My eyes furtively glance at the rearview mirror, checking for cops, as the family car edges close to forty-five miles per hour, cruising west on South Dakota Highway 44. This particular stretch of asphalt is post-apocalyptic empty and flanked on both sides by green and yellow mixed grasses, as the road cuts through portions of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. My fourteen-year-old daughter stretches her short legs to give the car some gas, as she accelerates closer to the speed limit. Early morning light floods through the windows, catching the glint of her subtle smile. This family road trip seemed the appropriate time to bump her into the driver’s seat.
The legal driving age in South Dakota is fourteen, so we are not exactly breaking the spirit of the law, though we lack the prerequisite forms and eye exams. I learned this from a vice guide I printed out from the dark basement below the regular Internet. (There you can find practically anything, crazy things, like assassins.) This particular tome of knowledge provides not just legal driving ages, but also the legal ages for drinking, smoking, and other activities. It delves across the fifty-two states, informing about what is legal—some things only barely, by virtue of long forgotten laws and legal loopholes. With each state in the union maintaining its own code of law, it can be a challenge knowing which states allow the smoking of salvia or the fucking of pets. In some places, you can kill an Indian if he crosses in front of you. Not that I endorse any such activities, but if you have the urge to get smoked up and screw your pooch while shooting an Injun, it is best to do it within the realms of the law, like a good honest citizen. This is the real fear that keeps good Libertarian men like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson from being viable presidential candidates. What one state views as a felony, another simply sees as a wild Tuesday night.
Our next major destination is Yellowstone National Park, with a quick bucket-list stop at Mt. Rushmore on the way. The famous sculpture is supposedly something that every God-loving American must see before they kick it. It comes as no surprise that Mt. Rushmore started out as a mere moneymaking scheme, conceived to lure tourists to South Dakota. That’s a legacy that is kept intact to this day. As we navigate the Black Hills region, we pass through the small mountain town of Keystone, a terminal place kept alive by feeding on the millions of tourists that flock to see the famous sculpture. Like the corner crack dealer, the town seems to thrive on dealing its vile product to lobotomy-eyed tourists. Does the free world need this much saltwater taffy? We should declare a war on it! Make it so that the only way you can get fudge anywhere near a national park is in the ass of a drug mule.
Mt. Rushmore itself is highway robbery of the worst kind. To get up close and personal with the chiseled presidents requires a hefty parking fee. Our annual national park pass is confederate money here. Instead, we bypass the lot and hang out of the car window, wildly clicking the shutter, gangsta style, as we do a drive-by shooting of the four presidents. For those who don’t get suckered into the pay lot, you can pull over for free just around the corner and gaze at the hawkish profile of George Washington. Much like your favorite Hollywood action star, he’s a lot smaller in person.
We take the opportunity to snap some pictures and enjoy a picnic lunch. My wife is a sandwich artist, a true turkey club Picasso, unlike those hacks at Subway. Even though it is a pain in the ass to keep food good when living out of your car, the inconvenience is worth the atmosphere. The luscious backdrop of ponderosa pine trees and blocks of glittering granite is far preferable to the view of a squalid McDonald’s Play Place, ball pit littered with dirty diapers and used needles. Not to mention the smell: I inhale the sweet aroma of the pine, and it becomes clear what all of those air fresheners have been chemically aping all of my life. I’d love to figure out a way to capture it in a brown paper bag and huff it for the rest of my trip.
Nearby, the Crazy Horse monument is carved in Thunderhead Mountain to honor the heritage of the Lakota people, or perhaps simply as another tourist magnet. As I eat my sandwich, I contemplate a new monument that would capture the true spirit of America. I just need to find a suitable mountain to deface with the sculpted visages of Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, and Gates. We’ll have “God Bless America” playing out of loud speakers, fudge making, and five t-shirts for ten dollars for every man, woman, and child. I tear up, just thinking about it.
* * * * *
We leave Mt. Rushmore behind, vowing never to return, and continue northwest toward Yellowstone National Park. Entering Wyoming, the landscape changes again to sage green hills with a backdrop of dark green mountains. What can I say? This country is big and empty and beautiful.
As we head up Interstate 90, I begin to see signs urging us to exit west toward Yellowstone. However, my wife insists we continue on toward Red Lodge, situated just north of the national park, across the Montana border. We are lured by the promise of an ascent up Beartooth Pass, one of the country’s most scenic drives. Judging by our road atlas, we can continue north on I-90 until it wraps back west. However, our GPS unit seems to know a short cut through Bighorn National Forest. We put our faith in technology, taking the suggested exit. If nothing else, a drive through a national forest should offer better views than the Interstate.
The diversion begins in an outstanding manner, as we navigate the narrow switchbacks climbing into higher elevations. To our right, some fleet-footed pronghorn deer scamper up the rocky side of the road. We continue on through gates that close off these perilous routes during the winter. The need for the gates soon becomes clear, as the outside air turns ice cold, and snow dots the landscape, even now, in summer. Things become even more dreadful in places where the weather-battered roads break down. With a rally car, we might have been able to make good time, but we have to move slowly, so as not to careen off-road, down into deep, ragged inclines. Our GPS continually recalculates our arrival time, pushing it later and later into the night as our fuel gauge creeps toward empty, without a service station in sight. Despite our effort, Red Lodge appears as a still distant dot on the GPS display as we cross over the Montana state line. Sleep fogs over my eyes.
“Turn left,” demands the GPS. I whip the car around, and immediately mash the breaks. “Road closed,” warns a construction barrier. Looking past my headlight beams, I see the reason: where my GPS insists there is a road, there is nothing more than a roughly road-shaped dirt stretch, loosely strewn with gravel, extending off into pitch black night.
“Maybe we should turn back,” suggests my wife, “see if there is a hotel or something somewhere else.”
However, I’ve come too far, and I’m too tired to admit defeat. I fly my civil disobedience flag and drive around the barrier. I flip on the high beams and hope that the road doesn’t terminate in a cliff so our trip gets cut short in some kind of Thelma and Louise tribute. I push the car further down the road, kicking up dust and gravel. I don’t have to fear for police in such a desolate place; my only concern is the road and the fuel. The needle of the gas tank gauge is now buried on empty. We hadn’t planned on camping out; hopefully the road lasts. If not, at least we have turkey sandwiches and the last of that terrible Bud Light. The Nissan bounces up and down as we stumble over potholes, fishtailing a bit around the curves. My wife grips at the handle, cursing me; my daughter ignores the situation completely, zoned out in her iPod playlist. After a tense fifteen minutes, the rumble subsides as the car tires clip back over onto pavement. Held breaths are forcefully expelled. My daring is rewarded, because just a short time later, we roll into the charming mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana.
During winter months, Red Lodge is a brilliant stay for those taking advantage of nearby skiing slopes. The town strikes the traveler as laid-back and perhaps a bit bohemian. The diminutive main street is filled with a chain of small cafes and bars, a legacy kept from the mining boom past, when the tiny town had twenty saloons. I lament that, at this late hour, I’m unable to stop and close one of their modern descendants down. Lodging is more of an urgent need than a gin and tonic.
We hope to stay at the Yodeler Motel, a kitschy chalet that has been in the area for over a hundred years and which is lovingly maintained. Unfortunately, the outside neon decries, “No Vacancy,” leaving us looking for other arrangements. We find lodging next door at the lesser Lupine Inn. There is a bed, but unfortunately the Internet connection is spotty, leaving me to boost a signal from neighboring hotels. In our room, we spend the next hour periodically checking to see if Beartooth Road will even be open to allow passage into Yellowstone. Even in the middle of June, it is iffy whether the deep snow peaks will be cleared. Finally, word comes from the stolen Internet: “PASS OPEN.”
* * * * *
We are up early the next morning, ready to enter into one of the most emotionally thrilling experiences of my lifetime. We head south, where the road out of Red Lodge becomes framed by stoic whitecapped mountains. As we ascend the switchbacks, we put the majestic soundtrack to Disney’s Soarin’ on infinite repeat. My heart swells, and I bawl like a baby. There is a reason that Beartooth Road is considered one of the most scenic drives in America. At each bend and turn in the winding road, you are treated to a new spectacle. It begins with a view of the snow-covered grey mountains in the distance, jutting out from patches of dark green trees. We take a moment at a pullover lot to enjoy the postcard view. The early morning air is crisp and sweet with pine, and chipmunks playfully scurry about. From there we continue on up the pass. The air chills noticeably. Heaps of fresh snow are packed on the side of the road, and some skiers dart down the steep slopes, disappearing out of view. At the next turn, we are treated to an expanse of icy glacial lakes as we near the peak, just shy of 11,000 feet elevation.
Our descent into Yellowstone National Park brings us past brilliant, sparkling pools of water reflecting the picturesque mountains alongside. Our entrance into Yellowstone is spectacular: wide open fields of gentle green hemmed in by tree-lines and cut through with glittering creeks coursing over smooth stones. The roads are lined with wildlife photographers hoisting gigantic telephoto lenses. I stop and pull out our diminutive Canon DSLR to take pictures of scampering groundhogs; I haven’t felt this inadequate since freshman year gym class. Yellowstone is a nature photographer’s wet dream. You can’t turn around without looking at a scene straight out of a nature painting. In the park we are entertained with views of grazing bison, soaring hawks, mule deer, bull moose, brown bears, and hoards of Chinese tourists. At each stop, busses disgorge the tourists, and they trail after guides, waving little flags. We follow them along the boardwalk encircling the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the park’s most famous geological features.
There, the ground belches out thick plumes of steam, through which tourists attempt to ward off the gripping stench of sulphur by tucking their faces deep into stretched souvenir t-shirts. Only their eyes are exposed, gazing in admiration at the rainbow palette of intense geothermal features. There are boiling pools of the most brilliant blue giving way to greens meeting edges of fire-like swirls of yellows, reds, and oranges. There are burping puddles of mud, making obnoxious noises, which elicit gapes and laughter from amused onlookers. And there are Chinese—Chinese everywhere. My wife and daughter torment me by picking out my Asian doppelgänger, a dumpy fellow with stringing hair and thick Coke-bottle glasses.
There is so much to see, but with the clock swinging past noon, we decide to go and find something to nosh on. Back in the car, we cruise past the thick forests, littered with thousands of fallen trees like white bones. These dead trees are a common sight around Yellowstone, knocked over by age, disease, fire, and wind. We are enjoying our drive, when suddenly, out of nowhere, traffic grinds to a complete and total halt. Eventually we see the cause: an entire herd of bison has decided to use one lane of the two-lane road as a walking trail.
My stomach growls angrily. “Run over the mother fuckers!” I road rage to the cars in front of me. They won’t. According to the vice guide, wanton killing of animals in a national park is a definite no-no. We have to mollycoddle the bastards. Sometimes cars are able to pass them, but most edge back, giving the lumbering behemoths the right-of-way. The passing lane is blocked by cars going the opposite direction, slowing to take photographs or to point and laugh at the long line of us. I learn that the average land speed of a bison on an asphalt road is between three and four miles per hour. After about an hour of painstakingly slow travel, the bison finally decide to get off the road.
We waste no time, exceeding the speed limit toward the Roosevelt Lodge restaurant. When the waitress asks me what I would like to eat, I don’t have to debate.
“One bison burger, please.”
“How would you like that, sir?”
“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” I snip.
After getting reenergized with lunch and calming down, we drive over to look at the Old Faithful geyser, another one of those lifetime must-do’s. In the packed parking lot, I pass a pickup truck, where ravens the size of small dogs are ripping the soft, fleshy sides of a cooler to get at the meaty corn chips inside. I make the mistake of walking too close, and the nearest raven gives me a beady, black stink-eye straight out of a Poe nightmare. “You can have the fuckin’ Fritos,” I say, making a wider berth.
In the Old Faithful viewing area, we find benches and await the explosion of the well-known geyser. As I sit, I have the opportunity to reflect on the last few days spent touring such scenic places. Many of the crowd will leave with a renewed commitment to save the planet. But I’m not so sure the planet needs saving. This amazing place was carved by fire and ice, forces so much bigger than ourselves. Hell, just underfoot is a super volcano that packs the potential punch of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. When it goes, it is gonna take a chunk of America with it. It strikes me as egotistical to believe that we can kill or save the earth. The planet has survived things much worse than us, and beautiful places like this will probably exist long after we are killed off.
I’m lurched from my thoughts when the geyser begins to churn and the audience perks up. “Ooooh,” go the Americans. “Lalalala,” go the Chinese. The crowd erupts when Mother Nature blows her volcanic load one hundred and thirty-two feet into the air, to the delight of the cheering crowds. As the crowds dissipate, I duck into a nearby gift shop and look for taffy.