I’m simultaneously trying to keep a blanket wrapped around me and keep an insipid can of Bud Light wedged between my chattering knees, as heavy gusts of wind whip across the South Dakota Badlands. Despite this being an otherwise scorcher of a summer, the weather at night in the national park is positively arctic. The cutting chill is a small price to pay for the nighttime spectacle—the overhead dome of black sky is lit up like the best Christmas ever. My God, where did all those stars come from? Back home, the air is choked with acrid refinery smoke and the stars are blotted out by the spillage of city glow. When you have a chance to really see the stars in the most pristine air in America, you don’t ask why the ancients were always looking up. You totally get it. I get it, even though by anyone’s measure, I’m not the outdoors type.
South Dakota is our first stop on what will be a two-week long family road trip. Truth be told, I was dreading this trip. Thousands of miles crammed in a car to see trees and grass and endless stretches of nothing, except for the occasional smeared road-kill—I didn’t think it would be my thing. I’m not into climbing or kayaking or tree-hugging or whatever else draws people out of hard-won modern comfort to fight the so-called great outdoors. I counted it as an achievement that I made it to my mid-thirties without setting foot in a national park.
When my wife and I first got married, our travel coalesced with the touring schedule of our favorite rock band, Throwing Muses, and the solo performances of front woman Kristin Hersh. Our fandom carried us to cities like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York. I love cities—the culture, the entertainment, and especially the restaurants. Fifteen years after the fact, I’m still waxing poetically about a revelatory meal at Nobu, New York, like it was the birth of my child. When my daughter came along, we traded big city rock clubs for sunny, saccharine jaunts to Walt Disney World in Florida. This was our travel for ten years, until we blinked to find that our pixie-dusted princess was a withdrawn teenager with a faux-hawk.
I think that is part of what lured me out to the road. Somehow an old-fashioned great American family road trip seemed like a last ditch effort to capture a moment before it slipped away forever. It seemed a reasonable effort to reconnect as a family, forced into a Nissan Altima with no place to retreat. So in the summer of 2012, we decided to tackle this majestic nation, starting from Alton, Illinois, going west and back, hitting as many scenic must-dos as we possibly could. We considered it a tasting sample of the best America has to offer. We had no planning except for our midpoint of southern California and a list of national parks that were positioned between here and there and back again.
We headed out on a Saturday morning, after a Tetris grand master effort of packing our car for our two-week excursion. My mind was stuck on my day job. Would they be able to get along without me? It was tough to get away from my long-term place of employment, because unlike most first world countries, America has a deep-seated grudge toward vacation time. It made me feel strangely ashamed to opt out of productivity like a shiftless vagabond. It was only for two weeks, but it felt like a guilty luxury, despite other places in the world where three weeks or more was standard—a fact that I was reminded of by the glut of Europeans at most of our stops. I did my best to push the guilt out of mind as I shifted the car into drive and left home.
* * * * *
On the first day, we travel northwest through Missouri, then skirt the Nebraska/Iowa border up to South Dakota. It is a long marathon of a drive, made possible by our freshness and lack of road weariness. We end up crashing for the night in Arlington, South Dakota. It’s one of those between here and barely there blips on the map kind of towns. The whole of it seems to be a hotel, a restaurant, and a gas station sitting in wide open fields of green nothing.
The desk clerk is friendly as we walk into the Arlington Inn, a small hotel with decorative call-backs to its former existence as a Super 8, circa 1989.
“Are you with the class reunion?” she asks with a wide smile.
Is there a discount? I wonder, though it would be a hard fraud to pull off in what is most probably a graduating class of the six people sitting in the lobby reminiscing over tar black coffee.
“No, we are just passing through to De Smet,” I reply.
“Oh Dee Smet,” she politely corrects my foreign tongue. “Laura Ingalls-Wilder fans, hmm?”
She has the clairvoyance to guess the purpose of our visit, though in a place like this, it isn’t exactly hard. Why else would people stop by, other than to visit the places where Laura lived and about which she wrote in her Little House books? I have no embarrassment in acknowledging that her books are among my absolute favorites. I’m also unashamed to admit that I rip off The Long Winter, in my novel Paradise Earth, with gleeful abandon.
Even without a discount, the Arlington Inn is inexpensive. During our trip, we will repeatedly challenge ourselves to stay as cheaply as possible while still retaining the luxury of a room that doesn’t look like a CSI set painted with body fluid. After unpacking, I walk next door to the 1481 Grille to wind down with a much needed beer. I’m joined by my wife, but my daughter hangs back at the hotel. It’s probably for the best, I think, as I glance over the mile long menu. My daughter entered this world as a picky eater and spiraled into a mad vegan—the kind that doesn’t eat salad.
I order a Boulevard, a crisp wheat ale garnished with an ample lemon wedge. Drinking the cold beer, I survey the seeming regulars at the bar. Sitting next to me is a slender old woman who looks a bit like the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt. She’s enjoying a Hamm’s lager in a tall pilsner glass with a garnish of olives, a touch of tres sophistique. To her right is a dusty fellow in a camouflage hat and a sleeveless jean jacket with motor oil and Harley-Davison patches on the back. He is draining bottles of Bush Light as quickly as the bartender can twist off the caps. Somewhere between bottle four and six, he dials a buddy to negotiate the purchase of a horse saddle.
“I won’t pay less than a hundred and fourteen dollars,” he demands into his antique flip-phone, sharply pointing his finger toward the nonpresent individual on the other end of the line. I’m impressed; even inebriated, he is a master of negotiation. Satisfied at closing the deal, he snaps shut his phone and orders another Bush Light. He has less success convincing the Cryptkeeper to stick around and suck down beers with him. “Stay and have another,” he pleads.
“I can’t have another DUI,” she protests as she chomps down her beer-battered olives and slithers off of her bar stool.
“I got one of those before. It was a setup,” he says and then takes a long drink from the amber bottle.
I shouldn’t have to worry about a DUI with the convenience of a hotel just next door, but who knows what kind of small-town Barney Fife justice passes in places like this. Besides, we have another long day ahead of us. I decide to cut it off after my second beer. As we get up to leave, the man wants to know if I want to buy a horse saddle.
“It’s a steal at two-hundred forty,” he says with a sly grin, tipping bottle eight toward me.
* * * * *
The next morning, we head out to nearby De Smet. In the town, you can take a walking tour of a variety of locations significant in the life and books of Laura Ingalls-Wilder. Our first stop is the original Ingalls family homestead, just outside of town. It is here that the real Laura walked, not the freckle-faced, bucktoothed television version. Nothing remains of the original 1880 homestead but the twisted, aging cottonwood trees that Pa Ingalls planted to prove up his 157.25 acre claim. Even today you can glimpse what he saw in this spot. It is quite picturesque, as the low wind rustles the prairie grass and the planted grain. Here, along the walking trails, are newly built period buildings: a school house, a dugout shelter, and a reconstruction of the Ingalls’ original claim shanty.
There is a professional “Ma” on staff, who tends a vegetable garden and the small menagerie of barnyard animals in the hay-roof barn. She gives us a tour and is a wealth of olde-tymey knowledge, like how to make lye soap and braided rugs. “If you lived in Laura’s day, you might already be married and pregnant,” she says to my unimpressed daughter. I muse at the lack of privacy in the tiny, thin-walled shanty and wonder how anyone got pregnant at all.
At a nearby workshop, we learn to make rope, corncob dolls, and twisted hay sticks, the kind that the Ingalls family burned to stay alive during the long winter of harsh blizzards when coal was depleted. The activities are overseen by a plump-faced teenager working her first summer job after graduation from high school. It’s her first week on the homestead, and already she likes it more than her previous job at Subway. I tell her I’m from the St. Louis area, and she gushes like it is an exotic, exciting place.
“I want to leave and become a film director,” she says with a careless optimism that only the young can manifest. When I ask her who her favorite director is, I’m ready to fill in the blanks from a short list. “Tim Burton,” she answers. It is embarrassingly predictable. When she laments that her family is not encouraging her to pursue her dreams, I offer that I think she would be a fool not to. It’s a reckless thing for me to advise, because I don’t think that she can actually make it, but I figure failure is a lesser evil than being stuck in the middle of nowhere.
I complete my tour by scaling the lookout tower and surveying the expansive sea of prairie grass extending miles out across the flat land toward the distant horizon. It is here that I attempt to summon the spirit of Laura Ingalls. I recently watched a documentary about comic artist/professional crazy Grant Morrison, and he claims you can conjure up the spirit of anyone. What the hell. I attempt to clear my mind as I reach back through the ages to connect with the pioneer girl. She appears on the prairie grass below me, running with her older sister. She stops as if noticing me. I raise my hand and wave hello. She smiles and offers a tentative wave, before returning to her play. I blink and the connection is broken. The young pioneer girl fades back into time.
As we leave the homestead, I latch on to a vagrant Internet signal and my phone blips as fresh e-mail funnels in. I read the first one, where the editor of my novel Happiness: How to Find It is taking me to task for my use of the word “boughten.” According to her, using archaic, nonstandard English begs bad reviews. What she doesn’t realize is that the 19th century colloquialism is another one of my nods to Laura’s books. Will I consent to a change? I look out at the prairie, diminishing in my rear view mirror, before sending a reply. Absolutely not.
* * * * *
From De Smet, we head west toward the Dakota Badlands. The roads are pretty vacant, not seeing much traffic outside of the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, which chokes the Interstate with more well-oiled leather than a fetish club. Along Interstate 90, a regular sight is garish billboards calling on travelers to visit the Wall Drug Store where 5-cent coffee and free ice water await. Combined with the Theta-state highway hypnosis, the staccato of advertisements is eerily effective. By the time we reach Wall, South Dakota, we figure it is worth checking out.
More importantly, Wall is also a convenient launching off point to the South Dakota Badlands, just a ten-minute drive south. We check in at the Sunshine Inn, a strip motor hotel located just a couple of blocks away from the tourist area, largely taken up by the massive Wall Drugs. The Sunshine Inn is a budget motel, but the beds are comfortable and, most importantly, they have AMC—tonight is the Mad Men season finale I’ve been eagerly awaiting. An unlisted perk of the motel is John, the proprietor, who is helpful in suggesting travel activities. For instance, he tells us that the Badlands National Park is open twenty-four hours and overnight camping is allowed, which makes it perfect for an amorous nocturnal coupling. When we ask for a good place for dinner, John steers us away from the tourist section to the Red Rock Restaurant where the locals eat.
The Red Rock is jam packed, but we manage to score a seat. I order a country fried steak, my wife a cod sandwich, and my vegan daughter has to settle for onion rings. The complimentary salad bar is shocking in its lack of offerings. In total, it amounts to four items: iceberg lettuce, spring onions, whole radishes, and shredded carrots. Tucked under the yellowing sneeze guard are some macaroni and potato salads that look like leftovers from the grocer’s deli. When it arrives, my country fried steak is disappointing—equal parts charred and greasy, with enough salt to preserve the whole cow. If this is where the locals eat, I pity them. When the waitress’s back is turned, I pilfer some ribs from the buffet line instead.
Fed, for better or worse, we check out the (in)famous Wall Drugs. History tells the story of the proprietor who in 1936 attempted to revive the dying pharmacy by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. The gimmick worked, and the drug store thrived, expanding to take up several blocks today. The free ice water is allegedly still around, but it is a task to find it through the great maze of souvenirs: magnets, t-shirts, postcards, sharks’ teeth, snow globes, salt water taffy, fake mustaches, puzzles, tiny spoons, whoopee cushions, fudge, geodes, garden gnomes, and more. Occasionally you emerge from the tacky goods to be confronted with some sideshow spectacle like a roaring robot T-Rex or a giant Jackelope. Each has a crowd of tourists lining up for a picture to say, “Yes, we really saw that.” We manage to fight the spirit of commerce and escape the clutches of Wall Drugs, never having found the free ice water.
With the obligatory tourist trap braved, we head out to the Badlands National Park. At the northern entrance to the park, we purchase an annual “America the Beautiful” pass. It’s pricy, but cost-effective for us because it will grant access to other places in the national park system during our travel. Just clear of the gate, the Pinnacles Overlook offers an amazing introduction of the northern area of the park. Here striated white buttes, spires, and pinnacles frame low-lying plateaus of mixed grass. Along the sloping edges, juniper and yucca trees are nestled between eroded gullies. It’s a breathtaking view. My daughter and I take a moment to climb out across the hard clay outlooks, while my more cautious wife lingers behind to chastise our hubris.
To the west, we take a short drive over the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, where along the way, the landscape levels out into flat grasslands. Out of our window, pronghorn deer and bison graze in the distance. We park at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, which is home to the park’s largest colony of prairie dogs. We enjoy watching the rodents as they scamper between their many burrowing holes. As I approach, they go into alert mode, signaling warnings to each other with high-pitched chatter. A lone bison lumbers toward us, and we snap some photographs, while keeping a safe distance from the shaggy, black behemoth. The park pamphlet reminds us that the bison are wild animals and capricious.
The sun begins to set as we backtrack to continue our drive to the main Badlands Loop Road, carrying us past other scenic outlooks. My stomach suddenly lurches in disagreement at our earlier meal at the Red Rock.
“Pull over,” I say to my wife, doubled over.
“Why?” she says.
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
“But there’s no—”
“Just do it,” I hiss through clenched teeth.
The car bounces as she jerks the wheel over to the narrow shoulder. I don’t wait for it to fully stop before I leap out, grabbing some napkins. I’ll spare the details about what happens next, but it involves me defiling a national treasure. If there is a hell, I’m sure this will not bode well for me in the end.
With the sun setting, darkness rolls over the Badlands and night fades in, casting shadows over the jagged formations. We pull over at Panorama Point and wrap ourselves in blankets as we step out into the thrusting wind to wallow in the splendor of the glittering night sky. As I sip on a can of beer, I’m vaguely aware that the Mad Men season finale is starting, but who really needs that when you have a show like this?
In the parking lot behind us, a black jeep pulls up and a young man slips out, pulling tight a drab-green army jacket. The jeep seems to be loaded with all of his worldly possessions. As he nears, his flashlight settles on us briefly before he slips out of sight, down into the deep solitude of the carved formations.
I think about him and lament the fact that I never took the opportunity to disengage from civilization to wander the country. In that moment, my advice to the new graduate back at the Ingalls homestead doesn’t seem all that foolhardy. I look over at my daughter with her purple hoodie cinched tight over her head and the white wire of her iPod headphones trailing down to her pocket. Perhaps we should send all of our children out into the wilderness when they come of age. They’ll be mired down with homes and jobs and up-sizing flat screen televisions soon enough.
A gentle calmness permeates the air. No one dares to speak, as if our sounds are an unwelcome pollution. I breathe in slowly, as if tasting the cold, crisp air like fine wine. It’s damn good. I have a long way to go before becoming a devotee of the cult of the great outdoors, but I’ll admit that I’m starting to fall victim to Mother Nature’s love bombing.
Originally published on Vagobond.com, September 2012.