 100th meridian continues straight south, dividing Oklahoma and Texas at the panhandle, through San Antonio and to Mexico—ahh, Mexico (Siempre te recuerden mis ojos, pais de mis días marinos). I bored you, right?

We stopped for lunch just past Pierre at a good cowboy diner, Hutches Café—not Hutch’s Café. Knotty pine walls with many black and white photos of cowboys and cowgirls (should I have said cowpersons? Oh me), tables of good ole boys in stiff-fronted baseball hats emblazoned with Hybrid Corn, Rodeo Nationals, 4-H, NRA, etc. Now wait a minute: one table away is an old boy with stained red suspenders talking to a most interesting woman. She is beautiful. No-make-up beautiful. Early fifties, sun-browned skin like a well-worn baseball glove. She has a deep voice, not female sounding. It is a bold voice. She speaks to a cowboy who walks in and sits at the counter.

“Hey, Danny, you can sit with us. I don’t bite. . .not on days that end in “Y.”

He laughs and joins them at the table. She stands and heads for the women’s room. “Be right back. My teeth are floatin’”

Man, is she striking. Dirty blue jeans, boots and a t-shirt. She has long blonde hair tied in a braided pig-tail, dusty from the outdoors. Blue eyes. Tall and thin but very powerful. A gait like a thoroughbred.

JoAnn agrees. . . with one eyebrow raised.

Hutches is owned by two women in their late sixties. I think they’re twins. I name them Patsy and Fatsy. JoAnn spits water from her nose, trying not to laugh. Fatsy takes our order. She has a light blue, tight perm and double arms like an over and under shotgun. She won’t smile. All business this woman. We order two BLTs. JoAnn says no fries, so I try and turn it into a joke. Fatsy doesn’t get it. Only her pen (and the bottom of her arm) moves.

We love places like this. JoAnn wishes she could paint these people. I’m luckier, I have a laptop.

Back on the road. JoAnn says she will drive. Conditions are right. Interstate 90 to the Bad Lands. Four lane major interstate highway with one lane shoulders, straight as a rifle barrel, light traffic. Perfect. I’ll enjoy the scenery.

She adjusts the seat, the mirrors, gives the steering wheel a stern shake (to show it who’s boss) then slowly pulls out of the parking lot and onto U.S. 90, merging, focusing, frowning.

This is what I observe: She sits in the driver’s seat squeezing the steering wheel like a major life line, a hose through which no blood may pass, leaning so far forward her chest (breasts) are in contact with the steering wheel, then leaning her head almost over the top. Soon she notices a double Wal*Mart semi, 24-wheel, merging onto the highway

“Oh my God, he’s going to pull onto the road!”

“He’s allowed to,” I say.

“What will I do?”

“Let him.”

CONSTRUCTION ZONE AHEAD, the sign says. The road changes from four lanes with one-lane shoulders to two lanes and no shoulders. . .two narrow lanes. Orange pipes in the center of the road. A sign that says no passing. “Are you kidding?” The other side of the highway has been scraped down to dirt. Workers hover near the edge of the highway with shovels.

“There’s not enough room for us to fit,” she says.

I’m worried but don’t want her to know I’m worried. So I just sit there. In the distance we see a dust storm coming. No. It’s a huge truck carrying dirt to another location. It is traveling on the dirt side of the highway. . . real fast.

“I’m not going to be able to see! What will I do? Can I pull over?”

“Are you crazy. Just stay in line. Relax.”

“Relax? I thought I was going to drive on a nice straight four lane interstate, not this.”

A large grader comes at us, pushing smoke in a billowing storm.

And for the next hour JoAnn becomes the iron maiden of the highway, teeth clenched, giant hands like war clubs squeezing the life out of the steering wheel the way we mortals squeeze toothpaste from a tube.

Finally, “My hands!”

“What about your hands?

“They’re numb.

“Try loosening your grip on the steering wheel.”

The scenery has changed dramatically.

The Badlands, called that by some pioneers in the early 1800’s—“Bad lands to travel across” they said. The Teton Sioux in the early 1700s called it “Land Bad.” I never realized what the Badlands were . . . just a name for an area of South Dakota. But it is 244,000 acres of the most shocking, dramatic change of scenery I have seen. From flat grasslands (the Land of the Burning Thigh) to this. Totally unexpected. The Badlands is an archeologist’s paradise. . . the land where much of our geological history has been uncovered. Giant pinnacles and saw-tooth ridges of sea sediments and volcanic ash reveal minarets like ancient temples all uniquely carved from millions of years of water, wind and frost. Many different people have tried to live here but, frustrated by the weather and landscape, have given up, heading anywhere but here. Now tourists crawl over the landscape; the hardiest of inhabitors appearing in sporty cars, suvs, rvs and a variety of mobile homes. Not long ago I Google Earthed Nag Hammadi and Qumran where biblical artifacts were discovered. That land along the Nile and in the Holy Lands looks very much like the Badlands. No one lives there, either.

Wednesday. Packed up and headed seventy miles west. This time it will be the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. . . and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Where did the Black Hills get its name? From a distance the mountains in this area appear black because they are covered with a dark, dense coniferous forest under which the sun doesn’t shine. The stronger the sunlight, the darker the forest floor. “The hills of darkness” the Indians called it. Lush and mystical. Indian holy men hear voices in the deep of the forest. Supplementing the heavily wooded area are immense natural meadows with wildflowers dotting the vistas and herds of bison roaming through the undulating hills.

We drove through the Custer National Park, winding and twisting our way through switchbacks hauling the Larvae, its wheels tracing the edges of the road and the cliff edges. We heard there was a herd of over 1000 buffalo on a gravel road off the main drag. The only way to cross it was to leave the Larvae on the side of the road on a pull-out, unhook, put blocks and chucks under its wheels and leave. The pull out was on a downgrade. JoAnn was nervous, leaving the trailer on a downgrade. “What if we get back and the trailer has slid down the road?” I didn’t have a good answer, but we both wanted to be in the middle of a large herd of wild buffalo to hear them grunt and breathe, watch their surly eyes follow you then through ennui forget you exist. We sit in the safety of my pickup truck like tourists in the Serengeti.

The center of Custer, North Dakota is pretty hectic today. I am sitting with a cop in front of Cabs Cowboy and Hunting Supplies. His name is Derrick. Doesn’t sound like a cop’s name from Custer, South Dakota. Derrick sounds like a vegetarian from P-Town. Today bikers are everywhere in black leather and chrome, oozing that special I-don’t-give-shit attitude that supposedly defines their culture. It’s all show. . .maybe not all show. Many have been a part of it for so long, they become what they thought they stood for. But now they’re old and can’t remember what that was. Kinda like me. Their bikes have been allowed refuge in a special center lane through the town, all kickstanded and leaning. High handle bars and cantilevered front tires, old World War II issues with side cars, 1947 Indian Chiefs with front skirts, basic Harleys, Hondas, BMWs, a few Indians, customs and Triumphs. Their bikes give them their identity which they can store in the garage when they go to work on Monday. . .totally change who they are, wear a new costume, speak a different language. The noise of a bike is a growl. . .different growls for different bikes. Unfettered at 3000 R.P.M. They sit gleaming in the afternoon sun. Oiled leather saddlebags with fringe and chrome bullets. In two days there will be over 450,000 bikes in southwest South Dakota, mostly converging in Sturgis the largest motorcycle rally in the world.

Six hundred thousand people in silk head rags of American flags, skull and crossbones, black t-shirts with Greatful Dead, Riders For Jesus, Old Riders of America. A lot of big, swollen bellies with sweaty black hair hanging from beneath too short t-shirts. And tattoos galore, the best are faded from WW II. . .good ole U.S. Marine tattoos, an era of quiet pride before we lost our sense of decorum in blatant hyperbole.

JoAnn walked through the streets taking many photographs for paintings. I talked to bikers about their bikes and learned a lot. Ninety percent of these people are the salt of the earth, kind, considerate, eager to share their lives with you. There is a 10% rowdy group that stays up all night and gets blasted, driving the local law enforcement community nuts. Poor Derrick. I hope he changes his name.

JoAnn bought a head rag and a t-shirt. I already look the part. . .have these past 68 years.

JoAnn and I felt a certain closeness to the Black Hills, a feeling of comfort and home. There are a million paintings here that JoAnn hasn’t painted. We stopped for a couple of hours while she did a study. Instinctively we looked for churches. In this area are most are Lutheran. But there are still Evangelicals and Baptists—I call them the Expressives. . .versus The Frozen Chosen. Yeah we really liked the Black Hills. I’m certain we will return here.

Thursday. Time to go see the children in Berthoud, Colorado. We’ll go west on a blue highway into Wyoming and then south on U.S. 25 into Colorado. We stop for lunch in Lusk, Wyoming. Our waitress is from Utica, New York. She has lived in L.A., Santa Fe, Florida, Denver, Sioux Falls and now Paradise Point, Wyoming—population 8. She’s early 50s with an engaging smile and a friendliness that is spiritual. I asked her why she lived in so many places. She said, “Just followin’ men. Fallin’ in love, goin’ where they want to go until they took up with someone else. I’m smarter now. I only follow my heart.”

We drove alongside the Laramie mountain range, past Fort Laramie where my great grandfather and his two best friends (Lou Bertsell and Joe Lane) spent a week in 1860 before crossing the mountains and heading west on the Overland Trail. At the fort, some soldiers told them of a rarely used pass through the mountains that would cut a week off their trip. Grandfather’s diary records how their horses were stolen on the third night deep into the mountains by mountain men and they had to walk across the entire state of Wyoming, mostly at night to avoid Indians, through snow storms and drought, finally loosing Joe Lane to a ruptured appendix in a cave near Rock Springs.

It was so good to turn right on County Road 42 and see Aguilla Ranch off in the distance, backed by the Rocky Mountains. There our kids live. . .Serena (Heidi), Scott and Sami. Time to be grandparents and to thank the Lord for our many blessings.

Here Scott and I will do necessarily farming and maintenance stuff, practice casting into their pond and work on my 1940 Ford pick up which resides in Scott’s barm on the far side of their property.

I’ll write later when we head north to Jackson Hole then Bozman.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. The word pasties is forever ruined for me!
    Audience of ONE